- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

“Peter Pan” gets a fitfully diverting jump on the centennial year of James M. Barrie’s play (it had its theatrical debut in London on Dec. 27, 1904) with a novel, live-action adaptation in which Peter is played by an adolescent boy.

Australian director P.J. Hogan and co-writer Michael Goldenberg have gone back to the Barrie text with becoming fondness; the funniest lines and happiest inspirations can be traced to the original, a far wittier source than one might guess after a few generations of supposedly knowing, pseudo-Freudian commentary about its sexual undercurrents. Reading the play again, you’re reminded that it succeeded because it combined ambitious feats of stagecraft with deadpan mockery of both Edwardian domesticity and juvenile adventure fantasy.

Mr. Hogan’s faithfully fanciful but breezy new “Pan” avoids the cheerlessness and overblown scale that subverted Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” of 12 years ago — and shaves 40 minutes off its tedious running time.

This also is the first “Pan” to profit from the impossibilities that can be achieved through computer-generated imagery. Peter’s detachable shadow is a delightful early payoff. It gets expertly peeled and confined in a bureau drawer by the visual-effects unit from Industrial Light & Magic. The flying illusions are as deft as they were in Disney’s 50th-anniversary animated version.

Not that Mr. Hogan is immune from dubious brainstorms. His mermaids, for example, look as if they might have surfaced, dripping and depraved, from a red-light grotto in Bangkok. Lynn Redgrave can’t do much as a dud addition to the Darling household: a previously nonexistent Aunt Millicent, charged with keeping a close eye on Rachel Hurd-Wood’s Wendy now that she has blossomed enough to possess “a woman’s chin.”

There’s also a superfluous insert with a prudish schoolteacher, shocked by Wendy’s very accomplished drawing of a night visitation in which Peter Pan hovers over her bed and girlish sleeping form. Happily, the actual girl in camera range proves such a sincere and touching ingenue that the murky hints are scattered like so much fairy dust.

Jason Isaacs, in accord with theatrical tradition, impersonates both Mr. Darling and Hook. The filmmakers think they have made the father a more reliable figure of fun by changing him into a banker who keeps getting bowled over by Nana the dog. Barrie had a funnier idea for poor George Darling: After the children vanish, he sentences himself to Nana’s doghouse.

Mr. Isaacs’ Hook is more vigorous than whimsically vain and self-pitying, probably a better emphasis in this production. I’m not sure it’s an enhancement to show us the stump of Hook’s severed arm, especially if we’re meant to be amused by a display case full of hooks for all moods and occasions. Richard Briers, a consistent asset to Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean films, is an impeccable comic choice as Smee, the captain’s flunky.

The young French actress Ludivine Sagnier is allowed to do far too much miniaturized mugging as Tink, Peter’s possessive fairy. Maybe it’s time to return the role to its original special effect: a beam of theatrical light.

Jeremy Sumpter, a 14-year-old American with plenty of acting experience, is a robust and good-humored embodiment of Peter. Actresses have, of course, monopolized the role on the stage; Mr. Hogan may lay the groundwork for a new tradition on the screen, and Jeremy Sumpter does nothing to discourage that prospect.

However, the most beguiling of the Lost Boys is Theodore Chester, cast as Peter’s crony Slightly. He seems to have better camera presence and command of dialogue than the other young cast members. To the extent that people desire to stop time in its tracks as their children mature, Theodore epitomizes boyhood at a particularly alert, responsive and appealing juncture.

**1/2

TITLE: “Peter Pan”

RATING: PG (Fleeting comic vulgarity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by P.J. Hogan. Screenplay by Mr. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, based on the James M. Barrie play and earlier adaptations. Cinematography by Donald M. McAlpine.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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