Peter Pan Review
It’s astonishing to think that there hasn’t been a live-action, sound film version of J.M. Barrie’s story before now. Yes, there was a silent version back in 1924 (available on DVD, though I haven’t seen it), the Disney animation of 1953 and according to the IMDB at least four TV productions. But nothing on the big wide screen for the last fifty years unless you count Steven Spielberg’s Hook, which I don’t and you shouldn’t.
So here it is then, two major distributors’ big hope for Christmas 2003, intended to lure away families with children too young to see Return of the King. In charge of it all is an interesting choice: P.J. Hogan, an Australian director more associated with blacker-than-you-might-think romantic comedies (Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding) than big-budget spectacle. The cast is headed by Jason Isaacs, by tradition doubling up as both Mr Darling and Captain Hook, and there’s a solid supporting cast of well-known British and Australian character actors...plus French actress Ludivine Sagnier as Tink. In addition to the ones listed above, Geoffrey Palmer turns up as Mr Darling’s unsympathetic boss and Bruce Spence as one of the pirates. But the film depends ultimately on two youngsters. Departing from the stage convention of having an adult woman play Peter, we have a genuine teenage boy in the role, Jeremy Sumpter (who was one of Bill Paxton’s children in Frailty). Thirteen-year-old Rachel Hurd-Wood makes her film debut as Wendy.
It begins very well, with Saffron Burrows’s narration effortlessly taking us back to a storybook Edwardian London. Due to Donald McAlpine’s camerawork and Roger Ford’s production design, it certainly looks splendid. The filmmakers are certainly aware of growing-into-womanhood subtexts, even if they are likely to go over the heads of most of the children in the audience. But unfortunately the film doesn’t sustain itself, and it seems like too many creative compromises have been made along the way from script to projection lamp. Jeremy Sumpter’s American accent jars (did they thing too many Brits in the cast wouldn’t sell in the States) and more crucially the chemistry between his Peter and Wendy doesn’t really come across. On her own, Rachel Hurd-Wood is a fine Wendy, spirited and characterful and not blandly pretty in a way that would tilt the film too far towards Disney cuteness. Presumably no-one could resist using Nana the St Bernard in a series of Beethoven-like misadventures. Every so often, there are flashes of what might have been, but this excursion into Neverland is a curate’s egg.