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Thursday, December 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Lovely, wistful journey to Neverland and back
By Moira Macdonald
"Peter, it's perfectly lovely the way you talk about girls," says Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), smiling alluringly at the boy-who-never-grew-up (Jeremy Sumpter) as he peers at her through a heart-shaped hole in the footboard of her bed. Hmm ... is adolescence making an early appearance in this "Peter Pan" story? Should we be rushing the kiddies out of the theater?
No, P.J. Hogan's lush new version of J.M. Barrie's beloved tale mostly keeps romance in the background (though grown-ups might be forgiven for developing a wee crush on Jason Isaacs' smoldering Captain Hook). But there's definitely more than a hint here of swooniness, mostly confined to meaningful glances and sudden moments of realization. Even Wendy's little brother John (Harry Newell), given a chaste kiss from Princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray), suddenly smooths back his hair in a manly way and looks transformed; like he's been given a glimpse of lands previously unexplored.
Otherwise, this is a traditional, faithful and very British rendition of "Peter Pan," from the Victorian candy-box London scenes to the green darkness of Neverland.
Little children may find it a bit scary Hook's hook is very sinister indeed, and the young characters endure some genuinely nail-biting peril but it's a warmhearted and often magical adventure.
Hogan, best known for "Muriel's Wedding" and "My Best Friend's Wedding," has filled his film with winsome faces. Olivia Williams, with her perfect English-rose complexion, makes a lovely Mrs. Darling; one wonders how the nebbishy Mr. Darling (a bespectacled Isaacs, in a nifty double turn) managed to land such a dish. Sumpter doesn't display much range as Peter perhaps he's hampered by the idea of playing a young man entirely free of adolescent emotion, or maybe by all that product in his hair but he's a charmer, peering at Wendy through slightly lowered eyelids, wondering what this strange creature might be.
Isaacs, all black curls and swarthy strides (he looks uncannily like choreographer Mark Morris, garbed for some fantastical pirate dance), is less over-the-top and more scary than this year's other screen pirate, Johnny Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean"). In one scene, he eyes the hapless Smee (Richard Briers) and slowly reaches up with his hook to push Smee's glasses back in place on his nose; you can feel the resulting shivers. And Ludivine Sagnier (the oft-naked nymph of "Swimming Pool"), in the nonspeaking role of Tinker Bell, mugs and pouts and sparkles like a hardworking silent-film star.
For all its sweetness, there's tragedy at the heart of "Peter Pan," conveyed quite poignantly here: Peter hovers outside the window in the final scenes, watching Wendy, Michael, John and all the Lost Boys being welcomed home by Mr. and Mrs. Darling, knowing that they are going where he cannot follow.
But there's an even more devastating moment a little earlier, just for the adults in the audience. Williams, keeping watch at the window since the children's disappearance, wakes suddenly from a nap, her eyes glowing. "I dreamed my little ones were back," she says, tearing our hearts out. It's true and not true; they're back but ever-changing, not the same little ones any more, slowly leaving childhood and Neverland behind.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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