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PETER PAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel-Hurd Wood, Jason Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Lynn Redgrave, Ludivine Sagnier, Harry Newell, Freddie Popplewell, Richard Briers
Director:  P. J. Hogan
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  May 4, 2004

“All little children grow up…all except one.”

Film ***1/2

It’s hard to believe, but apparently true:  as popular as Peter Pan has been over the years, it’s never been made into a full length live action feature before.  There have been animated versions, television productions, plays, and even the awkward spin-off of Hook, but until director P. J Hogan got his hands on the classic tales by J. M. Barrie, Pan had never flown for real.

For that matter, no version of the story has ever gotten the most crucial aspect of it right before:  namely, that it’s actually a sad prospect for a child to never get to grow up.  If you’re like me, you’ve watched other presentations and wondered why the Darling children ever go back to their real lives when Never Land and staying a little kid forever seemed like such a blast.  In this film, we finally understand that Peter Pan’s life of eternal youth comes with a price.  When he looks in the Darling nursery window one last time, we can see what he’s given up.

This is also the first retelling of the story that recognizes that both Peter (Sumpter) and Wendy (Wood) are at the age where they would be beginning to take notice of the opposite sex.  Not that there’s anything lurid at play here; it’s all innocent and sweetly done.  But the fact that it’s there at all is quite a welcome change of pace, and one that accents the underlying message of the story:  when Wendy starts to realize her feelings, she is sadly one-sided in expressing them.  Peter had to keep that sense of awakening asleep inside him when he chose never to grow up, which leads to one of the story’s sadder realizations.

I’ve kind of skipped forward with the assumption that most people know the classic tale of Pan.  It’s all told here with a remarkable faithfulness and an inspired visual style.  Unlike say, the Harry Potter movies, which deal in the fantastic but treat it as though it were a matter-of-fact part of reality, Peter Pan is alive with bold colors, exaggerated sets, extreme lighting schemes and over-the-top special effects.  The fairy dance is a beautifully crafted and executed sequence, but the flying through the galaxy, aerial swordfights and mermaid lagoon are all wondrous.  The whole movie looks like something that was dreamed up in a child’s imagination.

There is even something deeper to Captain Hook (Isaacs, who in a bit of dual casting, also plays Mr. Darling) than we may have remembered.  Here, he’s not the bumbling buffoon he’s typically portrayed to be, but a darker figure driven by real obsessions and motivations.  His very tears of envy and hatred are poisonous, and he and the pirates are basically figures who resent losing their youths and never having what Pan, Wendy and the others had.  He’s as close to being sympathetic as he can be while maintaining the proper face of evil.

In essence, I’ve just described the main weaknesses of both foes, and those frailties come into play in the great final battle between them at the end.  Hook almost brings Pan down by making him realize what he’ll never have…while the children finally turn on Hook by forcing him to confront what he’ll never be.

I don’t want to make the picture sound too heavy handed…these are things for grown-ups to recognize and for little ones to ponder in their own time.  The reason Peter Pan has always been a magical children’s story is the fact that it touches right on the very real worries young ones might have about growing up.  I certainly had them when I was Peter’s age.

But it took the actual act of becoming an adult to realize how sad it would have been to remain a child forever.  It would have been fun for awhile, to be sure, but eventually, to never experience the things life has to offer would have made for a truncated and empty existence.  No version of Peter Pan ever gave me that lesson in my youth.  Thankfully, this thoroughly wonderful movie will ensure that future generations have a chance to learn it while they’re still young.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  The luminous Rachel-Hurd Wood was actually chosen for the role in an open casting call.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  The movie is dedicated to the late Dodi Al Fayed.

Video ****

So far, this is my pick for best video quality of the year.  I’ve rarely seen color and lighting used so expressively.  Not only are the brash, bright colors of Never Land as vivid as could be asked for, but there are all kinds of tricks employed like de-saturating scenes or changing light schemes for maximum effect.  In the pirate’s cavern, everything seems dark and washed out…but a flash of lightning will suddenly turn a bleak look scene into an explosively colorful one, and back again…marvelous!  This is what DVD is all about, folks.

Audio ****

Likewise, the 5.1 audio track is busy and potent.  Between the swordfights, the cannons, the flying sequences and other bits of action, the full surround unit remains in an almost constant state of full employ.  Flying children, fairies and cannon balls will be whizzing over your head in every direction, while the dialogue and music bed are crystal clear and well rendered.  The .1 channel keeps the lower signal strong.  Everything is well mixed and balanced, with crossovers smooth and clean.  A terrific listening experience.

Features ***1/2

The features are set up as exploring five areas of the story, so navigating can be a little tricky, but there’s plenty of good stuff to be found.  In “The Darling House”, you’ll find an alternate ending and deleted scenes.  Board “The Pirate Ship” for a deleted pirate song, a “Through the Eyes of Captain Hook” featurette, and some of actor Jason Isaacs’ home movies.  In “The Never Land Forest”, you’ll get a look at bringing the fairies to life, and meet the charming actress who played Tinker Bell.  Enter “The Black Castle” and you’ll see a featurette on learning to fly and behind the scenes look at the mermaids.  The “Home Under the Ground” has a featurette on the history of the Peter Pan legacy hosted by Duchess Sarah Ferguson. 

Scattered throughout are outtakes with the Duchess, a look at the little girl playing Tiger Lily and those lovable Lost Boys, effects sequences such as Nana the dog and the shadow play, and more.

Summary:

Peter Pan marks the best version of this story ever brought to life in any medium apart from the original books.  With a wonderful cast, a faithful eye on the story, wonderful art design and special effects and a message that kids the world over can understand and appreciate, this is one of the finest family film offerings in years.  Highly recommended.