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Petering Out

The latest 'Peter Pan' film lacks the depth and fascinating qualities of the book.


The majority of the filmed adaptations of Peter Pan have left out the three most interesting elements of the story: First, that Peter has no capacity to convert short-term to long-term memory; second, the running commentary on the cruelty of children; and third, the way in which the novel (if not the play) is not so much an adventure story as a commentary on adventure stories.

Oh, and also the burning sexual desire of Wendy and Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell for the irrepressibly hot P. Pan.

While director P.J. Hogan largely ignores the first three themes, he at least catches onto the sexual flair of his bare-nippled Peter and the raging libido of his full-lipped Wendy. Tiger Lily gets mostly left out, but Tink (perfectly played by French soft-core star Ludivine Sagnier) does have an evil, sexy edge, and Hogan wisely includes the scene where Tink tries to kill Wendy so as to have Peter all to her full-figured fairy self.

Hogan also hints at Peter's memory problem, which is probably the most interesting part of the book. It's too bad that he doesn't really run with it, though, because it's key to author J.M. Barrie's central theme: That, as he puts it "children are gay and innocent and heartless." In the book, Peter, unable to remember anyone who's out of his sight for any length of time, happily flits off to the next adventure and conquest, breaking hearts like a modern-day Democratic president.

In Hogan's version, much of the story focuses on the illegal pubescent love between Peter and Wendy. As such, this is not exactly a kid's movie, though with its emphasis on action and adventure and non-metaphorical swordplay, it's not exactly an adult's movie, either.

Jeremy Sumpter (Peter) and Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy) are both perfectly cast in the lead roles. They actually need to show a lot of subtlety and range as they flirt and fall in love, and, in Peter's case, deny their feelings. Sumpter really captures the arrogance and cold-heartedness of Peter Pan, and Hurd-Wood conveys Wendy's desire and maturity with something not unlike maturity and desire.

The story, as everyone who has not been living under a rock or worshipping at a fundamentalist temple, mosque or church for the last 50 years knows, is about a boy named Peter Pan (hence the title of the movie) who refuses to grow up. Living in endless childhood, he and his coterie of "lost boys," youngsters who fell out of prams and were never claimed, long for a mother figure.

Thus, Peter coerces young Wendy Darling into coming to Neverland, where people stay young forever, and pirates and Indians (who are sort of like Native Americans only more fairy-tale oriented and less likely to own blue Chevy pickups) and mermaids present constant danger to those who crave adventure.

It's also a story about how, as J.M. Barrie put it, "children are ever ready, when novelty knocks, to desert their dearest ones." The dearest deserted in this case are Wendy's mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Darling.

Upon finding that her children (Wendy takes along her bit-part younger brothers John and Michael) have, much like Rush Limbaugh, flown out the window with the aid of unrealistically positive emotions and magic fairy dust, Mrs. Darling sits endlessly in their bedroom awaiting their return.

Olivia Williams, who is far too beautiful and talented and English to have such a small and one-dimensional part, plays Mrs. Darling. She does a nice job of looking intensely desirable, which is sort of Mrs. Darling's main attribute, and of looking like she misses her children, which is Mrs. Darling's only motivation.

The film captures nicely the split in Wendy between her childish love for her mother (who is described as having always a kiss in the corner of her mouth that Wendy can never take) and her more adult love for Peter (whom she is always trying, and failing, to kiss). In Neverland, only Wendy remembers that there are parents in the outside world, and Hurd-Wood is rich and complex in her characterization of the only mature being in a land so stunted in emotional growth that Michael Jackson named his home after it.

Jason Isaacs, who's now best known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, portrays Wendy's father, and, in an obviously inverted Oedipal twist, also plays the evil Captain Hook, Peter's arch nemesis. Wendy's place on the precipice of puberty is perspicaciously portrayed in the film by having her nearly abandon her youthful beloved Peter for the evil old Hook, who is actually her father, and thus, a symbol of her youth.

That, at least, gets at some of the depth of Barrie's original. I realize it's unfair to compare the film to the book, but it's hard to avoid when dealing with a book like Peter Pan. Though tragically overlooked by most adult critics, it's a novel that's every bit as self-aware and literary as the best of Joyce or Nabokov or Musil. Of course, if you imagine trying to film Ulysses or Ada or The Man Without Qualities, you can see the problem of putting Peter on the screen.

P.J. Hogan's new version probably comes closest to capturing the book of any attempt. He's at least smart enough to know that you can't cast a middle-aged woman as Peter, no offense to Mary Martin. And he's clearly aware of what's happening in the book. He's also, though, burdened by the need to make a hit.

Thus, there are lots of gorgeous special effects, well-choreographed action and fleeting glimpse of fairy butt. There's also some unusually thoughtful cinematography by Donald McAlpine, who can now be forgiven for having shot Moulin Rouge. I just wish there was a little more of the strange depth and self-awareness of J.M. Barrie.

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