Jeremy Sumpter - a real boy - as the impish Peter Pan (courtesy photo)

The classic children's story 'Peter Pan' soars to new heights

Twentieth-century children's fiction - from Tolkien to Rowling - is hot box office magic. Now, the granddaddy of the genre - J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan - triumphantly returns. Those of us weaned on the now-dated, infantile Disney version or Stephen Spielberg's recent travesty are in for a surprise. Instead of a mature Mary Martin or a middle-aged Robin Williams in tights, a real boy has been cast to convey the wonder and puckish nature of the ageless Peter Pan. While the new film version is the most faithful rendering of Barrie's 100-year-old work, it is also rife with sexual tension.

No, Peter isn't a satyr, but he is named after the god Pan. Pre-Raphaelite artists rendering of forlorn maidens in mythological liaisons inform this ethereal mid-winter night's tale. When the goatish Pan first appears to Wendy Darling in a wide-awake dream, he hovers above her in a missionary position. Daydreaming in school, Wendy illustrates this intimate moment. The headmistress is aghast and reports the pubescent girl to her parents. She is grounded, and a sentence to finishing school forecasts a grim future.

Peter (Sumpter) beckons Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurl-Wood) to leave her home and grown-up rules (courtesy photo)

When Pan invites the moon-struck girl to Never-Neverland, she readily accepts without realizing she will have to fight for his affection against the already smitten fairy Tinkerbell and the aboriginal Tiger Lilly. Additionally, having Captain Hook fall for Wendy and double-casting the same actor to play her father may strike some as Freudian and Jungian overload.

"John! Michael! We're going to Neverland!"

Michael? The audience at the screening I attended groaned when Wendy informs her brothers of their magical trip to Neverland - briefly associating the scenario with the cockeyed King of Pop who once dreamed of playing Pan - only now he's playing it in real life as directed by Ed Wood. The film's final credits also reveal an odd dedication to another playboy who never grew up: Dodi Al Fayed, Princess Di's last consort. (Author Barrie is also the subject of the forthcoming Neverland, starring Johnny Depp as the Edwardian writer and set for release in 2004.)

While the new FX technology used for the flying feats is breathtaking, the cotton candy clouds and almost bluish tint are not. At times, the film's darkness makes it difficult to follow the action. For those expecting the stirring "Clocks" by Coldplay, which is heard in the film's trailer - be informed that it and a few scenes aren't in the final cut. Still, this arch Peter Pan often soars to new heights. •

Peter Pan
Dir. P.J. Hogan; writ. Hogan, Michael Goldenberg; feat. Jason Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lynn Redgrave, Richard Briers, Freddie Popplewell, Harry Newell, Ludivine Sagnier (PG)

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