Peter Pan (BrianOrndorf)
December 23rd, 2003
Gorgeously mounted and imagined, this new incarnation of “Peter Pan” has one gigantic flaw: Jeremy Sumpter, who plays Pan, cannot act at all. The magic that director P.J. Hogan manages to find in this oft-told tale is sunk because the audience is expected to put their faith in a child actor who looks and acts more like a skateboard mall rat than a magical creature of mischief and eternal childhood.
Pre-teen Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood, in an extraordinary debut) is on the verge of womanhood, yet wants nothing to do with it. Enjoying her time spent in imagined worlds with her younger brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell), Wendy’s parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Isaacs) demand that she forget her childish ways and grow up. Into Wendy’s room one night comes Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter, “Frailty“), a mischievous boy who decided long ago to never become an adult. With the help of his trusted fairy pal Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier, the vixen in “Swimming Pool”), Pan helps the trio fly away to a magical place called Neverland to forget their problems and reject old age. Once Peter is back in Neverland, Captain Hook (also played by Jason Isaacs), an old enemy of Pan’s, is freed from his icy prison. Hook wants nothing more than to see Pan dead, and drags Wendy in on the opportunity to trap Pan for good.
The prospect of another adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” seems fairly depressing; here is a story told for over 80 years in 80 different ways. What exactly could a 2003 version accomplish? Seeing a lock on the material by Disney Animation and actress Mary Martin, director and co-writer P.J. Hogan (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) desires to take the tale back its original fantastical conception, and to explore its darker undertones.
Now Pan isn’t just a harmless prankster anymore, but a slightly brain damaged kid who refuses to grasp how his reckless actions affect those around him. Sure, he’s still the heroic flying boy, but his charms are more toxic, and his personality more sociopathic in Hogan‘s script. Captain Hook isn’t an easy foil for Pan anymore; he’s now a true pirate who uses the famous hook to kill shipmates who refuse his bidding, along with nursing a thirst for Pan’s blood at any cost. Even old Tinkerbell is given a makeover from what the character is more popularly conceived as. In “Pan,” Tink is deceitful and ragingly jealous of Wendy, at one point encouraging the murder of the Chicklet-toothed Darling. Tink is heartily played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier, who imbibes the spirit of Charlie Chaplin in her interpretation, making her the best onscreen Tink to date.
Making this new “Peter Pan” stand out from the assorted vintages of adaptations is the level of set detail and production value seen in the film. The Neverland world has been restored to its original conception of a magical land, found very far away. Pan and the gang have to cross entire solar systems to get there, and upon arrival, visit a world made of cotton candy pink clouds, pirates, lush green jungles, relentless lost boys, and dangerous sea life (mermaids, crocodiles) around each corner. This is a terrific looking movie, despite the fact that it does share the same claustrophobic “studio” vibe that befell Steven Spielberg’s unjustly maligned adult Pan tale, “Hook.” Hogan’s vision comes the closest to the spirit of the Barrie story with the insistence that for every magical moment there are two dangerous ones in close pursuit. “Peter Pan” is a family movie experience to be sure, but this new take on the legend might confuse audiences so used to the Disney version of events. In Hogan’s rendering, Pan’s allure isn’t so charming and innocent, and Hook’s malice a little more violent and precise. The story is much stronger this way.
In attempting to nail down a more comprehensive adaptation, Hogan piles on a little too much story without seeing it all to completion. The Neverland sequences involve a lot of previous understanding of just who is who and why these inhabitants act a certain way. Hogan acts impatiently toward the plot, and insists Hook and the pirate action be kicked into gear as soon as possible. Of course, this takes away from enjoying Neverland and getting to know Pan’s gang, and every time Hogan shifted the story away in awkward directions just so Pan and Hook could swordfight again, I felt cheated out of the chance to explore the world Barrie so affectionately wrote about. Hogan tries for a “Cliff’s Notes” run-through of the tale and characters, but instead creates confusion and set piece repetition in the process.
Where Hogan’s plans go awry for “Peter Pan” is in his casting of the title role. Actor Jeremy Sumpter has the physicality to fill the leafy tunic of Pan, but when the young performer opens his mouth, the character seems misplaced. The rest of the cast is speaking the king’s English, but Sumpter’s American twist on Pan makes Peter feel more like an outsider than the leader of many. There’s nothing wrong about Sumpter’s performance in specific, but to see him in Pan’s classic hands-on-hips stance, spouting dialog he can‘t handle, I get more of a skateboard-kid-who-harasses-mall-security-guards vibe than a pirate hunter who can fly beyond the stars. This is a problem that Hogan exacerbates by handing Sumpter a tricky dramatic arc for Pan, classically following the narrative route of the original lost boy who is challenged by a girl he can‘t say no to. It’s all a little too advanced for Sumpter to translate into genuine feelings. I wonder what Hogan saw in Sumpter that made him think, “He’s the Pan!” Whatever it was, it unfortunately never translates onto the screen.
My rating: C+