Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
I have to admit that I am not particularly a fan of children’s movies. I also have to admit that I am not particularly a fan of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story, despite having myself played Mr. Darling and Smee in a high school production of the play. I also have to admit that my expectations for this movie were pretty low, especially considering that the press screening I attended in Los Angeles nearly fifteen ago was scheduled the night after the screening of The Return of the King. Yeah, tough act to follow!
So I’m pleased to be able to tell you that P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan is not only a pretty good movie—and a pretty good children’s movie, to boot—it’s also perhaps the most fully-realized interpretation of Barrie’s classic work.
The boldest move in this production is the casting of Jeremy Sumpter in the role of Peter Pan. Historically, Peter has always been played by an adult female—most memorably (thanks to the wonder of television) by Mary Martin. In Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Peter was played by the late Robin Williams, of course, but as an adult (of a sort). So why is the casting of Sumpter a bold move? Only because it runs counter to conventional wisdom—but it makes perfect sense for a live-action film of the story, and Sumpter fills out the role perfectly.
In turn-of-the-century England, it would not, perhaps, have been genteel to actually have pre-adolescents playing love-struck pre-adolescents on stage; and even today, the dynamic of long-run theatrics may still make that choice unwise when compared to the option of having a seasoned veteran of the boards shepherd a young actress through the role of Wendy Darling. But times have changed—like it or not—and film is not of the same art form as plays. Their demands are different, and the dynamics of their creation are unique.
So it’s refreshing to see the Darling children portrayed as their name suggests. Barrie was in love with these kids, and wrote them not as we see the children around us, but as children idealized. John, Michael, and Wendy are not only the kids that we remember ourselves being (though, of course, we weren’t) but the kids that perhaps we wish were ours. Certainly, Barrie wished they were his.
Hogan’s Darling children fill that bill perfectly. Rachel Hurd-Wood’s Wendy is appropriately girlish, yet believable as a perplexing problem to her father—and as a willing dupe of Captain Hook’s plot to find Peter’s hideout. Harry Newell’s John is suitably gallant and chivalric, while Freddie Popplewell’s Michael is precisely what one would expect of the youngest child who tags along on a ride perhaps a little intense for his age.
The Lost Boys are also a delight. These are not a gang of hooligans based on the recollections of the latest out-of-control birthday bribe for our spoiled eight-year-old; they are boys on whom we can truly take pity as orphans longing for a real family. One of Barrie’s passions was for the plight of orphaned children, and Hogan’s direction of the Lost Boys strikes a tone harmonic with that passion. Whether playing up to Peter and Wendy’s “Father” and “Mother,” or desperately yearning to fit in with the Darling family, the Lost Boys are children we might welcome into our homes—knowing full well that boys will still be boys, but not fearful that these particular boys will be uniquely defined by their capacity for grossness.
In short, the children depicted in Hogan’s Peter Pan serve well enough as models for our own children—and that’s an accomplishment in today’s world.
In addition, the production design of Hogan’s film is remarkable. One of the great advantages of Disney’s animated Peter Pan, of course, was its ability to visualize a truly other-worldly Neverland—one complete with stylized geographical features and its own peculiar meteorological rules. Hogan’s Neverland trumps the Disney version by achieving the same effect through a seamless combination of classic set designs and computer-aided technology.
The visual effect of the film is simultaneously fantastic and tangible—a place that you almost feel might exist, or that you might want to exist. J.R.R. Tolkien, whose children’s novel The Hobbit was published in the year that Barrie died, talked in his letters about his belief in “a place called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed.” Neverland is a transitional place which motivates us to return to our own world, and get back to the business of the good which our hands find to do in this life.
At the same time, it’s fair to warn audiences that this Peter Pan is darker and scarier than Pans of the past. Jason Isaacs’ Hook is no cartoonish ham; Barrie’s devilish mermaids haunt Neverland’s lagoon; and Wendy’s awakening into adulthood is taken seriously. Still, it’s hard for us to deny that our children live in dark and threatening times, just as children have done since Barrie’s time and before. The point of Hogan’s film—Barrie’s own point—is not to scare children, but to show them that in spite of their fears and insecurities, parents do love them; and that the real world can be a loving, comforting place—a better one, in fact, than Neverland.
This film was originally produced to be released on Christmas, almost ninety-nine years to the day that Barrie’s play premiered in London. On the surface, that may seem odd because it does not appear to be a Christmas movie. But what better time of year to remind us that there really are things worth believing in? I can chant with the best of the Lost Boys, “I believe. I do! I do!”