Peter Pans Out

The new live-action version of "Peter Pan" doesn't try to come up with a radical new twist on the tale, the way Spielberg did when he cast 40-year-old Robin Williams to play a corporate Peter in the misguided "Hook." Directed by the Australian P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding," "My Best Friend's Wedding"), this version tries to be faithful the original J. M. Barrie material. Yet it does feel different from other "Peter Pans." In the musical and almost every live-action version, Peter has been played by a girl or a woman. Here he's an actual boy (14-year-old Jeremy Sumpter), and this turns out to make all the difference. For now the Peter/Wendy relationship has a romantic and sexual undercurrent that's palpable, and it allows us to look at the fable with fresh eyes.

The golden-locked Sumpter is an American, and the only cast member without a British accent. This is surely no accident; it serves to further offset his anarchic energy from the veddy British members of the Darling family whom he wafts off to Neverland. He's a pretty-boy pagan Pan. He enters the film--literally bouncing off the walls and ceiling of the children's bedroom in the Darling's London townhouse--like a prepubescent glam rocker who knows all eyes are on him.

Wendy, wonderfully played by newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood, is a girl on the cusp of womanhood, and her interest in this flying, scantily clad boy is, from the start, frankly amorous. In Neverland, this becomes explicit when she tries to get her reluctant crush to talk about his feelings, and he explodes in anger at her and her sex. "Why do you always have to spoil things?" He's a boy, for god's sake, who just wants to have fun and play pirates and damn all this talk about feelings! This "Peter Pan," more than any other, makes you understand what The Peter Pan Complex is all about. What we're watching is the origin of the battle of the sexes: Wendy and Peter are indeed two different species.

Don't think, however, that the other famous elements of Barrie's tale are short-shrifted. They're all present and accounted for: the worried Mrs. Darling (Olivia Williams) waiting at the window for her vanished children to come home. The Lost Boys. A tiny Tinker Bell ("Swimming Pool" sexpot Ludivine Sagnier) more ornery and malicious than you might remember. And of course, the scary Captain Hook, played by Jason Isaacs, who also takes the role, as tradition dictates, of the timid, undemonstrative patriarch Mr. Darling.

Hogan's movie starts at a dangerously high energy level. At first I feared that Barrie's time-tested tale would be overwhelmed by crass slapstick and an overreliance on special effects. If the punchily staged action in the Darling household--a strange place where the family dog is dressed and treated as the children's Nanny--verges toward the cartoonish, what over-the-top spectacles would Neverland bring? The good news is that Hogan keeps the reins on the CGI, not letting it overwhelm the story. Well, for the most part. True, Captain Hook now acquires a surprising ability to fly, like his young nemesis, and the crocodile that did off with his hand is halfway to dragonhood. But Hogan deftly balances the scares, the comedy, the love story and the action, and he comes up with up with some truly magical noncomputerized images, too, such as the sinister Asiatic mermaids that pop out of a dark Neverland lagoon. Production designer Roger Ford and cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine paint a storybook world in rich, deeply saturated colors that may call to mind the Technicolor movies of the 1950s.

Isaacs--expertly villainous in "The Patriot" and the last Harry Potter--wisely resists the temptation to play Hook as a camp figure. This Hook has an array of artificial claws he screws onto the stub of his arm; like a man choosing his wardrobe, he selects the metallic extensions (double blade or single?) appropriate to the day's evil deed. Isaacs cuts a dashing, sinister figure, and Richard Brier's comic Smee, addressing wry asides to the audience, makes a fine foil. Not to mention the memorable mechanical parrot.

I don't want to oversell this "Peter Pan:" it flies by fleetly pleasantly, gracefully, but doesn't quite soar. Sumpter is in and out: sometimes exuberantly inside Peter's skin, at other moments self-consciously adrift. But Hogan has managed to remain faithful to Barrie's Edwardian spirit without making him feel musty. Some parents may be uncomfortable with a subtly eroticized "Peter Pan," but the truth is it's probably only the parents who will notice--and adolescent girls, who will love it. The little boys, of course, will only see swordfights and pirate ships and flights across the sky, and ignore the mushy parts. Some things never change. Which is one reason "Peter Pan" never seems to go out of style.