The boy who never wants to grow up is back (no, not Michael Jackson; the real Peter Pan) and he's better than ever in a full-length, live action, effects-laden feature film. The question is, do we really need another version of the story?
P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood, Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents, however, believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up, especially her father. Then, a cheeky, wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted, yet jealousy-prone, fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier), telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer, and with a few happy thoughts, some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow, she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch the real place.) Once there, Wendy encounters mermaids, Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as ''mother'') and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because, on the one hand, she likes hangin' with hottie Peter, but on the other, she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up, but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash, ticking crocodiles are fed, and fairies are saved, as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no, he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing, with angelic faces, peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty, cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy, a fact much hyped by the filmmakers, and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material, for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile, but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood, the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl, earned her role after a long and involved casting process, it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly, infusing the character with a natural, cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love, which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs, in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening, comical, lonely, charming, needy, reprehensible Captain Hook, draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role, French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious, non-speaking Tinkerbell, portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film, over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way, he's right, and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it, giving audiences a very lush Neverland, with waterfalls, fluffy pink clouds, crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles, there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done, in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook, which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version, lives really are at stake, and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent, with scary faces and murderous intentions, a far cry from the beautiful, if somewhat mean-spirited, creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation, another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near, for example, tick-tocking away, the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy, catchy songs, but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck, it's a great story. But it's just been done.
If you have to sit through another adaptation of Peter Pan, this version is serviceable, if not original, with enough eye candy and enjoyable performances to make it worthwhile.