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He's Flying Again

How well does J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan hold up in its new film version? Filichia takes a look. logo
Rachel Hurd-Wood and Jeremy Sumpter in the
new Peter Pan film
(Photo © Universal Studios)
Sometimes when I see a show, I feel as if I have one opinion and the audience has another. But now that I've seen the new movie version of Peter Pan, I can say with total assurance that my reaction was precisely that of the entire audience -- because I was the only person in the theater.

Granted, I did attend on a weeknight, when business is not at its zenith. Still, I have a feeling that whichever executive green-lit the making of this movie is now in serious job trouble. I'm surprised that someone didn't say along the way, "Uh, 2004 is a little late for a property where people say, 'I do believe in fairies.'" If the attendance at the Bellevue Cinema in Montclair, New Jersey is any indication, I'm guessing that you, too, haven't seen this new adaptation of James M. Barrie's play. May I let you know what you've missed? I promise that I'll stop talking about commerce, start on art, and applaud screenwriter-director P.J. Hogan for some innovations.

First, as has been much heralded, Peter Pan himself is played by a real boy, which had never before happened in cinema history. Even when Peter made his screen debut in 1924, actress Betty Bronson played The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. The closest film audiences ever got to a genuinely masculine Peter was through animated features, where at least the voice was provided by a male. But here's Jeremy Sumpter, whom Hogan is not afraid to show as a dirt-encrusted kid. Makes sense; Your hands and feet would get filthy, too, if you spent your time trudging around the rustic Neverland. Some time after Peter gets sliced slightly across his chest, he's shown with a realistic scab. (That chest, by the way, is almost always bare, which certainly never happened when we saw Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, or Cathy Rigby in the role.)

We've all seen many a Captain Hook, but have we ever seen the captain without his hook? This film shows the pirate's handless stump in no uncertain (albeit computer-generated) terms and spends some time letting us see him putting on a shoulder-harness contraption. No question that this is a more raw and real Peter Pan than we're used to.

The original stage Peter,
Maude Adams
But there are some naggingly unrealistic ingredients, and not just because John's top hat still doesn't fly off while he's zooming through the sky towards Neverland. Hook has that problem that's plagued all bad comic villains, such as the ones in the Batman TV series: He doesn't kill Peter when he has the chance but hesitates more than any Hamlet. This Hook spends too much time acting grandiose, especially in the way that Jason Isaacs plays him -- a variation on Mandy Patinkin's Inigo Montoya. At one point Hook has Peter cornered and is ready to stab the kid when he hears that crocodile who chomped off his right hand. He immediately loses focus and turns his attention to the animal. While I understand Hook's phobia -- that crocodile has a mouth amazingly like Audrey II's -- the Captain certainly could have slain the troublesome kid and still have had plenty of time to vamoose.

More than once, I wanted to put my arms akimbo and shout at Hook, "Why don't you go pick on someone your own size?" I mean, what's this grown man doing playing with children? He's as bad as those neighborhood bullies who couldn't compete with kids their own age and instead terrorized the younger kids on the street. At one point, Hook even harasses a tiny fairy who's standing on a tree bough and minding his own business. Hook sneaks up behind him and snarls, "There's no such thing as fairies," which results in the poor little thing having a heart attack and dropping dead. (I'll admit, that's rather funny. So is the moment after the Lost Boys discover that they've made a mistake in shooting "the Wendy Bird": While most of the lads are uttering "Tragic" or "What a shame," one of them is heard to say "Good shot, though.")

Hogan has given the script a few new details. Mr. Darling -- the father of Wendy, Michael, and John (though not Illya) -- is a low-level bank employee who's trying to advance in the company at the prodding of poor relation Aunt Millicent (well played by the reliable Lynn Redgrave). At first, this new character seems to be there solely to be the butt of Peter's impishness after he's returned to the Darling manse to reclaim his shadow. There's a nice hommage to Duck Soup when Peter protects his identity by pretending to be Aunt Millicent's shadow, which drives her crazy.

By the way, after seeing a stage production of Peter Pan at the Berkshire Theatre Festival last summer, I remarked that I didn't see why a kid would care if he lost his shadow or if he'd even notice. But this film makes Peter's wanting his shadow back seem even more unlikely: Late in the film, there's a scene where the Lost Boys know that Captain Hook is approaching because they see his shadow coming before him. So you're undoubtedly better off in the treacherous Neverland if you're shadow-less. (Actually, I suspect that all this business about Peter losing his shadow and wanting it back was simply Barrie's way of cueing us early that this was no ordinary story and that we would have to check our disbelief in the cloakroom.)

Mary Martin as a singing Peter Pan
Hook, though, gets his comeuppance -- and that's really why this property has prospered. Kids are always going to enjoy seeing kids defeat adults. Flying still represents youthfulness; children still need mothers, even though they think that they don't. Interesting, too, that Peter takes to the role of the father once Wendy is cast in the role of the mother. There's a lot of truth in Peter Pan, and if I'm bothered by certain flaws, the script itself says that "What troubles a grown-up will never trouble a child." Indeed, not until a rebroadcast of the Mary Martin Peter Pan in the mid-'70s did I notice that, while Peter was looking for his lost shadow, Martin's actual shadow could be seen on the floor of the stage.

What's missing in the new movie? Well, of course that marvelous Charlap-Comden-Green-Leigh-Styne score. Needless to say, there's no need to have that business of ducking behind the curtains in the nursery when Nana starts barking, all so that (1) Peter can get rid of the wires on which (s)he flew in and (2) Peter, Wendy, Michael, and John can have their wires connected so they can soon be airborne. There's no epilogue where Peter comes to see Wendy, who's all grown up; rather, the picture ends with all of the Lost Boys with their surrogate mother and father ready to live happily ever after. One kid finds his actual mother in the Darling household: Aunt Millicent! And if that's giving away too much, well, there's a part of me that isn't going to worry about it because you're probably not going to see the picture anyway. For what's also missing from this Peter Pan is an audience.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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