Pan-tastic

James Parker

What the hell? That P.J. Hogan’s splen­did Peter Pan appears to be van­ish­ing, uni­corn-like, from our malls and mul­ti­plex­es, hav­ing recouped but a por­tion of its fan­tas­ti­cal cost — that over the hol­i­day sea­son it basi­cal­ly tanked — is cer­tain­ly a sor­ry symp­tom of something.

But what?

A mass fail­ure of taste? Or has the movie-going pub­lic, long preyed upon by phan­tas­mal focus groups, final­ly and con­clu­sive­ly frag­ment­ed into demo­graph­ic shards, sliv­ers of pop­u­la­tion each with its own needs and jargon?

What can­not be cat­e­go­rized will die a sure death at the box office, and Hogan’s ver­sion of J.M. Barrie’s mas­ter­piece is — looked at in a cer­tain dim way — un-niched, unmar­ketable. This is no Shrek or Mon­sters Inc., dop­ing out the kid­dies while lob­bing over the odd smirk for their adult guardians. Hogan, con­de­scend­ing to no one, allows the full wattage of the orig­i­nal to shine though, in all the rich­ness of its high lan­guage and the strange­ness of its con­ceits. The men who green-light­ed him must be wring­ing their hands.

In Barrie’s Peter Pan—first staged in 1904, nov­el­ized (by Bar­rie him­self) in 1911 and filmed uncer­tain­ly ever since — we rec­og­nize with­in sec­onds the hall­marks of the authen­tic children’s clas­sic. We get the sense, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, of a super­abun­dance of ener­gy and an almost ruth­less econ­o­my of theme: All chil­dren, except one, grow up.”

There it is, the begin­ning and the end of it, and all an able film­mak­er has to do is let it pass unman­gled through his hands.

Hogan does this, but he also does some exquis­ite work of his own. Bar­rie wrote that a good sto­ry should not be large and sprawly, you know, with a tedious dis­tance between one adven­ture and anoth­er, but nice­ly crammed.” And in the pac­ing and lay­er­ing of his nar­ra­tive Hogan cap­tures this per­fect­ly. Scene by scene we feel Barrie’s unblink­ing pil­ing-on of weird­ness, the dream­like com­pres­sion of events and sur­plus vivid­ness pro­duced around Neverland.

Hogan also gets some excel­lent per­for­mances. Jere­my Sumpter as Peter is as bright and heart­less and defen­sive­ly brash as Bar­rie could have wished. If there is a tin­ni­ness to his per­for­mance it is the tin­ni­ness of Peter’s own shal­low nature. He has the sting­ing humors of an Ariel, spurn­ing adult­hood as Ariel in Shakespeare’s Tem­pest spurned her mis­tress Syco­rax. Ariel was con­fined to a cloven pine, but Peter is at his god­less lib­er­ty, fly­ing high and crow­ing of his own cleverness.

In his first draft of the play, Bar­rie had no Hook at all: Peter him­self was the vil­lain, a demon boy” swoop­ing in the sashed win­dows. All the nec­es­sary bad­ness, the nec­es­sary spite, was in Peter, and Hook was mere stagecraft. 

So Jason Isaacs plays the pirate in all his fatal super­fluity, as a sort of deplet­ed rock star, drained and sigh­ing, test­ing the edge of his hook with an almost-numb fin­ger­tip. He seems to lack life, to have been brought into being at the cru­el whim of the child-god, for sport. His galleon and crew are ice­bound off the shore of Nev­er­land, in sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion as it were, until Peter returns from Lon­don, at which point Hook resumes his role as the jad­ed spon­sor of Peter’s buc­ca­neer dreams.

Isaacs, fol­low­ing con­ven­tion, also plays Mr. Dar­ling, father to Wendy, Michael and John. Oh the awful half­ness of Mr. Dar­ling, that crip­ple of adult­hood! We see him at home, out­num­bered, where the chan­de­liers trem­ble to the pound­ing of lit­tle feet. We see him at work, at the bank, shrink­ing before the god-like board of direc­tors, with its galaxy of white whiskers. I must become a man that chil­dren fear and adults respect!” he cries out. And then comes his ghast­ly moment of self-asser­tion: White-faced and brit­tle, he casts the dog/​nurse Nana out into the cold. (This is the trig­ger inci­dent that sends his chil­dren through the win­dow with Peter.)

Rachel Hurd-Wood plays Wendy, and she is dead-on: lus­trous, toothy, flow­ing­ly night­gowned and grave­ly excit­ed by vio­lence. Peter may have his Ariel moods, but it is Wendy who is Barrie’s Pros­pero: Her nurs­ery sto­ries cast the spell, lift­ing her lis­ten­ers into the dream­state, and it is she who takes the deci­sion to return from Nev­er­land to gen­tly con­duct her broth­ers back to an enriched and clar­i­fied reality.

All togeth­er now: One … two … three … Will you be my mother?”

James Park­er, an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor, is the author of Turned On: A Biog­ra­phy of Hen­ry Rollins
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH