Oh, the cleverness of storyteller James M. Barrie, who gave us Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Tinkerbell, a St. Bernard nanny, Tiger Lily, and the crocodile that ticks because it swallowed a clock! And oh, the cleverness of P.J. Hogan, the director and co-screenwriter who has brought us this sumptuously beautiful re-telling of the classic story that maintains its timeless charm.
This is the story of Wendy Darling and her brothers Michael and John, who fly to Neverland with Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up. Neverland has pirates, mermaids, and no baths, bedtimes, or schoolwork.
But there are no mothers, either, and without mothers, there are no stories. So Peter leaves Neverland at night to come listen to the stories that Wendy tells her brothers. One night, his shadow is caught in the window. When he comes back to get it, Wendy sews it back on, and Peter invites the Darling children to fly with him back to Neverland and tell stories to the Lost Boys. There Wendy and her brothers meet up with the Lost Boys, and battle Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs, “Harry Potter’s” Lucius Malfoy).
The production design is simply gorgeous. A storybook Victorian London is imagined with exquisite period detail. Even state-of-the-art special effects like flying and computer graphics are consistently conceived and gratifyingly believable. The jarring notes are Peter’s (unforgiveably) American accent and some anachronistic-sounding music. Swimming Pool’s Ludivine Sagnier does her best, but Tinkerbell is probably best portrayed as a spot of light. And some Pan lovers will object to a bit of gentle tweaking of the story. But it is not so much to be politically correct or bring it up to date as it is to remove any distractions from what in today’s view would be seen as sexism.
The story is about growing up, after all, and it is not a coincidence that Wendy flies away with Peter on what is supposed to be her last night sleeping in the nursery with her brothers before she must start to become a young lady. But even though, like her mother, Wendy has a kiss hiding in the corner of her mouth, she is not at all sure that she wants to become a young lady.
Part of the charm of the story is the way it looks at the terror and wonder of that bittersweet moment on the cusp of an adventure that can be scarier and more thrilling than a battle with pirates. Barrie thought that it was really Wendy’s story. Though Peter is the title character, it is Wendy who is the heroine because she makes a journey. When she kisses Peter to bring him back to life, both of them wake up.
When Wendy follows Peter to Neverland, he tells her she will never have to grow up but then he makes her into the mother of the Lost Boys. She assures him (and herself) that they are only playing, but she feels the pull of the adult world. She even tells Peter that Captain Hook is “a man of feeling” while he is just a boy. And feelings are taken very seriously in this story. Fairies like Tinkerbell can have only one feeling at a time. Peter cannot answer when Wendy asks him what his feelings are. And Hook has a deadly poison made up of “a mixture of malice, jealous, and disappointment.”
As Barrie requested in the notes for the play, one actor plays both Hook and Wendy’s father. But it is Hook and Peter who are truly linked. Wendy observes that Peter has no unhappy thoughts and Hook has no happy ones. Hook tells Peter, “You will die alone and unloved, just like me.”
All of this is there to give depth and resonance to an enchanting classic story which is lovingly, even tenderly told in a movie that will become a classic itself. Thrilling adventure, touching drama, and delightful comedy will give audiences of all ages all the happy thoughts and fairy dust it takes to fly.
Parents should know that the movie has a lot of fantasy violence, including swordfights, guns, and hitting below the belt. Pirates are killed. There is a brief graphic image of Captain Hook’s amputated arm as he puts on one of his hooks. We see boys’ bare behinds. There are a couple of sweet kisses and some subtle references to puberty. Characters drink and smoke and a pirate offers liquor and cigars to a child.
Families who see this movie should talk about why someone might not want to grow up. What do grown-ups do to keep the best part of childhood inside themselves? Is that what Barrie was doing in writing this story? There is a lot of talk about feelings in this movie. What does it mean to say that fairies can only feel one thing at a time? Why does Wendy tell Peter that she thinks Captain Hook is “a man of feeling?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy comparing it to other versions of the story, including the Disney animated musical (but parents should be aware that it includes material that is insensitive about girls and Indians by today’s standards) and the live-action musical, which is available on video starring Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. But stay away from Steven Spielberg’s sour Hook, an unfortunate variation starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter who returns to confront Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. For more about Peter Pan, try this site or this one.
Families might also enjoy other movies with similar themes, including Mary Poppins and Gigi.