There hasn’t been a movie this purely gorgeous to look at since Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! graced theater screens nearly three years ago.
Indeed, the specter of Luhrmann’s film hangs heavy over P.J. Hogan’s version of Peter Pan, and in more than just looks. Even Hogan’s depiction of Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier, Swimming Pool) is remarkably similar to Kylie Minogue’s Green Fairy in Luhrmann’s film, while the entire production is hugely oversized, deliberately unreal and, yes, an unqualified delight. And while Hogan’s editing is less aggressive and he has a greater tendency to utilize colored lighting, the feel is, in fact, very similar.
Put aside all reservations that might be lurking in your head regarding Steven Spielberg’s Hook or, God forbid, the disaster that was Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio. Hogan’s film bears no relation to those inglorious attempts at putting childhood classics on the big screen. The new Peter Pan is, quite simply, one brilliant film — the kind where you think: Yes, this is what movies should be like!
There seems to me little point in recounting the history of Peter Pan; yet after reading one Internet critic who launched into Hogan’s film for failing to include the songs from the Mary Martin “original” — which that pundit seems to think was written for Martin by J.M. Barrie himself — some history may, in fact, be in order.
The character of Peter Pan — the “boy who never grew up” — was first mentioned in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, in which Peter is referred to by the main character during a walk he’s taking with a young boy in Kensington Gardens. Barrie’s play of Peter Pan debuted in 1904, but didn’t appear as the book Peter and Wendy until 1911. The genesis of the story — and its underlying meanings — can be traced back to tales Barrie told to the five sons of his friend Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. His attachment to her children was so strong that, upon Davies’ death, Barrie became the boys’ guardian (with somewhat questionable results — especially since two of them eventually committed suicide).
And while this may seem very much by the way, it helps explain much of the work’s subtext, and its ultimately rather tragic tone (as do such other peculiarities as Barrie’s heroine bearing the author’s own nickname, Wendy, and the fact that Barrie himself was unusually short, and thus could literally be said never to have grown-up). In the story’s various stage-and-screen incarnations, that subtext and tone have tended to be relegated to the background.
The darkness and sexuality evident in Hogan’s film, however, represents perhaps the first attempt — outside of biographical studies of Barrie, and literary criticism on his work — to integrate and examine those themes within the confines of the story itself. As a result, Hogan has made a film that is apt to slightly bother people who would prefer to keep their Peter Pan a wholly “safe” children’s entertainment — which it really never was. The movies merely chose to sidestep the darker aspects.
Moments in Hogan’s film — such as Tinker Bell’s jealousy-inspired duplicity in tricking the Lost Boys into shooting Wendy, the deaths of fairies when people don’t believe in them, and even some of the off-hand violence — don’t originate with the director, but with J.M. Barrie himself. That the Mary Martin musical and the Disney cartoon tended to soften them is another matter. Other elements merely accentuate Barrie’s own ideas — the sensuality of Peter, for instance, and Hook’s love-hate relationship with him.
Oddly, the most notable additions are the wonderful character of Aunt Millicent (the always marvelous Lynn Redgrave); a touching, last-moment adoption of a Lost Boy who is straight out of an early talkie Our Gang short, Small Talk; and plot devices lifted from the film of Mary Poppins. In other words, the additions are the “safest” things in the movie!
That said, Hogan’s film, while ultimately sad — what else can a tale of a boy who can’t grow up while the world and his friends change around him be? — is nothing if not deliciously magical. It skillfully takes the best from all versions of the story and enhances them. The sequence where Tinker Bell is brought back to life is a wonderful variant on the standard idea of “if you believe in fairies, clap your hands,” while images of Peter and the children on clouds while Hook’s cannonballs rip through their fluffy perch may originate with Disney, but look even more fantastic here.
All of the performances are excellent, especially Jeremy Sumpter and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Peter and Wendy, and Jason Isaacs in the traditional dual role of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling.
This is the perfect film to end a Christmas season that begin so splendidly with Love Actually. The only sad thing is that Peter Pan is doing only fair business at the box-office, while such execrable fare as Cheaper by the Dozen is selling out. Go out and correct that.
You’ll be sorry if you hold out for this one on DVD. It really deserves the big screen.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke