Peter Pan soars once more! Scottish author J.M. Barrie’s classic story is—among many things—about a flying boy who refuses to grow up and a young girl whose elders insist she must. It premiered on the London stage in 1904, underwent refinements and was expanded into the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911. In a surprising move, Barrie handpicked Betty Bronson to play Peter in the 1924 silent-film adaptation. Disney released an animated version in 1954 that became the definitive Peter Pan for most baby boomers. And a female again was cast in the lead, with Mary Martin singing and sweeping via guide wires through a 1960 television production.
Michael Jackson once coveted the Peter Pan role before sequestering himself on his Neverland Ranch. Steven Spielberg broke into a panicky sweat during the making of Hook, as Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins conspired to play Capt. Hook and shipmate Smee with a more gayish swish than a swashbuckle. Now along comes a live-action rendering that enhances the storybook allure, whimsy, danger, adventure and literary nature of Barrie’s beloved story, with some exhilarating special effects and poetic license from director P.J. Hogan and his co-writer, Michael Goldenberg (Contact).
The film begins in dreary, starchy Edwardian London. One bastion of warmth in this chilly meteorological and social climate is the nursery at the Darling household, where older sister Wendy enthralls her brothers, John and Michael, with tales of Peter Pan and pirates. Outside, Peter himself lurks by the window, also fascinated by Wendy’s storytelling skills. He is discovered by Wendy when he later enters the Darling residence in search of his pesky runaway shadow.
“Come away. Come away to Neverland,” entices the perennially pubescent Peter to the interested schoolgirl. His offer adds a new rub to an already extremely pivotal night in Wendy’s life. The next day, she is to move from the nursery into her own room and enter into the “barbarous condition” of becoming a young adult. The idea of visiting a fantasy island inhabited by mermaids, Indians, pirates, fairies and a ragtag group of youngsters known as the Lost Boys is thus tempting—especially if she can bring along her siblings. Peter agrees, and by focusing on fun thoughts and with a sprinkle of dust from the ultra-jealous fairy Tinker Bell, the quintet flies into the night, through a dazzling solar system and into the heart of a magical but peril-laced adventure.
The film is saturated with visual wonders. Fairy-dust trails are a breathless sparkle of rainbow colors. The cotton-candy clouds, lush jungle, and salt- and fresh waters of Neverland are brilliantly realized. Peter and Wendy engage in an aerial ballroom dance that is eye-popping and touching. Peter’s tussle with his shadow, and its run-in with Darling spinster Aunt Millicent (a new character in the mix), are exciting and hilarious. A peg-legged parrot aboard the Jolly Roger signals how much fun awaits us, just as a look at Hook’s right-hand stub (a Peter Pan first), arsenal of prosthetics and vile demeanor alerts us to the darkness that also slithers through the production. The mermaids are both seductive and vividly sinister; the ticking crocodile that stalks Hook appears in brief, thrilling bursts, as does the swordplay between Peter and Hook.
The cast is excellent. Jason Issacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series) plays both wimpy Mr. Darling and treacherous Capt. Hook. Jeremy Sumpter (Frailty) is a playful and arrogant Peter. Lynn Redgrave reeks of social rigidity as Millicent. Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense) is sweet and supportive but never sugary as Mrs. Darling. And French sensation Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool) plays the troublesome Tink.
Prolific James Newton Howard’s blustery orchestration is complemented with splashes of Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Joseph Haydn. And the crew list, which reads like a Dream Factory Who’s Who, includes cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!), production designer Roger Ford (Babe) and editor Michael Kahn (Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Peter Pan talks of bravery taking many forms, such as putting others before oneself in daily life. It is about dreams, imagination, self-sacrifice, betrayal, the fine line between fantasy and reality (exemplified cheekily by Aunt Millicent reading The War of the Worlds) and the reluctance to replace the wonders of childhood with adulthood. And, like Wendy’s storytelling, it is one of those rare films that can be enjoyed over and over again.