“Peter Pan” has always been one of those rare children’s books that feels startlingly true, as if every word is coming onto the page from within instead of flowing out of J. M. Barrie’s pen. And it is a rare movie that can match up with his book: Disney tried and failed, Spielberg partially succeeded but didn’t even try to do the actual story and Mary Martin pretended to be a boy. None of these previous attempts comes close to P. J. Hogan’s new film adaptation, which has been quietly sitting in theaters since Christmas. This new “Peter Pan” captures the spirit of the book and then releases it with such glee that childhood comes rushing back with visions of mermaids, sun-soaked castles, and the danger of adulthood personified in a certain bitter pirate named Hook.
Hogan manages the skilled feat of bringing the story to life without making it real. The opening scenes of the film present a London that is a delightful collage from Roald Dahl and “Mary Poppins.” From stuffy bank interiors to inviting smokestack-capped rooftops, Hogan’s images resonate with memories of childhood stories once read and all but forgotten. The characters that populate this fantastical world are also delightfully unrealistic. In her portrayal of Mrs. Darling, Olivia Williams becomes the perfect mother. She is beautiful, mysterious, and a sympathetic friend all at once — the fantasy mother desired by all children. In her employ is Nana the dog who retains her role as the children’s nanny — and Mr. And Mrs. Darling treat her as one. This lack of realism enlivens the talkative beginning making it just as fun as the rest of the film. In fact, the interesting performances only get better in Neverland, where the fierce-looking pirates like to listen to stories and the Lost Boys are wise beyond their years.
In Neverland, it is Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) and Hook (Jason Isaacs) who really fascinate. Sumpter finds the balance between exterior confidence and interior insecurity, his Pan is clearly a young boy trying to convince himself that he is a hero, untouched by earthly love. His seduction of Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) near the beginning has more sparks flying then can be found in most real romances, yet Sumpter seems blissfully innocent, unaware of his own attraction to Wendy or Wendy’s attraction to him. When he finally begins to grapple with his love, Sumpter’s elastic face so convincingly manifests Pan’s extreme emotional turbulence that the mood-governed skies above Neverland are hardly needed.
Pan’s emotions are so strong that they disconnect from him, manifesting themselves in other characters. His jealousy of Wendy’s life as a real child makes her Tinker Bell and his fear of adulthood makes his father Hook. And that fear, as manifested by Isaacs, is very cunning and tough to beat. Similar to Pan’s dichotomy, Hook is at once confidently evil and yet also fearfully alone. He understands that he only exists because of Pan’s misconceptions and fights with all his might to keep those afloat. Isaacs lovingly sympathizes with Hook’s unfortunate dependence on Pan, giving Hook a human edge that is missing from even the book itself. It is quite a feat to make the death scene of Captain Hook a sad one, yet Isaacs accomplishes it.
Adding to everyone’s charm are the whimsical lines of dialogue that sound word for word as if they come from the book. Rather than dumbing down the language or updating it, Hogan’s screenplay leaves the ornate diction of the book intact recalling the feel of the best stories remembered from childhood: the ones not fully understood but listened to with wonder nonetheless. Another treat for the ear comes from James Newton Howard’s score, which does a much better job than John Williams’s recent “Harry Potter” score at sounding magically mysterious.
Most importantly of all, the movie deals with all the serious issues found in the book, wrestling with the concepts of aging and loss. In order to live her life and grow up Wendy has to give up Peter, but she also leaves her deepest feelings of love with him in her childhood. She cannot let go of childhood, but time forces her to. Barrie’s answer to this terrible loss is the act of storytelling itself. When she tells the story of her adventures in Neverland, Wendy has Peter with her once more. Hogan understands this essential message, giving us a rare children’s film that relishes its role as modern storyteller and takes us all back to the Neverland we abandoned to the snows of time years ago.