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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Peter Pan (review)

An Awfully Big Adventure

Will people freak at this film? Not that there’s anything wrong with that — people should freak at films, sometimes; it’s good to get your complacency shaken up a bit — but it’s easy to see how the self-righteous, sanctimonious, think-of-the-children cabal could get their panties in a twist over this new Peter Pan.

Cuz it’s about sex.

Cuz it’s about children.

Cuz it’s about children’s sexual feelings.

Not on the surface, of course. On the surface it’s all pirate exploits and soaring humor and fantastic monsters and flying with fairy dust and happy thoughts, passingly fun and exciting stuff that you’d forget about instantly if there weren’t something else going on, something to fascinate grownups now and to make the kids in the audience realize, 20 years from now when they watch the film again, that, Hey, there really was something mysteriously intriguing that gave you a weird tickle here.

It’s all there in the subtext, the scary-tender discovery of the bittersweet adventure of romance and attraction and, yup, even lust. And it’s not as if this new Peter Pan is anything like, say, The Cat in the Hat with its boner jokes, or like any of a thousand other “children’s” films that are tasteless and idiotic but basically harmless because they’ve got no there there. Not only is this Pan about something, it’s about that very mysteriously intriguing weird tickle that we pretend doesn’t exist, not really, despite the fact that our culture is awash in children’s movies with boner jokes in ’em. God forbid something should speak to that tickle, tell kids it’s okay to be a little afraid of it, okay to be a little afraid of having to grow up and face it.

Part of the reason there’s a whole new level of adolescent psychosexuality is because, hard as it may be to believe, for the first time ever the boy-who-won’t-grow-up is played by an actual boy. Now, to you and me, soft and pretty Jeremy Sumpter (Frailty), who plays Peter, may not be all that sexually dangerous, but give him a chance: he’s only 13 or whatever. The salient point is that 12-year-old Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood, a budding beauty) finds him interesting in a way that could never be possible — or would be downright creepy — with a skinny, flat-chested 35-year-old woman in the role. You just watch: Sumpter’s gonna be driving all the little sixth-grade girls crazy with his angelic cuteness.

As for Wendy herself, she’s not the warmly nurturing figure we’ve seen in other versions of Peter Pan — oh, sure, the Lost Boys elect her Mother, but she’s pretty derisive of the role… except, of course, with Peter elected Father, there’s an aspect to this forced joining with him that she kinda likes. But no, this Wendy is an adventuresome lass, full of sparks and with a lust for life that’s about to be squashed: her Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave: How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog) is itching to take Wendy under her wing, and raise her up right into a properly marriageable young lady. It’s a desire to escape this tomboy’s-fate-worse-than-death that sends Wendy (with her little brothers in tow) out that nighttime window with Peter into Neverland, where, it transpires, she discovers that there are things about growing up, like maybe even aspects of marriage she hadn’t considered before, that aren’t so bad. And she’s just the audacious girl to push further into exploring them.

Then there’s Captain Hook. If there was any doubt that director and coscreenwriter P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding) was looking to inject some threatening, looming sexuality into a story that hasn’t been seen that way before — he invented Aunt Millicent, who, to put it crudely, is looking to pimp Wendy out to the best man — there’s Hook. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Tuxedo) plays him with enough sinister, seductive, gorgeous menace to make us older girls catch our breath — watch how he caresses his collection of hooks; it’s both funny and bewitching — and Wendy clearly finds him very interesting, too. So interesting, in fact, that she’d very much like to go a-pirating with him, she informs him… except, she says shyly, she’d rather not do any pillaging, thank you. It can’t just be me that sees whole volumes of burgeoning, puzzling, frightening, tempting erotic passion in that.

Maybe J.M. Barrie intended all this for his story — certainly, it’s been traditional, since the first stage production he oversaw, for the same actor to play Wendy’s father as well as Captain Hook, as Isaacs does here, with all the attendant psychosexuality that implies. But it hasn’t seemed to play out that way. Here, Hogan imbues the entire production with a lush, irresistible, delicious danger — enormous crocodiles and ominous mermaids and mischievous fairies, yes, but also a heavy-lidded, ever-present, beguiling nighttime, of a child’s sense of heretofore unforeseen horizons of emotion and experience. When Peter says, “To die would be an awfully big adventure,” it’s scary and thrilling because Hogan’s led us to feel that, even if Peter might only dimly realize it, it’s actually the little death he’s speaking of.

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MPAA: rated PG for adventure action sequences and peril

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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