Amazingly, and perhaps because it is such a difficult challenge, the story of Peter Pan has never been fully portrayed on film before. In 1991 Spielberg’s somewhat disappointing Hook was a development of the original story and various animated versions exist, including a bland Disney effort. There was a film in 1924, more or less of the play, which followed the tradition of casting a girl in the lead to lighten the load on the hand-held ropes and pulleys used onstage to mimic flight. So this is also the first live actor version with a boy as Peter, played here by impish Jeremy Sumpter.
This film by Australian director P.J. Hogan is the wonderful, magical Peter Pan that Hook could have been but wasn’t. There have been obvious technological advances since 1991 and the soundstage sets where the film was shot, while obviously not ‘real’, are in heightened-colour, ‘real make-believe’, as a child might plausibly see Neverland, a pirate ship or outer space. The fairies are mercurial, enchanting or devilish. The flying is completely believable and thrilling. The island called Neverland looks mysteriously inviting, as it should. Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs) is as satisfying a foppish, chilling, sneering villain as one could wish for and the Crocodile is monstrous. But the best testament for me was the gurgling laughter, straight backs and shining eyes of the pint-sized test audience around me. They were enthralled, and so was I. Even better, that effortless giggling continued out into the foyer, little boys darted about, hiding behind pillars, half lost boy and half fairy-like, while little close-headed bunches of girls smiled happily as they imitated Wendy’s dignity and presence..
Perhaps more than most Peter Pan is a story richly based in the subconscious dreaming and conscious day-dreaming of children and adults alike. Never to grow old, always to be at play and never to have to deal with responsibility or boring adult concerns is something we’ve all fervently wished for as children – unless, of course, the adult model in front of us is living an exciting, enviable life full of fun. (And how many of those do you know? And Peter Pan’s name reflects his utter rebellion of convention and his mythic wildness.) This film deftly walks the knife-edge, inherent in the story, between childlike wonder and the mystery of adolescent sexuality.
To the boys in the Darling family, Wendy’s brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell), their father (Jason Isaacs, by tradition doubling as Hook) is a somewhat stern, all-work-and-no-play sort of fellow. He’s as diligent at his low-paid book-keeping job as he is self-effacing, and easily bullied both by his boss (Geoffrey Palmer) and his older sister Millicent. As their mother (Olivia Williams) says, his bravery is in having put all his dreams away in a drawer. ‘Sometimes late at night,’ she tells them, ‘we take them all out and admire them. The only problem is that it’s getting harder and harder to close the drawer afterwards.’ (There are incidentally many similarities to the father in Mary Poppins, apart from other similarities.) To the boys, however, true bravery is in sword-fighting the pirate crew of Captain Hook in the fantasy games they play based on Wendy’s marvellous stories.
Despite twelve-year-old Wendy’s (a luminous Rachel Hurd-Wood) ambition to write an adventure novel in three volumes, based on the adventures she is sure she will have, she is at the threshold of a whole other set of priorities. Deep down, just at the edges of her consciousness, her role model is her beautiful mother whose elusive quality ‘just there, playing at the corner of her mouth’ constantly intrigues Wendy. Then, Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave), who is a combination of romantic and strict disciplinarian, points out triumphantly her observation that Wendy has a ‘hidden kiss’ hiding at the corner of her mouth. (And then, of course, we see it too.) ‘The greatest adventure of all,’ she enthuses, ‘is in finding the one the kiss belongs to! You must have your own room, spend less time with your brothers and more time with me!’ Wendy is appalled and her parents are disconcerted. But it isn’t long before Mr Darling sternly agrees, ‘It’s time you grew up!’
That night, Peter Pan, who often slyly spends time outside the nursery window listening to Wendy’s stories (is Neverland lacking in something?), flies in and hovers above her as she sleeps, his hand about to touch that mouth. When she suddenly wakes, he ‘falls’ to the ceiling and loses his shadow in shock before disappearing out the window. Later he returns for his shadow and they formally introduce themselves. She’s entranced by the fact that he can fly, and that he’s so chivalrous towards girls. ‘One girl is worth twenty boys,’ he declares, upon which she offers to sew on his shadow for him. She wants to give him a kiss, but because he doesn’t know what a kiss is, gives him a thimble instead. He in turn gives her an acorn, which she threads on a chain around her neck. Later, it will save her life.
The interaction between these two superb young actors is electric, and the tender evocation of the nascent stirrings of unconscious sexuality between them is one of the absolute triumphs of this film. Jealous Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier using all the outrageous, larger than life faces and gestures of Commedia Dell’Arte) is furious, and for a fairy less than six inches tall is a significant presence.
Their remarkable adventure in Neverland, where Peter takes Wendy and her two brothers flying through the night sky, ‘Second on the right and straight on till morning!’ is about to begin. Still, Wendy hesitates on the window sill, thinking about her parents. ‘Forget them Wendy,’ he whispers in her ear, ‘forget them all, and we’ll never have to worry about grown-up things again!’ She replies, ‘Never is an awfully long time!’ before the adventure overwhelms her resistance. She takes his hand and flies with him.
In Neverland, before they get to fight pirates and duel with Captain Hook (and John Darling falls for Red Indian Princess Tiger Lily), some devilish fairy misdirection has the Lost Boys shooting Wendy down from the sky, and shortly afterwards they persuade her to be Mother. ‘I don’t have any experience!’ exclaims Wendy. ‘Can you tell stories? asks Peter. It’s the sole requirement. In Neverland Wendy represents something the Lost Boys have forgotten. But then Peter, their natural, charismatic leader, is Father and his word is law. Nevertheless, it’s significant that Captain Hook and the pirates of Neverland were also the subjects of all Wendy’s stories before she ever met Peter Pan.
Captain Hook is the adult villain that the children in the audience squealed with glee over, every time he was beaten by Peter or the fearsome ticking crocodile who swallowed the clock (and Hook’s right hand). Hook’s weakness is his fear of loneliness and of growing old. Peter’s presence gives his existence meaning. The psychological subtext is that Peter is actually beating Wendy’s father in his dark side incarnation, the side against fun and freedom, the side that’s ‘Old! Alone! Done for!’
So when they return to London, to the open nursery window beside which Mrs Darling has waited since her children disappeared, that negating side of their father is banished forever, and when an outraged Millicent asks what the neighbours will think of the tribe of Lost Boys being adopted by the Darlings, Mr Darling finds his true courage and says, ‘Dash the neighbours! Dash the expense!’
Another thread in the story is that of Peter’s ‘feelings’ – something he denies he has because eternal youth must always be joyful and unworried. Both Wendy and Hook divine the truth, he can feel, and therefore is in danger of growing up and becoming sad, and Hook tries by nefarious means to use it against him. Peter tries to hide it with all his strength in a lovely imitation of men everywhere, and in fact Wendy’s presence in Neverland may awaken in him more than he wishes - watch what happens when Wendy gives him a real kiss! But when Tinkerbell performs a supreme act of courage and love to save him from poison, Peter’s tears are heartfelt. Jeremy Sumpter’s performance here is extraordinary, his impish grin replaced with desolation at the loss of his friend.
All the principals’ acting is pitched in line with the tone of the fantasy, but wonderfully real to aid the make-believe, and apart from a second or two of unnatural, group direction-following, the Lost Boys are also refreshing and endearing. Hook’s sidekick Smee (Richard Briers) is terrific. This definitive Peter Pan is marked by perfect casting and sensitive direction of the young and the adult cast by P.J. Hogan. The CGI in the Neverland, space and fairy segments is entrancing and the cinematography of Donald McAlpine is delightful enough to replace one’s own ‘pictures’.
The poignancy of Wendy’s parting with Peter is all the deeper because there is much he has given up, never to grow up, and yet, as the archetypal eternal boy, his taking that role somehow allows the rest of us to find more joy in life as a grownup.