Peter Pan has long since become a legend. Neverland and “I do believe in fairies” are part of childhood even now—though less so perhaps then when I was a child.
The story is well known. The Darling children, particularly Wendy who is nearing the beginning of womanhood, are all imaginative and Wendy is the driver of this, telling stories of pirates and other such material that would be completely unsuitable for middle-class Brits during the Edwardian period that followed the Victorian. Peter Pan visits the Darling household first to regain his shadow which ran away while he was basically trying to kidnap Wendy because she was a type of radio to Neverland where her stories were transmitted. From here, Wendy, John, and Michael Darling fly with Peter to Neverland. Here there are adventures, a few misadventures, sword play and a little bit of poison leading to the audience repeating the “I do believe in fairies” bit.
This sounds dismissive but it isn’t. It’s just sort of silly to go into further details about a story so well known (even if some of the legend has admitted some falsehoods over the years—certainly with the help of the Disney version).
The 2003 version of Peter Pan takes a slightly darker view of the story, and it takes advantage of a Freudian idea that was circling throughout Europe at the time—more on this in a moment. The fight scenes are not playful even if the language is. The danger for all children involved isn’t playful. And put simply enough, Neverland is not really a shiny and happy place: the forest is overgrown, the ship is under a sky that is either completely overcast or party cloudy, and the rest of the Neverland filming occurs in a couple of caves. This is not the play or the Disney version at all.
The acting was typically a bit higher than you might expect from a film intended for the 8 to 12 set. The one exception is Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy). She chews the board like half a dozen beavers in a mad rush to build a dam. The entire Darling family and the Lost Boys in Neverland are all precocious—including the adults. All scenes without Wendy work very well but once she enters the pacing shifts severely. Wendy is supposed to be a match for Peter (very well played by Jeremy Sumpter), but she is all talk and no action. I also hated the interpretation of Tinkerbel l (Ludivine Sagnier). She is there for the sole purpose of making children laugh. This is not a bad thing, but in a rather dark story, it is simply silly and is way out of place. Imagine kabuki with lots of glitter and you get the picture.
The Lost Boys shine independently and together brilliantly. Any long lasting children’s story is going to have some dark material; otherwise there would be no moral to present. Imagine them as a counterpoint to the boys in The Lord of the Flies
The sets colors are vibrant like the first two Harry Potter films; it is the main link to the childlike side of the story. Instead of being annoying, it actually makes the film pretty to look at—and the first thing a film must do is to be eye catching (otherwise, read a book and use your own imagination).
The cinematography is ok. The problem is it is too jumpy. It moves from close-ups to distant shots without grace. In the right hands the film could have had a wider scope which would make Neverland a “land” instead of a series of vaguely contiguous parts. This would contrast with the Darling household which is nice but limited in size—thus the difference between adulthood and childhood. This is one of the major failings.
Here is where the Freudian part comes in. Jason Isaacs will be immediately recognized as the despised Lucius Malfoy of the Harry Potter movies. In Peter Pan he plays both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook—both very well. Following a very messy event with the dog Nana, Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) insists that Wendy begin her education to become a proper woman who can marry within her station/class. Wendy is entirely against this, naturally (this would mean the fun she has with permissive parents would end; it would mean that she would have to admit she is growing up; and she would have to submit to someone else’s control). To sum this up, Wendy loves her father if for no other reason than that he is fun.
The brilliant stroke in this version of Peter Pan is having Mr. Isaacs play father and Hook. Oedipus Complex is very well known; the female counterpart is the Electra Complex—the girl desiring to marry a version of her father. This is so plainly but artfully presented. It places the story in its historical setting better than any amount of costume or set design could. So she can be a pirate, Wendy submits to telling Captain Hook pretty much anything he wants to know in order to please him and to be able to keep her new class/station. This is Freudian 101, but it is nevertheless effective.
The film is mostly fun, but it does drag and get repetitive in places—again, this is a call-back to the wet blanket that Wendy’s presence makes happen. Overall it is average, but at times it starts to move up the scale a bit.
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