From first frame to last, director P.J. Hogan’s sumptuous version of J.M. Barrie’s fantastical story is a memorable feast for the eyes and imagination.
It is the rare accomplishment of cohesive filmmaking, mixing directorial vision, cinematography styles, acting choices and even a musical score. James Newton Howard’s work on that front is beautiful stuff that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Also, sound designer Gary Rydstrom’s work creates a great surround-sound effect for the story’s menacing crocodile.
The last time anyone tried a live-action version of this tale, it was 1991’s gimmicky Hook, memorable only for Julia Roberts’ bad Tinker Bell haircut and Dustin Hoffman’s foppish titular villain.
This film is as realistic-looking as it needs to be, properly riding the line between authenticity and storybook wonder. With its busy, bold color schemes and luscious vistas, it’s a close visual cousin of Moulin Rouge! But where that film took some getting used to, Peter Pan clicks with an instant fairy-tale charm, its beautiful illustrations a dazzling sight.
From the stately British restraint of the Darling household to the zooming-through-space journey to Neverland, the visual playfulness and slightly bent humor of Hogan and cinematographer Donald McAlpine (who also shot “Moulin Rouge!”) is terrific.
The filmmakers, though, never lose sight of the heart of the familiar story. Peter Pan, a child that cannot grow up, whisks Wendy, Michael and John Darling away to Neverland. There, along with the scruffy Lost Boys, the Darlings fight alongside Peter in his ongoing war against Captain Hook and his band of pirates.
One of Hogan’s oh-so-simple improvements is the casting of an actual boy as Peter Pan, not a middle-aged actress or athlete flying around from viewable wires. Mischief gleams nonstop in the corner of young actor Jeremy Sumpter’s eye, and he has spunky fun with the role.
As his nemesis, Hook, Jason Isaacs also revels. More than just a madman in Hollywood makeup, Isaacs’ Hook is a pale, peeved mixture of Rasputin and Frank Zappa with an extremely serious grudge. Isaacs always plays a villain, it seems, so it’s nice to see a timid side in his double casting as Mr. Darling. In a silent role bolstered mainly by special effects, Ludivine Sagnier’s work as Tinker Bell emphasizes sass over star power.
This version does include a slight romance between Peter and Wendy, and ridiculous charges have been levied against its “sexuality.” What an absurd notion for a movie that is certainly aware of the spark between those characters, but interested in the trepidation, uncertainty and conflicts that arise from it.
Peter Pan is not doing well at the box office, sure to become an expensive $100-million write-off for its studio. That’s a shame, considering it packs in more poignancy about familial responsibility in a two-minute monologue than Cheaper By the Dozen does in 100 minutes.
And in a time when the idea of Neverland has become shorthand for scandal, Hogan reclaims it. Rife with wonderful expansions from its source material, this is a film that’s alive with imagination.