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Peter Pan

All children grow up. Except for one.

As a substitute for "once upon a time," those words will do. Warmly and wistfully intoned by actress Saffron Burrows, they pull the viewer into director P.J. Hogan's classical take on Peter Pan. Appropriately enough for a story that comes from both a play and a book by the same author, the film feels like stepping into a storybook, and yet set on a stage that goes on as far as the imagination needs it to go.

It's one of those stories that everybody thinks they know, and Hogan acknowledges it. All the major elements are here, even the fearsome Indian tribe. Working from a screenplay co-written with Michael Goldenberg, the director has added depth only hinted at in previous screen versions. At times this makes the whole proceedings a little heavy for a movie so otherwise sparkling with faerie dust, but the weight also results in a rare family film that will reward repeated viewing.

For the first time, a Peter Pan adaptation addresses the terrors of growing up from both sides of the table. Of course becoming an adult is scary to a child, fraught with responsibilities and lacking in fun. From the parent's point of view, though, a sense of loss is felt as their offspring put away childish things. Yes, it's a classic crossroads moment when father George Darling (Jason Isaacs) declares Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) will spend her last night in the nursery. On the cusp of womanhood, the girl gets the choice to suspend her life by following Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) to Neverland.

What she doesn't count on is the experience teaching her the value of growing up. Where Hogan takes us that is new is showing us the pain and loss of her parents, fearing their children will never return. In reality, that's what growing up means, and thankfully younger children probably won't understand the metaphor. But it adds rich texture to this familiar tale, and also creates a Captain James Hook (Isaacs again) who embodies the worst fears of what adulthood will hold.

Lest you think this is somehow dank and dreary, it's not. Taking an opposite approach from Peter Jackson, Hogan heightens the presence of computer imagery. At no point does any exterior feel the slightest bit genuine, but it works. It's the same technique used by Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge. By calling attention to the artifice, somehow, we're freer to revel in its imagination. This is theater, with cotton candy clouds in a too-blue sky that are just as at home on the ceiling of the nursery as they are over the skies of a London that never quite was - and of course, triumphantly, hanging over Neverland.

The other-dimensional island is populated with fresh takes on the characters that conversely look straight out of 1910. These are not Disney's mermaids that swim in the lagoon; instead, you cannot doubt Peter's warning that the eerie beauties would as soon drown you as say hello. Though there is whimsy in the design of the pirates, it's still mixed with the grotesque. And while the mugging Ludivine Sagnier as Tinker Bell may have a modern girl's cuteness, the rest of the faerie realm look straight out of the infamous "photos" that fooled England in the early years of the twentieth century. But it's a dare not to be completely sucked in as Peter takes Wendy to observe a faerie ball, a moment when both their burgeoning sexualities threaten their make-believe without destroying their innocence.

As a side note, the sound design is incredible. Do you want to convince your children (because the wife is a harder sell) that surround sound is an absolute necessity in your home? When this movie hits video, this may be the one to push it over the edge. Half the fun of the crocodile comes from hearing that ticking behind you, before Hook does. Unless you're seeing it in a crappy theater with bad sound. And when the crocodile does appear, he's magnificent. It really is like seeing an incredible stage production from the early twentieth century, when budgets weren't nearly as important as spectacle.

The film does take a little while to get going, for Hogan has chosen to make Peter Pan a stranger to the Darling household. Parts of the story usually left offstage play out onscreen, including the initial loss of Peter's shadow. Instead, the stories that Wendy tells are almost feminist variations of other familiar ones - Cinderella, for example, fights off a pirate horde before living happily ever after with her prince. (Another case of foreshadowing for anybody who cares to look for it.)

Storywise, the only odd addition is Lynn Redgrave as Aunt Millicent, a character that exists to plant the seeds of Wendy's exile from the nursery. She seems to serve only as a crutch that allows George to seem not so much villainous (from the kids' point of view) as easily pushed around. It does weaken the idea of Hook being a projection of George's exaggerated bad side in his children's mind.

That weakening, however, is more than balanced out by Isaacs' incredible performance. Playing Hook as a dissipated sot more self-aware than usual, the actor wrings out some surprisingly subtle moments, and never, thank heavens, gives a wink of irony. If anything, his George is the less believable character, owing a lot to David Tomlinson in Mary Poppins.

Of course, a lot of the film rests on younger shoulders. Sumpter plays Pan with just the right note of cockiness. Rarely called upon to show much complexity, for indeed Peter doesn't have much, his moments of uncertainty work well enough. Anchoring the whole thing, though, is Hurd-Wood, a luminous find who will no doubt have a long acting career if she wants it. The rest of the kids seem like kids, a small triumph of Hogan's directing skills that keeps them from being annoyingly precocious. Instead, they all seem real - even Princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray).

Hogan has even included the moment from the play in which the audience has to assert its belief in faeries. Somehow he finds a way in that makes the moment a joyful surprise. You may not walk out of this movie believing in faeries (nor should you, necessarily), but you will believe in a director who managed to maintain a sense of wonder.

All children grow up. But a master storyteller can make us forget that we did for a couple of hours.


Derek McCaw

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