The Latest Peter Pan

P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan is actually quite good. It's one of those movies that came and (blink your eyes) went in the theatres. Such movies are usually up for grabs, worth-wise. I'm not one to automatically pooh-pooh popularity. Popularity is a fairly good starting point for whether something is good or not. But occasionally, popular things can be dreadful and unpopular things can be quite good. Peter Pan falls into the latter category.

I can see why it didn't last that long. It's such an overdone show (even Johnny Dep's Neverland didn't last long, but then doing a story about J.M. Barrie is kind of asking for trouble), what with Robin Williams and Disney and the musical, etc. etc. etc. And it's a bit of a pity because there are several things about Hogan's Peter Pan that are worthwhile.

First, the script is excellent. It was written by someone who not only understood the book (not the musical but the book itself) but also seemed to understand Barrie. The story is the story of what happens when a budding young girl meets, well, J.M. Barrie; what happens is that the budding young girl decides that hanging out with a perpetual 13 year old boy isn't all its cracked up to be, and the boy (if he is Barrie) runs screaming for cover. In other words, it’s the perspective of Barrie that Barrie would have had if he'd ever grown up, which he didn't (although I think he suspected all this anyway). In other words, the story is about sexuality. Or, to be more exact, the awareness of sexuality. This theme isn't underscored, but it is definitely there, which may be one reason the movie failed. It's a children's movie with an adult theme, and although they get away with that sort of thing at Pixar, it's harder to get away with when people aren't expecting it. (For some reason, that I've never understood, Peter Pan is seen as somehow "safe" for children, unlike the Narnia books where they've got all those wars and things. But I say that no good children's book is safe, and Peter Pan, which I don't even especially like, is no exception.) In any case, the script is true to the essence of the book.

The other plus is the actors. The Lost Boys act exactly like boys. They aren't too cutesy or too Lord of the Flies-ish. Jason Isaacs plays Hook, an excellent choice. Jason Isaacs is Malfoy's dad in the second Harry Potter movie. (Every time I see him, he's playing roles with long hair.) He's got a lovely voice and is quite handsome, which is, interestingly enough, part of the point of the movie (as a counterpoint to Pan). The boy who plays Pan, a charismatic little creature, is appealing despite the usual bombastic Pan quality. He also manages to capture the pathos of Pan, which isn't the easiest thing in the world for a 13 year old.

And Richard Briers—ah, yes, Richard Briers as Smee! Which brings us to the third plus which is that the movie is funny. Yes, funny! There's a number of sotto voce lines, and Richard Briers gets to give several of them. He's beginning to slow down. (He was 70 when he did Peter Pan.) But he still has the twinkle. Quite a remarkable guy and deserves, I think, a more illustrious reputation than he has. But he did comedy most of his life, and I don't suppose comedy gets one a knighthood (actually, it got Paul Eddington a knighthood but it took him longer than Nigel Hawthorne, who probably got it as much for The Madness of King George as for Yes, Prime Minister).

Finally, the extras are pretty good. I've become wary of extras, especially commentary, but the Peter Pan extras (some of them quite short) are actually worthwhile. They show you how the kids flew. They show you how they put the mermaids together. They give you some behind the scenes stuff. Very light, very unpretentious, very short and lots of it.


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