Film appeals to kids, adults

'Peter Pan' boasts lots of effects, action

Movie Reviews

December 25, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Given the timing, the key question for this Peter Pan is whether its Neverland is strong enough to displace Michael Jackson's in the viewer's mind. And the answer is a resounding yes. This adrenaline-charged live-action Peter Pan stays true to J.M. Barrie's original wild vision of Neverland as the place to which boys and girls will always escape in their dreams, "so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless."

Director P.J. Hogan's adaptation (he and Michael Goldenberg co-wrote the script from Barrie's novel and play) takes the giddy callousness of youth to comical extremes. At its best the movie captures an imaginative child's garden of disasters and delights. There's nothing watered-down or fey about this movie's Captain Hook, who lost his hand clashing swords with Peter. Jason Isaacs gives Hook the fierce melancholy of a ruthless fighter for a long-lost cause: defeating Peter and controlling Neverland. Hook is happy only for quick flashes, when he thinks he has the eternal boy trapped or when he's enacting swift executions that dot the film like exclamation points.

And for once there's nothing androgynous about Peter Pan: A boy named Jeremy Sumpter plays him, not a female musical star. Despite Sumpter's limitations as an actor (he's occasionally wooden), he's completely authentic in his moments of reckless swashbuckling and in his inchoate feeling for Wendy Darling, the girl he persuades to be his gang of Lost Boys' "mother."

Hogan locates the underlying comedy-drama at the intersection of childhood and adolescence. Wendy fears growing up yet wants the experiences she can only get if she does grow up. Peter, of course, will never grow up and relinquish childish abandon, even if it means the closest he'll come to love is spring fever and heartache. Rachel Hurd-Wood is a marvelous choice for this film's Wendy. Not only does she look ready to bloom, but she conveys deeper feelings just on the brink of eruption.

Hogan's understanding of the charged content underneath all the usual flying-around and his generally skillful handling of his performers bring an unusually robust quality to Hook's manipulation of Wendy and to the jealousy of her and Peter that drive both Hook and Peter's fairy Tink to fits of homicidal madness.

If only Hogan showed as much control over the subplots and action set pieces as he did over his subtext. The framing story set in Edwardian London is simultaneously slaphappy and exquisite. Olivia Williams makes a gorgeous, haunting Mrs. Darling. If Isaacs, in his second role, overdoes the fussiness of her ineffectual clerk husband, Lynn Redgrave is in glorious full roar as an H.G. Wells-reading, forward-looking (and to the kids slightly frightening) maiden aunt, and the St. Bernard who plays the canine nanny, Nana, is uncannily expressive. The opening suggests that Hogan has mastered a hopped-up version of the rhythmic storytelling in Carol Reed's Oliver! or the suave parts of Mary Poppins.

But once the action moves to Neverland it becomes a potpourri of bold strokes and effects. Some are miraculous, like a school of seductive, oddly ominous mermaids; others are worn, like a vision of the hungry crocodile that hunts Hook as a characterless killing machine the size of a great white shark. The biggest problem is Ludivine Sagnier as Tink. Did she mug this badly in Swimming Pool? Or did no one notice because she rarely had her shirt on? She's a constant distraction -- perhaps Hogan's sop to kiddie audiences so addicted to nonstop action they might have a mass case of Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, that's what this Tink suffers from.

Still, she can't mar the beauty of Peter and Wendy dancing in the sky surrounded by fairies that glitter like streams of fireflies. Even at its most hyperactive, Peter Pan has a core of good and bad feeling that will hit home to kids and to adults with honest memories.

Peter Pan

Starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Jason Issacs, Olivia Williams

Directed by P.J. Hogan

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13

Time 113 minutes

Sun Score ***

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