Best of DVDs...with M.V. Moorhead
Peter Pan

This live-action feature didn’t seem to stir up much interest in its theatrical run last year. Maybe everyone just assumed that Disney’s 1953 animated version couldn’t be bettered on the big screen, and that the 1960 television version of the stage musical, starring Mary Martin as the flying perennial boy and Cyril Ritchard as Peter’s enemy Captain Hook, couldn’t be bettered by three-dimensional actors.

Or, maybe, people were made cautious by memories of Hook, Steven Spielberg’s dismal 1991 reworking with Robin Williams as Peter and Dustin Hoffman in the title role.

But in any case, it’s unfortunate that the new Peter Pan got overlooked, because it’s a handsome, respectable retelling which manages to be neither campy nor stuffy, straightforward but not humorless.

The iconic figures from J. M. Barrie’s potent, unsentimental myth are all present—Peter and Hook, and Wendy Darling and her brothers, and Tinker Bell the fairy diva, and Hook’s loyal first mate Smee, and the Lost Boys and Princess Tiger Lily and the great ticking crocodile, all cavorting about Neverland as it was envisioned prior to its unpleasant latter-day Californian connotations. The film has a lush atmosphere of Victorian fairy-tale wonder—there are peg-legged parrots, fairy dances, shackled skeletons and some spookily sensual mermaids, all given an Arthur Rackham radiance by cinematographer Donald McAlpine, and accompanied by James Newton Howard’s gorgeous music.

Not everything works—Peter’s errant shadow, for instance, or the Darling’s unquestioning adoption of the Lost Boys, or Barrie’s famous Do You Believe in Fairies? coup de theatre, are whimsical in ways that are effective on the page or the stage but don’t quite come to life in the cinema, or not this time, at least.

But on the whole, this Peter Pan is exciting and satisfying.

As is so often the case in a children’s adventure tale, no small part of the credit for this must go to the effectiveness of the villain, and Jason Isaacs makes a striking Captain Hook, dryly magnetic, surprisingly reserved and quiet, even a bit melancholy (as is traditional onstage, Isaacs also plays Mr. Darling).

Richard Briers is a fine, sweet-natured Smee, and in less colorful roles, stunning Olivia Williams as Mrs. Darling and Lynn Redgrave as an Auntie are both effective.

The real stars, though, are the children. They’re a lively bunch, especially avid young Rachel Hurd-Wood, who gazes adoringly at Peter no matter what wonder she’s flying past.

As for Peter himself, the young American Jeremy Sumpter, who plays the role, is the least expressive of the kids in the cast. Oddly, though, this works to the film’s advantage—it gives him that aloofness and emotional inaccessibility that’s the key to what makes the character dramatic. With Sumpter, we can believe that this is a boy who won’t grow up, and we can see the price, as well as the joy, of forsaken maturity.

The DVD—Although they are packaged in different groupings to make them seem more interactive, the extras boil down to batch of short making-of featurettes, and as usual, it’s a mixed bag.

Some are pure filler, some are mildly interesting dismantlings of the movie magic we’ve just seen, and a few, like an imaginative alternate ending or quick documentary on how the Tinkerbell scenes were done, are quite cool.

Duchess Sarah Ferguson is the host of a historical sketch of Barrie, and there’s a scrap of a deleted song performed (but never shot) by Jason Isaacs and his scurvy crew. Director P.J. Hogan explains that he decided against using the song on the grounds that when pirates sing, they come too near to adorability. He’s probably right.