Uniquely jacked into a ripe sense of antique-nursery Victoriana and buzzing with a pre-adolescent metaphoric charge, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a primary text of modern culture, and P.J. Hogan’s live-action rendition is the only one, screen or stage, to completely uncage this changeling and give it flight. Unburdened by the play’s odd cross-dressing imperative and the wretched Disney fusion of bad songs and worse slapstick, much less Hook‘s horrific Robin Williams menopause, the new movie is a toy-shop delirium, fastidious about an artisanal universe conjured from the loveliest rainy-day nap dreams of Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth, right down to the Jolly Roger’s climactic, moonlit plow through the thick sea of London fog.
But perhaps I’m not to be trusted—everyone has their genre fetishes, and 19th-century (or faux-19th-century) Barrie-Carroll-Baum-Maeterlinck-Burnett faerie lit, as well as its Romantic art and ad imagery, is one of mine. Even so, Hogan’s grasp of his milieus—Barrie’s treasure-map landscape and the interior castles of imaginative children—is confident and respectful. There’s no effort to contemporize or truckle. Certainly, the script (co-written by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg) shapes Barrie’s somewhat inert narrative into a brisk race between airborne sword fights and pubescent epiphanies, and Hogan never belabors a joke or shortchanges a moment of budding emotional crisis. Sure, Jeremy Sumpter makes for a particularly obnoxious Peter, but shouldn’t the ultimate self-made Lost Boy be a goddamn brat?
As a voluptuous, mouse-squeaky Tinkerbell—outsexing Disney’s Marilyn-derived sprite—Ludivine Sagnier is the film’s crudest gag, but Hogan never goes for cute because pretend-nasty is the reality of playtime. Hook, played with dignified zest by Jason Isaacs, actually gets to summary-execute dim-witted crew members; Tink, like the menacing, Brian Froudian mermaids, is a functioning kid-id, capable of spite and homicide. The notion that the Lost Boys represent a sort of Lord of the Flies degeneration—Wendy’s little brothers, once inculcated, begin to refer to her as “mother”—isn’t neglected. Surprisingly devoted to the Barrie original, Hogan is also wide awake to its expressions of childhood joy and fear, and properly places Wendy (the toothsome and bruisingly lovely Rachel Hurd-Wood) center stage. On the edge of puberty (with “a woman’s chin,” her aunt proclaims) and fraught with its twin dramas of abandonment and fulfillment, this Wendy may be the warrior queen of nursery movies, bravely facing the pre-teen’s beautiful sacrifices with an open heart.
Hogan’s something of a daydream believer: Just as his previous comedies tended to burst into surreal song (the helium styling of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” in My Best Friend’s Wedding was a high point), this movie’s dizzying visual luxury is its own justification. Peter and Wendy reaching, Michelangelo-ish, toward each other outside the window in the Darling brood’s maiden flying voyage; their midair, fairy-gilded waltz in the forest (even Hook is moved); the giant lunging alligator silhouetted against the full moon; the aforementioned schooner taking to the skies and navigating around Big Ben on its way home—Edward Robert Hughes would be impressed.
Aptly enough, the save-Tink audience chant “I do believe . . . ” is salvaged by an ecstatic, world-spanning montage that emphasizes the story’s ecumenical relevance. Best of all, Hogan’s Peter Pan isn’t truly a fantasy—it’s a self-knowing whimsy. We and the characters are all well aware that the hodgepodge of pirates and Indians and clouds fit for sitting are merely trifles invented to obscure the difficult facts of living. Kind of like movies themselves.