New `Peter Pan' is more about Wendy, as it should be

It's the real story, not Disney and not `Hook'

Movies: on screen, DVD / Video

December 25, 2003|By Glenn Whipp | Glenn Whipp,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the past century, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan has spawned a peanut-butter brand, a syndrome for emotionally stunted men and even a popular girl's name. (Remarkably, there were no Wendys before Barrie's play debuted in London on Dec. 27, 1904.)

But outside of a 1924 silent movie, nobody has -- until now -- mounted a faithful film version of Pan, a fact that seems to be lost on the general public.

"A lot of people say, `Wasn't that already done?'" says producer Lucy Fisher. "And you say, `No, that was Hook.' And they go, `I hated Hook.' And you say, `Well, this isn't Hook.'"

No, it isn't. Fisher's Peter Pan, which she produced with her husband and partner Douglas Wick, remains true (with some minor nods to political correctness and narrative clarity) to Barrie's popular play and book. So where Steven Spielberg worked out his father issues in 1991's Hook, wallowing in the importance of the "inner child," and Disney aimed its 1953 animated version at the tiny tot set, this new Pan has somewhat loftier goals, not to mention an actual boy playing the title character for the first time.

"It's nothing like the cartoon or Spielberg's version," says Jason Isaacs, who plays Capt. Hook and Mr. Darling.

"Peter Pan is a great romantic adventure and love story between two kids on the edge of growing up," Isaacs says. "It's not about middle-age men on cell phones. And it doesn't have a menopausal woman slapping on green tights and inviting everyone to sing along. There's a very good reason why it was the Harry Potter of its day and, 100 years later, continues to enchant children all over the world. It's a genius story."

The character of Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie's 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird. The plot, as we now know it, evolved over time from the stories that Barrie told to the five young boys of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. When Davies and her husband died, Barrie became the boys' unofficial guardian, although biographers say he was more like a brother than a father.

The play debuted at the Duke of York's Theatre in 1904, and Barrie continued to refine and expand the text over the next several years, eventually publishing a novel, Peter and Wendy, in 1911. Freudians have had a field day with the material, given that the heroine, Wendy, travels to Neverland and finds a nightmare version of her father, representing all the scary and seductive aspects of leaving childhood behind.

"It's a beautiful way to evoke what's going on in little girls' minds when they're growing up," Isaacs says. "Everyone remembers all the fighting and pirates and adventure, but it's all a rite-of-passage movie, which people don't remember because the title is Peter Pan. It's a boy's name. But really, it's about the battle for Wendy's soul."

Well ... sort of. While the new Pan, directed by P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and co-written by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg (whose early draft convinced Hogan that it could be done), includes some of the source material's darker elements, it's still squarely aimed at preteens. The fact that Mr. Darling and Capt. Hook are variations of the same man, played by the same actor, will probably be lost -- thanks to makeup -- on most younger audience members.

"The book is like a banquet," Hogan says. "There's a strong meal in there, but it's surrounded by everything. You really have to distill the story to its essentials."

And when you're spending more than $100 million to create from scratch every element of Pan -- uptight, Edwardian London, Neverland's lush, tropical landscapes and Capt. Hook's pirate ship included -- you can be excused for hedging your bets and downplaying some of Barrie's psychological musings.

Hogan had initially planned on filming the movie in several far-flung locations, including London, Tahiti and New Zealand. But whenever he'd go off to scout some tropical island, he'd inevitably be disappointed.

"The moment the sun goes behind clouds, the most beautiful island becomes just another rocky outcrop," Hogan says. "So we were better off building our own world."

Working entirely on soundstages on Australia's Gold Coast meant a lot of blue screens and digital effects, but it also gave Hogan a controlled environment. And when your cast includes 12 kids (not to mention the sheepdog), most of whom are acting novices, you take every bit of control you can get.

But then, there are some things that you can't control. Jeremy Sumpter, best-known for playing the youngest son in Bill Paxton's great horror film, Frailty, grew 8 inches during the movie's 10-month shoot. Production designer Roger Ford had to keep lengthening Wendy's bedroom window so Sumpter, now 14, could fly through it without bumping his head.

"We just managed to get the movie done before Jeremy started shaving," Isaacs jokes.

Rachel Hurd-Wood, who plays Wendy, was no slacker, either, growing 5 inches between her 12th and 13th birthdays.

"It's a very poignant age because kids want everything, but they still want you to tuck them in at night," says Fisher, who, with Wick, has three teen-age daughters.

"With Peter Pan, you get to reject your parents and then you get them back. You get to say, `You don't put my dog out, you don't take away imagination, and you fly out the window and go fight pirates and do everything, and then you come back and sit on mommy and daddy's lap again.'"

For film events, see Page 44.

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