Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Paul Hogan's Peter Pan

“All children grow up except one”. Paul Hogan’s 2003 film Peter Pan re-envisages J.M. Barrie’s classic play about a boy who do not want to grow up and retrieves the story from the Disney universe. In the first film in several years retelling the story Hogan updates its visual representation not only using all the tools modern animation can provide, but also maintaining a darker atmosphere than that presented in the previous, Disney version. This combines to make Peter Pan one of the most enjoyable and refreshing films in a year dominated by Disney films like Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Peter Pan Poster

As in the original play the Darling children, Michael, John and most significantly Wendy flies with Peter Pan from their nursery window to Neverland, leaving their parents, the dog Nana and their Aunt Millicent behind to despair. Neverland, an island populated by Indians, pirates, fairies, mermaids and crocodiles, turns out to be every child’s dream. On the island, the Darling children are constantly amazed by all its wonders and have many adventures most of which arise in dealing with Peter Pan’s nemesis, Captain Hook. 

The film has all the original characters, and then some. Peter Pan, played by Jeremy Sumpter and the pirate captain Hook, excellently portrayed by Jason Isaacs are still at odds just like Peter’s fairy companion Tinker Bell, played by Ludivine Sagnier and just referred to as Tink, is consumed by jealousy towards the debuting Rachel Hurd-Wood’s Wendy. The crocodile, which was somewhat scary in the original play and a source of comedy in the Disney film, has become a 25 metre animated monster, a nightmarish dinosaur always looming below the surface. The feared Hook’s fear of this grim force of nature would render the audience almost sympathetic to him, had it not been for Smee’ contribution of disarming comic relief. In addition, whereas the original Mr. and Mrs. Darling were somewhat ludicrous in their fussy maturity this has been transferred to the newly introduced Aunt Millicent whose wish for Wendy to become a woman must be the primary motivation for her and her siblings to join Peter on his trip back to Neverland.

A subtle difference

The introduction of Aunt Millicent and the magnification of the crocodile is, however, not the only aspects of the characters Hogan has changed. Whereas the sinister side of Hook was toned down by the Disney version, it has been reinstated with a vengeance here. A cruelly malevolent, though suave, nature, a sickly complexion, an array of vicious looking hooks and a callous attitude towards murder makes Hogan’s Hook a far cry from the comical Disney version as he kills off crew members left and right in his hunt for Peter Pan. The brilliance of Jason Isaacs’ portrayal is, of course further bolstered by his portrayal of the harmless and whimsical Mr. Darling who traditionally has been played or voiced by the same actor.

Jason Isaacs as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook

In addition, Hogan introduces a sexual tension between Peter and Wendy. Previous versions have shown no more than a faint suggestion of romance, whereas Hogan makes this a central element to the plot. Sumpter, dressed in a revealing attire appropriate for a character named Pan, and Hurd-Wood as 14- and 13-year-olds brilliantly portray the conflicting and yet enthralling feelings of young teen. After all, who would have thought that a kiss could be that important?

The sexual tension and the cruelty of Hook works together with a stylistic modernising of the story to make it available to an older and more modern audience. The animation of flying, of crocodiles and islands, of fairies and weather maintains makes the film visually appealing while still maintaining the aura of fantasy. The appeal of the Peter Pan story has always been the opportunity to lose oneself in role play and make-believe and this, in combination with more grown-up elements such as the above mentioned sex and violence, should cater for the interests of an audience between child- and adulthood.

The score, made by James Newton Howard, is also updated and very much in a fitting genre. Its upbeat tracks resemble the music from young adult films of the 90’s. In addition, the influence of the score of the two years older Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is apparent. The music serves to enter the film into a new generation of fantasy, adventure and animated films, which is further emphasised in the tracks borrowed from other films to accompany the trailer. While meant to resemble the film’s future score, the tracks from Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and Chicken Run(2000) further underlines Hogan’s intention to appeal to a specific audience.

There is, however, two elements that somewhat lessens my enjoyment of this film. First of all, the twelve minute intro, consisting of some familiar but several new plot elements, establishes Wendy’s significance but delays Peter Pan’s entrance. Impatient cinema goers like myself would find this tedious and unnecessary. Hogan’s target audience is not watching the film for drawn out descriptions of Mr. Darling’s social awkwardness or Aunt Millicent’s folly. They want to see flying, swordplay, crocodiles and romance. Similarly, the Tink character is given too many comical aspects. In a film where several characters are given added traits and consequence, Tink is just not central enough to merit the role she is given in the film. Originally intended to be fully digitally animated, she here becomes a mere nuisance and a diversion from more compelling characters.

The success of Hogan’s Peter Pan resides much in its vivid characters and modern use of camera and animation. The type casting of Jason Isaacs (from the Harry Potter movies) and  the always comical Richard Briers as Smee helps modernise and enter the story into a new generation of films. Although the film did not achieve the credit it was due on release, following blockbusters like Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the story of the playful child in opposition to boring, foolish or evil adults has been given new and compelling garbs which make it a film well worth watching. 

Update: The entire film can be found here (choose the following parts to the right).
Another update: This is my article on the relationship between the film and the original play.

Sources: 1, 2, 3 or as given

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