In a movie world so overrun by dazzling visual effects that they’ve started to become ho-hum, director P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan” stands out as a vibrant, refreshing fantasy-landscape.
Rather than angling for the faux realism of computer-generated epics such as the “Lord of the Rings” and “Matrix” franchises, Hogan (”My Best Friend’s Wedding”) aims for over-the-rainbow whimsy, creating a Neverland that’s off-kilter and occasionally wondrous to behold.
It’s a world where children rest on clouds to spy on those below, the heavens are crowded with a galaxy of fanciful planets, and tiny fairies light up a forest like high-voltage fireflies.
Imagery aside, viewers’ enjoyment of “Peter Pan” depends heavily on their tolerance for excessively cute ragamuffin children in full prancing mode.
Welcome casting departure
Peter is played by 14-year-old Jeremy Sumpter, a welcome departure from casting petite women in stage versions, but he and his Lost Boys are so preciously mischievous, their antics become an emotional drain on the story.
While the live-action version remains virtually as family-friendly as Disney’s 1953 animated musical adaptation, Hogan’s take adheres more closely to J.M. Barrie’s text. So grown-ups can look a little beyond the “Second Star to the Right” sentiment at Barrie’s darker themes of Edwardian repression, seduction and awakening sexuality among adolescents.
Those elements center on Wendy Darling (13-year-old Rachel Hurd-Wood in a delightful acting debut), a brash London girl whose spunk is at odds with the proper household her father (Jason Isaacs), a toady bank clerk, seeks to maintain with his loving wife (Olivia Williams).
Peter — the boy who won’t grow up, whose perpetually happy thoughts allow him to fly — sniffs around Wendy’s bedroom window at night, reveling in the fairy tales she shares with her younger brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell).
One night, Peter whisks the Darling kids off to his home in Neverland, where Wendy becomes “Mother” to the rambunctious Lost Boys and rival for Peter’s attentions to winged fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier).
Pirate hijinksWhen not-so-dread pirate Captain Hook (also played by Isaacs) makes his latest sortie against archnemesis Peter, Wendy becomes the object in a tug of war between a figure of eternal youth and hopefulness and one of adult disillusionment and sourness.
Isaacs, best known for villainous roles that include the malignant wizard Lucious Malfoy in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and Mel Gibson’s vile British foe in “The Patriot,” injects a rousing mix of comedy and menace in Hook.
Hogan coaxes more smarm than necessary out of Sumpter, whose Peter occasionally irritates with his cheeky insolence. Likewise, Sagnier’s Tinkerbell is too much the bratty gnat for most of the movie.
The talented Williams is consigned to a shallow role as worried Mrs. Darling, while Lynn Redgrave is tossed in to little effect as the Darling children’s kooky aunt.
The real find is Hurd-Wood, who bears a striking resemblance to Kate Beckinsale and musters passion and expressiveness beyond her years. Peter Pan may never grow up, but Hurd-Wood already shows maturity that could spell a long, successful career.