Monday, March 26, 2012

The Boy Flies At Last. Peter Pan (2003): A Review


PETER PAN (2003)

Now, it has taken a half-century to get a new version of Peter Pan, and this one is historic if only for one thing: it is the first time that a boy has played the part of Peter Pan in a live-action adaptation.  This shouldn't be a shock given that viewers today are probably not as familiar with the tradition of having women play Peter and thus, would reject a film version that had a girl playing a boy as ridiculous.  The film itself is a much darker version of the Peter Pan myth, not just visually but story-wise.  However, there is enough charm and sweetness within Peter Pan that it soars high, enchanting the viewer while adding curiously adult elements in the story.

Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) regales her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) with stories of pirates, and of how Cinderella fights them.  They especially love the tale of Captain Hook and his war against Peter Pan.  Unbeknown to the Darling children, there's been an eavesdropper to these stories: one Peter Pan himself (Jeremy Sumpter).  Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Jason Isaacs and Olivia Williams) have no problem with the tales or with having a dog as a nanny.  In fact, they appear to be a happy family.  However, Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) thinks this is all wrong for them: Wendy should be training to be a woman, and Mr. Darling has to get out of his shell to rise socially.

After Wendy (and Nana) inadvertently humiliate Mr. Darling at the bank he works at as a clerk, he banishes Nana to the garden and decides to hand Wendy over to Aunt Millicent.  Peter is horrified by the idea that Wendy would be made to grow up (and he would lose stories to tell the Lost Boys).  After revealing himself to Wendy (who helps sew his shadow back), he invites her to go with him to Neverland.  His fairy Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier) does not like this idea at all, but Wendy is thrilled to follow Peter.  Wendy gives Peter a kiss (actually, a thimble given she turns shy), but is about to give Peter a thimble (just reverse the previous parenthesis), Tink forces her way in.

Wendy, John, and Michael fly off to Never Land, their parents missing their departure but Mrs. Darling keeping vigil at the open door.  While there, we meet the villainous Captain Hook (Isaacs again), and his first mate, Smee (Richard Briers).  Hook still yearns for revenge against Pan for cutting off his hand and feeding it to the crocodiles.  After Tink attempts to have the Lost Boys shoot Wendy down, Peter dismisses her.  There is a rescue of John and Michael who've been taken by Hook, as has Native American Princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray), who has taken a shine to John. 

Both Peter and Wendy have unspoken feelings for each other, the first stirrings of love, but Peter will have nothing to do with them.  Wendy, realizing she is forgetting her mother, convinces her brothers and the Lost Boys to return.  However, a deceived Tinker Bell reveals Peter's hideout to Hook, who puts poison in his "medicine".  Tink escapes to stop him drinking it, but at a high cost.

The Darling children and the Lost Boys are threatened with death by Hook, and Peter comes to the rescue with a revived Tink.  They battle, Peter is triumphant, and he leads the ship back to London, and the Darling home.  Mr. and Mrs. Darling adopt the Lost Boys, and Aunt Millicent also takes one of the Lost Boys who had gotten lost.   Wendy, now accepting that she MUST grow up, bids a farewell to Peter, who WOULD NOT grow up, but with a hint that he will return...to hear more stories.

Given the source material, it really is difficult to screw up Peter Pan (both the silent and the animated versions of the story are well done).  Director P. J. Hogan (who wrote the screenplay with Michael Goldenberg), likewise stayed close to the J. M. Barrie story, and the few big alterations (such as the addition of Aunt Millicent) didn't detract from the story.  Instead, having Lynn Redgrave in the film adds a delightful comedic touch to where we don't mind the inclusion. 

Peter Pan is curious in that it is both a fantasy film where children can get lost in the marvel of Never Land (the journey from London to Never Land in particular is beautifully rendered), but which also touches on the burgeoning of romantic, even sexual stirrings among the leads.  It isn't overt, but given that both Peter and Wendy look like they are about to enter their teenage years (Sumpter was fourteen, Hurd-Wood thirteen when Peter Pan was made), it isn't beyond the imagination that Peter Pan, in a restrained and non-sensational manner, touches on something that has either been oblique or not addressed: the idea of a romance between Peter and Wendy.

We can see this when Wendy offers a confused, almost frightened Peter a "thimble" (the fact that we see Peter puckering up before Tink literally drags Wendy away suggests Peter had some idea of where the thimble was going).  We also see it in the dialogue.  When Peter sees that Wendy is alive, just stunned, from being shot down, we see that the acorn he had given her in exchange for her "kiss" (thimble), he says, "My kiss saved her", and one of the Lost Boys comments that a kiss is a powerful thing.  The scene where Peter and Wendy are literally dancing on air is shot very romantically, with the music being quite lush as well.  We even see it in how the Lost Boys address them: as Father and Mother. 

The most direct reflection of the the joys and pains of love come at the final battle between Peter and Hook.  Peter can fly by thinking happy thoughts, but we see how Hook can, again, literally, bring him down by pointing to a world where Wendy has forgotten Peter, replaced by something called "husband".  As he is about to be killed, Wendy stops Hook, asking as a last request to give Peter her "thimble".  Obviously, he thinks it's a literal thimble, but WE know better. 

We even get the addressing the theme of how love, even desire (unexplained and confusing as it may be to children) can be a powerful force when Princess Tiger Lily gives John a long kiss full on the lips.  John begins to blush (exaggeratedly, granted), and gets the physical strength to raise the gate and make their escape. 

Again, I'm at pains to explain that there is nothing salacious in how these themes are introduced in Peter Pan, and it may all pass over children's heads.  However, the suggestion that Peter and Wendy are falling in love, or at least understanding that their connection is more than mere friendship, is observable.

"It's only make-believe that you and I are..." Peter tells her in the middle of their dance.  At first, this unfinished statement is open to all sorts of interpretation, but it slowly becomes clear he means that they are father and mother to the Lost Boys, which in itself is loaded with subtle undertones of marriage and all the things that can come with it. 

In Peter Pan, everything works and comes together beautifully.  Sumpter gives a tender performance, one that shifts from the cockiness one expects from Peter Pan to being a fearful boy, fearful of growing up, of what that entails, and of losing Wendy.  From the innocence he expresses when he puts out his hand when Wendy tells him she wants to 'give' Peter a kiss to the sadness he has at the thought of losing her to adulthood shows an extraordinary range.  When he says he DOES believe in fairies, we believe he believes, and even we get caught up in seeing Tinker Bell come back. 

Likewise, the wide-eyed innocence of Hurd-Wood to her fear of being made a woman and her desire to be an action heroine are so well performed.  Seeing her reaction change from sneering at the idea that her father is brave to understanding that in his way, he is brave, is a heartfelt and beautiful performance.

The best performance in Peter Pan, however, is clearly Isaacs'.  People should see this film before they see him as Lucius Malfoy in any of the Harry Potter films.  He has to play two roles: Mr. Darling and Captain Hook.  This sticks close to the theatrical tradition of Pan, but the transformation is so remarkable that the failure to have given Isaacs a Best Supporting Actor nomination surprises me (I think a case of a children's film, moderately successful, played against him).   As Mr. Darling, he is all delightfully bumbling and insecure, terrified of trying to make "small talk".  Once he switches to Captain Hook, we see a frightful, menacing, dangerous arch-enemy.  This Captain Hook is no one's fool or buffoon.  Instead, he is a dangerous person, one who does not shrink from killing anyone who gets in his way.  The film stays mostly in one place (London or Never Land) but on one occasion we jump from Point A to Point B.  Here, we see the full range of Isaacs, and cannot believe that it is the same person.

Even the smaller parts, from Williams' loving portrayal of the wise, gentle, caring mother, to Redgrave's comic moments as the fussy Aunt Millicent, down to Briers' light Mr. Smee, and all the Lost Boys, are a sheer delight, each performance pitch-perfect.  I would be remiss to leave out Sagnier's Tinker Bell: in her expressive face we see the jealousy, the hurt, the anger, the joy, and the regrets the fairy has.  It is pantomime, and may come off as slightly exaggerated, but Tink is suppose to be a highly emotional creature. 

It's as if everyone brought their A-Game to Peter Pan.  The sword fights between Sumpter and Isaacs are so well done we fully accept that Peter can fly (credit not only goes to the actors and the fencing trainers but to the special effects that were never showy but still filled with wonderment).  The art direction, from the Darling home to the various parts of Never Land (ranging from Peter's tree hideout to Captain Hook's ship) are both beautiful to look at and appear so real and naturalistic.  Donald McAlpine's cinematography is also filled with gentle beauty.  The moonlight bathes everything in gentle blue, the final fight scene with a menacing red sunset, and the rescue at the Black Castle appropriately dark. 

The biggest surprise in the music.  Peter Pan has a beautiful score, romantic, comedic, and menacing.  What's so astounding about it is that the composer is James Newton Howard (someone who by and large makes some of the most hideous music around: cases in point--The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Water for Elephants, Defiance, The Village, and the simply horrid The Last Airbender).  I am someone who gives credit where credit is due, and the score to Peter Pan is a beautifully rendered one.  I still think Howard is a lousy composer, but I figure the law of averages dictated that he had to get at least ONE right.

Peter Pan is a delightful film on so many levels.  It can be seen as a simple children's adventure story.  It can be seen as an allegory about the promise and perils of growing up.  It is a film for children, and one for adults; there are enchanting and tender moments in it, moments of comedy, danger, and even romance.  In short, Peter Pan is both whimsical and melancholy, a celebration of the spirit of adventure and a lament for the loss of childhood we all must partake in. 

It is true: both Peter Pan and Peter Pan will never grow up or grow old. 

Oh the cleverness of him.

DECISION: A-

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