Peter Pan: The Modern Movie

OK, I’m cheating a little bit with the title. 2003 isn’t what I’d call modern, but The Modern Movie sounds more exciting than The Most Recent Movie and a lot of the changes made by this adaptation do reflect a modern sensibility as opposed to the old fashioned spirit of the original and other adaptations.

In my last post, I described J. M. Barrie as a fundamentally ambiguous writer.[1]I’m far from a Barrie expert, but I have read some of his works besides Peter Pan which is more than many can say. It’s hard to pin down his perspective on the issues he raises. Like his most famous character, he has a way of changing sides in a fight if it seems like he’s winning too easily.[2]Another British playwright, William Shakespeare, had a similar tendency. Take the central question of Peter Pan, which is whether growing up or never doing so is the real tragedy. If you only know the story from cultural osmosis[3]Or if you know about it from Finding Neverland, a movie about the creation of Peter Pan, which feels like it was written by people who never read a word of Barrie, you probably assume its perspective is that childhood is fun and magical and adulthood is dull and boring, but this is quite the oversimplification. Barrie portrays children as charming in a way adults aren’t and they’re shown to be capable of exhilarating experiences no longer available to their elders. But children are also portrayed as callous and cruel in a way adults aren’t. Barrie describes them in the book as “the most heartless things in the world…but so attractive.” On the other hand, this callousness gives children an invulnerability that adults lack, so maybe youth really is the ideal state. But then again, isn’t it better, morally speaking, to be unselfish and vulnerable than selfish and invulnerable? Barrie sends mixed signals. In the end, he describes the Lost Boys as “goats” for not staying in Neverland and living out their exciting lives there. But he also tearjerkingly describes familial love as “the one joy from which (Peter) must be forever barred.” If adaptations, like the musical, lean in one direction more than another, it’s usually that childhood is the superior state. Universal’s 2003 Peter Pan movie is a rare adaptation that takes the opposite point of view.[4]Whether the 1953 movie takes a stand one way or the other is hard to say. It ends with Wendy cheerfully telling her father she’s now ready to grow up, but he assures her there’s no hurry.

Peter Pan Movie Poster | Peter pan 2003, Peter pan movie, Peter pan

The biggest change this adaptation makes-and there are plenty of them, but this one is overarching-is reimagining Peter Pan as a tragic love story between Peter and Wendy.[5]If a romance between children strikes you as gross, for whatever it’s worth, the actors were around fourteen at the time of filming. While Wendy certainly had a crush on Peter in the book and the play, he, not being interested in or capable of growing up, saw himself as her “devoted son” at most. In this version, the implication seems to be that Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) does have romantic feelings for Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) but suppresses them. When she tries to Define the Relationship here, he still doesn’t give her the answer she wants, but he doesn’t call himself her “devoted son” either.

The fact that growing up means the ability to fall in love, something mostly latent in the source material, becomes blatant in this movie from the second scene, in which Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) pronounces Wendy “almost a woman” because she has a first kiss “in the righthand corner of her mouth.”[6]Mrs. Darling is described as having a kiss in the same place in the book, but it’s explicitly not a romantic kiss. Who’s Aunt Millicent? Well, this adaptation splits Mr. Darling (Jason Isaacs, who doubles as Capt. Hook) into two characters. Aunt Millicent is given all his imperiousness and the actual Mr. Darling is given all his insecurity.

In keeping with modern sensibilities, this Wendy is an action heroine. In the nursery, she delights in telling pirate stories to her brothers. Her “unfulfilled ambition is to write a great novel in three parts about (her) adventures,” unlike her original counterpart whose seemingly only ambition was to be a mother, though this one still ends up taking on that role for the Lost Boys. Aunt Millicent does not approve of this and insists that Wendy spend more time with her, learning to be a respectable lady, and have a bedroom of her own. If that last part reminds you of the Disney movie’s initial setup, you’re on to something. This film takes several cues from that one. Wendy, not her mother, is again the one to see Peter Pan on the night he loses his shadow. Michael (Freddie Popplewell) brings a teddy bear along with him to Neverland, which is the subject of some amusing sight gags. A character visibly blushes when Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray) kisses him. Hook manipulates a jealous TinkerBell (Ludivine Sagnier) into betraying Peter and then locks her up, only for her to escape in time to save him. And both movies level the playing field between Hook and Peter for their final battle, though they do so in opposite ways. And I’m not even making an exhaustive list here.

But this adaptation takes far more dialogue from Barrie than the 1953 movie did, and it does so without sacrificing creativity. Many lines are given to different characters and reimagined in different contexts.[7]In this way, it reminds me of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland. It captures the book and play’s whimsical yet cynical sense of humor better than any other Peter Pan. Director P. J. Hogan and his co-screenwriter, Michael Goldenberg, clearly had a lot of respect for J. M. Barrie. They also had a lot of ideas of their own however, some of which, like the Aunt Millicent stuff described above, work better than others…

Jeremy Sumpter, with his innocently evil smile, is a great Peter Pan. He gives probably my favorite performance as that character. (Some find him too tanned and American, but Peter Pan as a California kid makes sense to me.) And Rachel Hurd-Wood, with her infectious enthusiasm, gives probably my favorite performance as Wendy.[8]Though I may be biased in her favor because she reminds me of one of my cousins in this movie. I may not entirely approve of this movie’s romantic take on their relationship, but the way they bounce back and forth in their first conversation between Peter being unnerved by Wendy and her aggressively pursuing him, and Peter actively seducing Wendy and her fearfully drawing back is both true to the original characters and feels weirdly believable.

Jason Isaacs plays Hook as a much creepier and more intimidating villain than other actors do. Whether this is true to Barrie’s intentions is a complicated question. While he wrote both the stage play and the novel, and gave Hook the same basic personality and much the same dialogue in both, Barrie portrayed him as a more clownish figure in the former and a more serious one in the latter. To confirm this, check out Hook’s soliloquy at the beginning of Act 5 in the play and then read the beginning of Chapter 14 of the book. Since I grew up reading the book, not watching any production of the play, Isaacs’s creepy Hook is my favorite, and when the script does give him a humorous line, he makes the most of it. Richard Briers’ Smee is also great, though he doesn’t stand out as much. (Smee is always great, except arguably in the 2014 Pan, which I blame on the script, not the actor.) And Olivia Williams is wonderful as Mrs. Darling. I can’t think of a single other actress who’s captured the character half as well as she does.

In fact, there’s only one member of the main cast who doesn’t give my favorite take on their character. Ludivine Sagnier’s TinkerBell is very broad and cartoony, more cartoony actually than the 1953 Pan‘s animated Tink! While you want an actress in a non-dialogue role to be expressive and a little over-the-top, there are so many closeups of TinkerBell that there was really no need for her to be this hammy. To be fair though, my lack of enthusiasm for this version of the character may be less to do with Sagnier’s performance than it has to do with the decision to have her language consist of chirps and squeaks rather than the tinkling of bells.

Speaking of TinkerBell, this adaptation is notable for how it handles her brush with death. The 1924 Peter Pan basically replicated the play, with debatable success, by having Peter look into the camera and ask the audience to save her by clapping to express their belief in fairies and the 1953 one completely reimagined the scene, so that it was apparently Peter himself who saved Tink if she was in danger at all. [9]For the 2014 Pan, viewers were apparently supposed to tweet their belief. This movie takes its cue from the novel, in which Peter is able to telepathically communicate with children dreaming of Neverland. While the resulting scene goes on too long and is kind of silly, it contains one of my favorite original ideas in this adaptation. If you want it spoiled for you, click the footnote. [10]Not only do children save TinkerBell by expressing their belief in fairies, but so do Mr. and Mrs. Darling and even uptight Aunt Millicent. Not only is this heartwarming, but it involves the adult … Continue reading

At this point, you may be saying, “wow, Stationmaster, there are so many things about this movie that are your favorite in any Peter Pan adaptation!” And I haven’t even gotten to the supporting cast, James Newton’s Howard’s soundtrack or Roger Ford’s production design.

So do all those things make this my favorite Peter Pan movie? Well, I did tell you that not all of its ideas worked that well, didn’t I? Most of the ones that are crazy or don’t make sense come in the second half. For example, in one scene, Peter banishes Wendy for wanting to grow up. The movie makes a big deal of this. And then a few scenes later we see her in the Home Under Ground with the Lost Boys as if nothing’s happened. Neither she nor Peter ever acknowledges the recent banishment. Maybe this is supposed to reflect Peter’s forgetfulness, but if so, that’s one of the character qualities that make him unfit for the part of romantic lead in which this movie wants to put him.

During her temporary exile, Hook takes Wendy to his ship, charms her with his suavity, and offers her the role of official storyteller to his crew. This is based on three things from the source material: the pirates wanting to make Wendy their mother, Hook offering John, Michael and the Lost Boys the choice of either joining his crew or walking the plank, and the moment in Chapter 13 when Hook offered Wendy his arm and she was briefly fascinated by his “frightfully distingue” manner. At this point, it almost looks like the movie is going for a love triangle between Peter, Hook and Wendy![11]I promise it comes across as less gross than I’m making it sound. What exactly is Hook’s motivation here? Ostensibly, he’s manipulating Wendy so he can track her to the Home Under Ground.[12]In the book and play, he actually discovers this location early on, but only attacks it at the end for whatever reason. But he could have just as easily done that without all this. Presumably, he wants to spite Peter by winning Wendy away from him. But the climax makes a big deal of Hook being surprised by the revelation that Peter really cares for someone other than himself, contradicting this. Wendy considers Hook’s offer and for a moment, it looks like she and Peter are going to be pitted against each other in a duel to the death, but even the movie seems to decide that’s too nutty, and in a single scene, Wendy decides she and her brothers must go home instead. Again, what was the point of all that?

Then there’s the climax in which…well, let’s just say that Hook flies and that’s the least unorthodox thing about it!

So there you are. This film has some of the greatest things in any Peter Pan adaptation and some of the wildest, most nonsensical departures from the source. I can understand fans of the material who find it their favorite and fans who find it their least favorite. At least it ends on a high note with the reunion of the Darling family, the most moving depiction of that scene in any adaptation.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if The Peter Pan Movie has been made yet. Theoretically, I like the 1924 one best. In practice, I rewatch the 2003 one the most. In 2022, a new contender from director David Lowery will be released on Disney+, Peter Pan and Wendy, which will be the first to take the original title of the novelization, Peter and Wendy.[13]I suspect if it were being released in theaters, it would underperform at the box office, the sad fate of recent Peter Pan-themed movies. My instinct is that that film will be of more consistent quality than the 2003 Peter Pan, but that its high points will be lower.

Bibliography

Barrie, J. M. (1995) Peter Pan and Other Plays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrie, J. M. (1994) Peter and Wendy: The Original Storybook Version of Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

References

References
1 I’m far from a Barrie expert, but I have read some of his works besides Peter Pan which is more than many can say.
2 Another British playwright, William Shakespeare, had a similar tendency.
3 Or if you know about it from Finding Neverland, a movie about the creation of Peter Pan, which feels like it was written by people who never read a word of Barrie
4 Whether the 1953 movie takes a stand one way or the other is hard to say. It ends with Wendy cheerfully telling her father she’s now ready to grow up, but he assures her there’s no hurry.
5 If a romance between children strikes you as gross, for whatever it’s worth, the actors were around fourteen at the time of filming.
6 Mrs. Darling is described as having a kiss in the same place in the book, but it’s explicitly not a romantic kiss.
7 In this way, it reminds me of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland.
8 Though I may be biased in her favor because she reminds me of one of my cousins in this movie.
9 For the 2014 Pan, viewers were apparently supposed to tweet their belief.
10 Not only do children save TinkerBell by expressing their belief in fairies, but so do Mr. and Mrs. Darling and even uptight Aunt Millicent. Not only is this heartwarming, but it involves the adult Darlings in the climax without having them actually fly to Neverland and fight the pirates or something stupid like that.
11 I promise it comes across as less gross than I’m making it sound.
12 In the book and play, he actually discovers this location early on, but only attacks it at the end for whatever reason.
13 I suspect if it were being released in theaters, it would underperform at the box office, the sad fate of recent Peter Pan-themed movies.
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