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Dustin Putman

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Peter Pan (2003)
3 Stars

Directed by P.J. Hogan
Cast: Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Jason Isaacs, Harry Newell, Freddie Popplewell, Olivia Williams, Lynn Redgrave, Richard Briers, Ludivine Sagnier, Geoffrey Palmer, Carsen Gray, Theodore Chester, Rupert Simonian, George MacKay, Harry Eden, Patrick Gooch, Lachlan Gooch
2003 – 113 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 26, 2003.

Better-known fantasy tales exists, but the story of "Peter Pan" has remained timeless throughout the years, originating in a book by J.M. Barrie. Cinematic incarnations have arose since, most notably the 1953 Disney animated feature, the 1960 Mary Martin-starrer, and Steven Spielberg's 1992 reimagining "Hook." This 2003 version, directed by P.J. Hogan (1997's "My Best Friend's Wedding"), is superior to all of those, and may just be the best filmed adaptation to date. It is sharply paced, endlessly beautiful to gaze at, and actually stars a young male adolescent in the title role—a first, indeed, as all previous actors have, for reasons unknown, been actresses or adult men. As mesmerizing as the picture is visually, what stands out most vitally is its portrait of two preteens on the verge of adulthood who experience their first love. There is real sexual tension felt without it having to be overt, and the bittersweet romance remains innocent and utterly charming throughout.

As written by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, the film strays very little from the source material, a positive thing until the faulty final scenes. For Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a 12-year-old girl who still enjoys childhood things but is being pressured to act more like a lady from her Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave), a chance at never growing up comes in the form of everlasting boy Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter). Wendy meets Peter one night as he spies on her in her bedroom, and before long they have made friends and he has convinced she and her younger brothers, John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell), to fly away with him to Neverland, a place where they will never have to grow up.

Once in Neverland, Peter resumes his ongoing feud with the nefarious Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs), a squabble that grows more intense when Hook suddenly sets his sight on Wendy. Meanwhile, Wendy discovers that the longer she stays gone from her home, the more she comes to forget her parents and the place she comes from. Is the chance of a constant childhood worth losing all memories of the ones you love? And is not wanting to grow up nothing more than a reluctancy at taking on responsibility? Such are the tough questions Wendy and her brothers will have to decide; that is, if they survive the wrath of Captain Hook and his pirate henchmen first.

"Peter Pan" is a purely and simply magical motion picture that, tied with "Elf," is also the best live-action family film of the year. The exuberance director P.J. Hogan brings to the story, and the imagination he has brought to Barrie's images, is infectious. Nearly every shot is jam-packed with special effects work, all of it intentionally stylized and reminiscent of Tim Burton's oeuvre, but that doesn't make it any less impressive. There are images on display here, in fact, that are awe-inspiring and unforgettable, such as a ship setting sail across the clouds above London, and the trip across time and space to Neverland. Another sequence in which Peter and Wendy drift up into the sky as they dance together among the fairies in the forest is, in a word, lovely.

All the exceptional visuals in the world would mean nothing, though, if there wasn't an identifiable human story to place them within. As Peter Pan and Wendy, Jeremy Sumpter (2002's "Frailty") and newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood are more than up to the challenge. Sumpter is appropriately boyish and mischievous, but there is a hint of sadness underneath his gleeful exterior that really fleshes him out into a believable entity. He also has a smile that could light up a citywide blackout. And Hurd-Wood is a real find, touching and resourceful as Wendy without the faintest glimmer of amateurishness.

The blossoming friendship and ultimate love that grows between Peter and Wendy is so natural and enchanting that it sets up the movie's one disappointment—the ending. It may be truthful to the book, but that doesn't mean it was the right decision there, either. And without blatantly giving the finale away, I ask this: Is Peter's choice justified, or does it threaten to undermine the whole point of the premise? Judging by the unmistakable connection Peter and Wendy have, I'd have to side with the latter.

This quibble aside, "Peter Pan" is top-notch entertainment that does not talk down to kids and can be enjoyed just as much, if not more, by adults. The film is adventurous and action-packed, yes, but it is also a thoughtful rumination on innocence and the questioned loss of such as one transitions into adulthood. Director P.J. Hogan's pacing is economical in the best way: he trusts his audience enough that he does slow things down at times to develop the characters and themes, yet there is always another rousing swordfight or crocodile chase around the corner. "Peter Pan" is a highly successful adaptation, filled with enough wonder and excitement to make it an end-of-the-year holiday treat. And if it's family fare you're seeking, see this and skip the dreadful, condescending "Cheaper by the Dozen." You can thank me later.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman