This live-action adaptation of the classic story about the boy who wouldn’t grow up will be remembered for a few of its spectacular images more than anything else. Some scenes have a mesmerizing beauty, such as the “fairy ball” and the ensuing moonlit dance shared by Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood in her first role). There is a sense of amazement at the first glimpse of Neverland, but we’d like more of that sensation as the film progresses.
Whereas Steven Spielberg turned Peter into a grownup and made the tale about a father reconnecting with his son in “Hook” , P.J. Hogan (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) juggles two themes: the bond between children and parents and the first feelings of love in early adolescence. Love is strongly implied in what Peter feels towards Wendy, but for him such an emotion cannot and is perhaps not meant to last. Before anything else, it is the young girl’s knowledge of stories that spurs Peter to teach her, along with her brothers John and Michael, to fly that fateful night in the Darlings’ nursery.
The foursome is thus on its way to Neverland, where the return of Peter turns winter into spring and where he’s soon to launch into battle with his archenemy, Captain James Hook (Jason Isaacs), after Hook makes prisoners of first the brothers, then Wendy and the Lost Boys. An attempt is made to paint Hook as a tragic and lonely figure, much as in the book, but there is little exposition of that aspect of his character so his fate doesn’t impact us that much.
Hogan deserves credit for honoring the spirit of James Barrie’s play and novel but as an adventure story, the movie would be better called an episodic success. The thrill is there for the battles between Peter and Hook, helped by impressive sets, production design and a fantastic score by James Newton Howard, but curiously the film as a whole equals less than the sum of its parts.
The pirate Smee curiously looks a bit like Santa Claus, making it seem as though the Christmas icon made a wrong turn at the second star to the right then went straight on till morning. And why is there a weird animatronic parrot in there, only succeeding half the time at comic relief? What’s more, the mermaids and the native American princess Tiger Lily could have been shown more as examples of what gives Neverland extra life.
Sumpter is well-cast in the title role. He manages to express both the vulnerability and insouciance of Peter Pan, who remains at heart a spur-of-the-moment personality. Making a nice screen pair with Hurd-Wood (he’s 14, she’s 13), these two evoke what it’s like to have those first powerful feelings of attraction. But Wendy, who acts as a mother figure for the Lost Boys, eventually realizes, out of caring and love for their own parents, that she and her brothers cannot stay in Neverland forever.
Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier), Peter’s faithful fairy prone to fits of jealousy, is at first annoying. Sagnier comes close to overacting, even with the inherent implications of a non-speaking part, but surprisingly it is when life is leaving her body (the reason of which we won’t reveal for those unfamiliar with the source text) that at long last we really grasp how important she is to Peter.
When all is done, this Peter Pan is one of a few memorable moments more than the captivating mini-epic it could have been. In one of many interesting comments he makes about growing up in his book, Barrie wrote this about children’s Neverlands, these magical islands: “We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.” In Hogan’s Peter Pan, we marvel at the sights, we do hear the waves, but if we were to land, we would nonetheless feel somewhat removed from it.
Review by J-F Tremblay