The advent of the latest, disastrous, iteration of JM Barrie’s classic had me wondering if the whole idea of translating the story to screen is doomed, and that Disney simply got lucky first time. So in dutifully investigating a few previous versions, I began with one I hadn’t caught before; PJ Hogan’s commendably faithful attempt, as much as Joe Wright’s is entirely disrespectful. Well, partially commendably. Perhaps a mid-ground between diligence to the original text and invention is the optimum path, as Hogan’s picture is admirable in many respects – and vastly superior to Wright’s – but still fails to quite distil magic.
Pan can take some comfort that this Peter was no more successful; some sources give it as being even more expensive (adjusting for inflation); $130m budget according to Wikipedia, while Box Office Mojo offers a more conservative $100m. Either way, that’s not peanuts. The outlay seems the more absurd given that Peter Pan conspires to follow the tradition of other live action adaptations, such that it looks highly artificial, limited and stage-bound for much of the time. The effects are very variable, ranging from the rather good (the crocodile) to the not so (London and Neverland look like advent calendar animations, such that one wonders if this was intentional). You’re left wondering where all the money went (some blame the art department eating up the budget and causing overruns).
One is also led to speculate whether Hogan, being Australian, has a natural affinity for ungainly slapstick, and if that’s common to his fellow nationals or just the ones with his surname. Probably not the latter, as there are points where this could have been directed by Baz Lurhmann, such is the frenetically whacky action (which, lacking comic timing, makes it mostly unfunny). Peter (Jeremy Sumpter), darting about after his shadow, or Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) flitting hither and thither and pulling exaggerated faces is more suggestive of Drop Dead Fred than a hallowed classic (Hogan wrote the screenplay with Michael Goldenberg, also credited with the adaption of Contact, the fourth Harry Potter and – ahem – Green Lantern).
But Peter Pan is also quite deferent to the source material, getting to grips with the highs and lows of a boy who refuses to grow up (“Will they send me to school. And then, to an office? Then I shall be a man”; succinctly put), the tragic side of that position, his strange oedipal longing for Wendy (he and the Lost Boys wish to adopt her as their mother, while they see him as their father; “Mother and father are fighting again”), and her consequent distress that he feels nothing for her.
The screenplay even lends Hook substance, a man whose greatest fear is loneliness and who is even able to commiserate with Wendy at one point (and she, indicative that she wants more than Peter is willing to offer, finds him entrancing) and plot with Tinkerbell.
Which rather shows up the picture’s biggest failing. It’s highly episodic, and often incidental, taking in escapes, captures, being entertained by Hook, and his attempt to poison Peter; all of them are accurate to Barrie’s sacred text but fail to finesse themselves into a picture with much momentum. There’s also the issue of serving stage play elements that don’t perhaps works so well on the big screen (all together now; “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do”). It’s a mistake to trust goodwill in the theatrical template, and the panto aspects of Peter Pan can’t necessarily be relied upon to win over little rascals in an alternate medium.
Such was their studiousness, Hogan and Goldenberg even shot an ultimately unused epilogue where Peter returns to Wendy. Peeved that she is now grown and married, he takes her daughter to Neverland as his new “mother”. What is included, in contrast to Wright, who blanched at the implications, is Tiger Lilly being an Indian, or a “savage”; Hogan is happy to go there. Probably, again, because he’s Australian, and insensitive to such things.
Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) all provide creditable performances, the former particularly so (Hurd-Wood is the only one of the trio who has acted since). They’re all impossibly posh, another aspect Wright eschewed with his ragamuffin Peter. Who is here played by the very Californian (or Aryan, as you will) looking Jeremy Sumpter. His American twang gives the character a kind of inverse exoticism, I guess. Sumpter certainly handles the role better than Levi Miller would recently. Nevertheless, he still isn’t really able to lend much depth to the character. Hogan, for all his willingness to chart a course for the dark side, is too enamoured of the fizzy pop elements to abide there for long.
The adults mostly score solidly. Jason Isaacs cuts a better Hook than Darling. Indeed, as the former he comes on like a dishevelled ex-rock star, and one might think he’d been watching Johnny Depp had this not come out the same year as the first Pirates of the Caribbean. His Hook is mostly great fun, differentiated and worthy by being more dangerous and inelegant than Hoffman’s incarnation. The most memorable lines are his (“Growing up is such a barbarous business”, mocking Peter’s ephemerality in the eyes of others; “There is another in your place. He is called husband”), and as he opines that Pan will “die alone and unloved, just like me”, you almost feel sympathy for the brute. As Darling, a man who has put his dreams away in a drawer, to sacrifice them for his family, he’s more successful as the repressed man than the one who rediscovers himself in the final scene.
Richard Briers makes a genial fist of things as an elderly Smee, even breaking the fourth wall at one point (“Very exciting, two dead already”). Olivia Williams, and particularly Lynn Redgrave (as a specially created character, Aunt Millicent) are affecting, while Saffron Burrows’ narration is perfectly pitched. But, while this a well-intentioned adaptation, and it’s unlikely the planned Disney live-action retake will be anywhere near as observant of the finer details, Hogan lacks the vision to bring it off. It may be that the material defeats the medium, that the heightened manner of the stage or animation is a better canvas. It certainly got the better of Spielberg, and everyone thought he would be the perfect fit. Peter Pan feels like Hogan inhaled a mouthful of fairy dust and spat it across the screen; it’s brightly coloured and energetic, but also garish and visually undisciplined.