Judge Joel Pearce's adventures in Neverland left him wishing he'd never bought that Thriller album.
The story you thought you knew becomes the adventure you never imagined!
Every now and then, a film comes along that capture the imagination of children, yet also has enough depth that parents can enjoy it just as much. These are films that children can grow up with, understanding new layers of meaning as they watch it again through the years. Peter Pan is one of these, and it is one of the most impressive family films in years.
Facts of the Case
The story of Peter Pan has not changed much since the last time you read or saw it. What is different from the other film versions of the story is the focus of the story on the coming of age of Wendy, and the choices that she must make as she moves towards adulthood.
The story begins with Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) telling exciting stories of piracy and adventure to her two brothers, John and Michael. When her aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave, Spider) announces that it is time for Wendy to grow up, it is clear that the Darling Family is about to change. Wendy's father, George (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Patriot) must try to advance himself in his business so that she will be able to find a good husband.
Before Wendy has a chance to grow up and leave her carefree childhood behind, she has a run-in with Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter, Frailty), who gives her an option other than to join the dreary world of adulthood. With his help, she is whisked off to Neverland, where she has the opportunity to join the adventure she has dreamed of her whole life. She joins the lost boys in the ongoing battle with Captain Hook (also Jason Isaacs) and his band of pirates. Soon, though, she realizes that this wonderful world is not the right place for her to stay forever.
Like The Neverending Story, almost any age group will be able to find some value in Peter Pan. Younger children will be dazzled by the bright colors of Neverland, and by the nearly continual adventure (though some may find it too frightening). There is some light humor aimed at children as well. Slightly older children, especially the ones who love to read, will immediately empathize with the paradox of Neverland. There is so much pressure to grow up, and yet a carefree life of being a child is so much more appealing. Many adults, especially those that grew up reading fantasy, will find that Peter Pan raises fond memories of that period of their own lives.
While some adaptations of Peter Pan tend to focus on Peter and the lost boys, director P.J. Hogan remembers that it is really a story about Wendy growing up. It is her imagination that brings Peter Pan and Neverland to life, and the ultimate goal of the film is for Wendy to find a way to accept her role as a young woman while still finding a way to live out her dreams. She does not want to simply leave her dreams in a box as her father has, but she also realizes that she must leave a part of herself behind in Neverland when she goes on to adulthood. This paradox of growing up is explained through the way Peter is fully childlike and Hook as being purely adult. Peter refuses to grow up, and because of that has entered a self-imposed exile in Neverland. He has a wonderful time there, but his refusal to grow up and accept the real world prevents him from feeling love. Even though he has only happy thoughts, his refusal to accept the rules of the world means that he will always be alone. Hook, on the other hand, is trapped in Neverland because he has forgotten completely what it means to be a child. The polar opposite of Peter, it is his inability to have any joy in the wonderful world that surrounds him that makes him so unhappy. Wendy needs to witness both of these extremes at this important point in her life, so that she is able to find a middle path. She does not want to remain like Peter, turning away from the benefits and joys of adult life, but she also doesn't want to become like Hook, incapable of the grand flights of imagination that have defined her childhood.
Wendy's struggle is placed in a backdrop of turn of the century England, which adds some more complexity to this tale. In order to make a good future for his children, George must constantly work at improving his career and moving up in society. The lessons that Wendy learns seem antiquated for a contemporary audience. When we see her in school, she is learning needlepoint. Now that she is a young lady, she must break from her brothers and spend time learning to be ladylike with her aunt (who does not seem to be married herself) so that she will become a desirable wife. This is a world where imagination is connected with childhood. Wendy's desire to become a novelist is a problem because, as her aunt states, "there is nothing so difficult to marry as a novelist." The script does a great job of balancing these elements with the fun escapades that are normally associated with family films, so that younger children should not be too bored.
It is the desire of this version of the story to focus on these elements that make it so different from the previous versions, which seem more interested in creating a wonderful fantasy world where children get to be children. This may also be the root of the reason that the film has been a disappointment commercially and critically. Many of the complaints of critics seem to be targeted at expectations that misunderstand and misrepresent the goals and intentions of this production. There is certainly nothing wrong with the Disney version of Peter Pan, but this is not meant to be a live action replacement for that children's classic. I would like to take a brief look at some of the complaints that other critics have had, in an attempt to further explore what this version is trying to accomplish.
Peter Pan has always been a story that has attracted practitioners of Freudian psychoanalysis, who find it rife with references to latent sexuality and the like. Instead of trying to repress that element of the story, P.J. Hogan plays into their hands by casting the same man as George Darling and Captain Hook. He also doesn't shy from showing that Wendy is in love with Peter. Many critics have complained about this, especially about the kiss that they eventually share. While it is true that many films with children this age have love stories in which they mimic the actions of adults, I think this element of Peter Pan is both appropriate and acceptable. After all, a major part of Wendy's entrance into womanhood is an awakening of her sexuality. Children often play at being adults, like when Peter and Wendy play at being the parents of the lost boys. This play is acceptable as long as it remains innocent and "pretend." While Peter has no problem with that, Wendy is beginning to have feelings for Peter, which is what causes the rift in their friendship. These types of feelings are, I imagine, not uncommon in 12 year old girls, and a major part of the end of the story shows Wendy learning how to direct her feelings appropriately.
The second major complaint voiced by many critics is how the special effects do not look real. While this is, to a certain extent, a matter of taste, the segments of the film that have imaginary elements look like they are right out of a storybook. If the crew of this film had wanted the sky above turn of the century London to look real, I am sure they could have created that far more easily than they accomplished what they did. It looks almost like a watercolor or oil painting, and it is beautiful. Things get even better once we are given a glimpse of Neverland. The weather in this imaginary land changes depending on the mood of the characters (especially Peter), and while it does not look realistic, it looks exactly as a child would imagine it. I could say the same for the forest, the truly intimidating dark castle, and the secret hideout. The whole story is, after all, being told by an adult Wendy to her children (as explained in the alternate ending), so I see no problem with the vivid imagery. Especially effective is the use of color throughout, which demonstrates a wide and imaginative palette.
The main performances are all excellent. Newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood is perfect as Wendy, as she demonstrates the excitement and enthusiasm required for the role without ever coming off as shrill or obnoxious. It is a rich performance, entertaining and full of pathos. If she were to seem too young, her growing up would not seem believable. If she seemed too old, her creation of Neverland would seem ridiculous. In a world full of terrible young actors, she has delivered exactly what the role required and more. Jeremy Sumpter does an excellent job as Peter as well, proving that his great work in Frailty was no coincidence. He is also on the verge of growing up, but needs to be believable as a selfish child. He does seem to be having a terrific time, and goes seamlessly from moments of quiet dialogue to flying and swordfighting.
While both young actors do an admirable job, it is Jason Isaacs's phenomenal dual role as George Darling and Hook that steals the show and holds the film together. After seeing him as the meek and awkward George, he is barely recognizable as the scene chewing, tragic Captain Hook. In so many family films, the adult actors look awkward and embarrassed to be there, but Isaacs is willing to pour himself completely into these roles. I think that Jason Isaacs is one of the most underappreciated performers working in Hollywood, and I hope that this performance brings him some of the recognition he deserves.
Fortunately, Universal has delivered this excellent film on an equally impressive disc. The video transfer manages to bring out the rich visuals without ever making it look gaudy or flat. This film should only ever be viewed in its original aspect ratio, although there has been a pan and scan version released for anyone who wants to destroy the rich visuals (you can put wooden boards over your speakers to ruin the sound as well). The Dolby 5.1 track is just as good. The dialogue is almost always clear, and the surrounds and LFE are used to great effect. The symphonic score is well reproduced. This is a reference quality transfer, from a genre that is often passed over in the audio-visual department.
The disc also houses a solid amount of bonus material. The highlights are an alternate ending, which is almost as good as the one included in the final cut of the film and a series of deleted segments of a plot element that was removed for pacing. However, there are also a series of featurettes, broken up into five menus. While it may have been easier to have had these in one long segment that covers all elements of creating and filming Peter Pan, the special features menu is fun to explore, getting the chance to see a few minutes of footage on any given topic. The highlight of the featurettes is certainly "Through the Eyes of Hook," which follows Jason Isaacs around the set at various parts of the production. It is both informative and entertaining, with valuable enough footage that serious film viewers will appreciate, but light enough that children would enjoy it too. The bonus footage never feels like the sanitized fluff that's so common on Disney's DVDs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Alas, not everything is perfect in Neverland. The Lost Boys have, true to their name, been glossed over almost completely in this version, and few of them give memorable performances. Tiger Lily's role has shrunk considerably as well, whether for political correctness or practical reasons. I suppose these are limitations of the choice to focus more on Wendy, Peter, and Hook. The performances from the Lost Boys and the pirates are slightly less compelling than the main cast as well.
I should also give fair warning that some parts of this version of Peter Pan may be too frightening and violent for some young children. The downside of making a family film that appeals to a wider audience is that darker themes and characters must be introduced. This version of Hook can be quite scary, and he guns down his own men in cold blood when they cross him. The dark castle scene is also quite scary. I'm glad that the MPAA chose to rate it PG, although it does push the boundaries of the PG rating.
This is the kind of family film that rarely gets produced anymore. Young children will find it exciting and fun, slightly older children will find it challenging and thought provoking, and adults will be happy to watch it with or without their own children. If you are part of a family, make sure you don't pass up this delightful film. Peter Pan doesn't have the franchise power of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings behind it, but it is every bit as captivating and compelling.
P.J. Hogan, his wonderful cast and Universal are acquitted of all charges. Nothing should stop this film from reaching as wide an audience as possible.
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• Alternate Ending
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