It has taken filmmakers almost a century to get J.M. Barrie's evergreen children's classic Peter Pan right, but now, exactly 99 years after the boy who never grew up made his first appearance on the West End stage, director P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) has finally done justice to the story's every unsettling nuance, with nary a false note or a misstep. Remarkably, this is the first straightforward adaptation—notwithstanding Disney's 1953 cartoon and Spielberg's 1991 abomination, Hook—since the silent era. And it arrives during a new golden age for children's entertainment, at a time when the under-12s are without doubt the audience demographic best served by Hollywood.
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass), among others, have lately overseen a gratifying re-fertilization of the fallow soil of children's literature, returning to the rich, loamy terrain of the great Edwardian and late-Victorian bedtime storytellers. Rowling and Pullman, like their predecessors, acknowledge children's fears and anxieties—what Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows) called "those things rightly kept hidden"—as well as their riotous fantasies. The protagonists teeter on the cusp between the hallowed realm of childhood and the chasm at whose invisible bottom seethe the oncoming torments of puberty.
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But Peter Pan beat them all to it a century ago, and beats them at their own game today. At a time when films for children are made with one eye on the adults buying their tickets and holding their hands—with a concomitant escalation in scatology and the gross-out quotient—Hogan's Pan rightly insists above all upon innocence over knowingness and, best of all, upon the indissoluble Britishness of the story. Hogan does not modernize his material for 21st-century purposes. Instead, he strips it right back down to its narrative essence, then reinvigorates it with all the candy colors of a child's paint box, drawing inspiration from great illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham, and from the gaudy, inwardly illuminated work of painters like John William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones. At the same time he takes technologies—CGI, cable suspension and so on—that have lately become overfamiliar and breathes new life into them. For the first time in ages, a film makes one grateful for special effects: Indeed, it feels as if this is the very story such innovations were invented to enhance. You do, you do, you DO believe in fairies!
Should you need reminding, Peter Pan—which, bizarrely until we note that his multimillionaire dad is listed among the film's executive producers, is dedicated to another boy who never grew up, Princess Diana's disco-hopping consort Dodi al Fayed—is set on the very last night of its heroine's childhood. Twelve-year-old Wendy Darling will tomorrow be removed from the company of her two younger brothers—who delight unanimously in the stories she tells nightly of pirate ships and Red Indian camps—to her own private bedroom, sequestered by her maiden aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) from childish things in preparation for womanhood and marriageability. Is her adventure in Neverland with Peter, Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys a literal occurrence, or is it the compensatory fantasy of a girl reluctant to loosen her grip on innocence? Hogan emphasizes this ambiguity by the simple, never aggressively asserted expedient of casting Jason Isaacs as both her distant, timid father, John Darling, and as his hyperaggressive polar opposite, Captain Hook. Isaacs is a revelation: When many of us last saw him, he was playing an absurdly nasty Redcoat colonel in Roland Emmerich's The Patriot. While his Hook fully justifies such actorly excesses—he's the best storybook villain on film since Alan Rickman's eye-rolling Sheriff of Nottingham—the residue of his paternal alter ego to some extent humanizes the pirate captain's predilection for murder and heartlessness. Being British myself, and weaned on Barrie, I harbored some anxieties about Peter Pan being played by American teenager Jeremy Sumpter—he was a gleeful boy murderer in Bill Paxton's Frailty—but, in fact, the casting serves to emphasize Peter's essential and faintly tragic apartness from the other children, all of whom are played by English boys and girls.
The remaining adults—Olivia Williams' angelic Mother, Richard Briers' warty pirate Smee, et al.—are energetically depicted, and Swimming Pool's Ludivigne Sagnier, playing a delightfully rude and indomitable Tinker Bell, drops Julia Roberts' version right down the ticking crocodile's throat. But the movie belongs quite rightly to Wendy, the most enchanting little girl in English fiction, and to the untrained actress, Rachel Hurd-Wood, who plays her. With her effervescent openness, she fully meshes with the film's astonishingly conceived production design, with its coral-colored cotton-candy clouds, dripping jungles and creaking pirates' hulk, its fusillades of Indian arrows and the kaleidoscopic curlicues of Tinker Bell's fairy dust. Even if the script and performances had been dismal, Peter Pan's sheer visual inventiveness would have made the movie a milestone. As things stand, Hogan's Pan and its evergreen Neverland deserve to endure for another 99 years.
Peter Pan was directed by P.J. Hogan and Written by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, from the play by J.M. Barrie. Opens countywide on Dec. 25.