Peter Pan (2003)

Rated: PG – frightening scenes, violence
Length: 113 min.
Age: 8 and up.                       commonsense media sez:  9+

Scary Factor: violence and killing among the pirates, though no show of blood and gore; the mermaids are truly creepy, and Hook is genuinely threatening

Intense scenes: Wendy is shot down and believed briefly to be dead, Tinker Bell drinks poison and nearly dies, Peter is bashed around by Hook during final fight

Sexuality: only some sexual tension between Peter and Wendy, limited to a couple kisses; there is a glimpse of bare Lost Boy behinds at one point

Also: a brief sight of Hook’s amputated arm may bother the squeamish (though the wound is old: no blood); as always, the pirates smoke and drink, and liquor and cigars are offered to Wendy (she turns them down)

Interests: fairies, pirates, magic, mermaids

Next: read the original novel Peter Pan, see the grittier pirate movies (Pirates of the Caribbean are for the 12+ crowd)

This was long overdue, a dark and thrilling live-action movie version of the classic story with wonderful performances, state-of-the-art special effects, and sumptuous art direction. This film is true in spirit, if not in detail, to the original book, and the mystery and danger of Neverland is palpable. At the same time, many changes have been made to plot points. The director P. J. Hogan, who also co-wrote the script, has chosen certain aspects of this complex work to play up, namely the sexual dilemma of the main character. This Peter Pan is definitely an adolescent – a heart-flutteringly cute actor (Jeremy Sumpter) plays him so that he obviously feels a sexual yearning and need to grow up, but denies it firmly, in order to remain forever young. I would definitely save this version for older children. Adolescent romantics with a literary bent will swoon over it.

There is an obvious chemistry between Peter and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) throughout, one highlight of which is a levitating dance in the moonlight. Romance is in the air until Peter snaps out of it and retreats. He has to remind himself that he is not ‘father’ to Wendy’s ‘mother’. He is a child who refuses to grow up, despite Wendy’s best attempts.

When Hook spots Wendy and Peter dancing it fills him with despair… “O evil day. He has found himself a … And Hook is all alone.” This fascinating subtext for Hook has its roots in the novel, the idea that Hook in his own way is as lonely as Peter, and even more tormented. The interesting thing about it is that Hook and the pirates yearn, just as the Lost Boys do, for a mother to tell them stories, so Wendy is suddenly in very great demand. Another moment in the book which is echoed in the movie: Wendy is, despite herself, impressed by Hook’s gallantry and charm. In her girlish way she may even have a crush on him. Which opens up another interesting Pandora’s box, since the role of Hook is doubled with that of Mr. Darling – both are played by the same actor (Jason Isaacs), which is a longstanding tradition from the original play.

Indeed, Captain Hook’s sexual allure is played up in this film. The first time we see him he is actually shirtless – rather buff, with those long black curls cascading down. Echoes of Johnny Depp’s rock star pirate… Hogan has even given him an accurate tattoo: the crest of Eton, where according to Barrie the young Hook attended school. As the Captain dresses we also see the amputated stump of his arm before he straps on his prosthetic hook. As played marvellously by Jason Isaacs, this Hook is all darkness and menace. His powers of seduction and persuasion are as deadly as his collection of razor-sharp hooks. In his most dangerous moments he is whispering poisonous thoughts into his foe’s ear. As he battles Peter at the end he taunts him that Wendy was leaving him, she’d rather grow up, what do you have to offer, you’re incomplete… He hisses that Wendy will go home and forget all about Peter. And in time there will be “another in your place, he is called… husband!”  Yeowch and touché. Hook finishes with a flourish, “You’ll fly alone and unloved… just like me.” Peter is devastated by this thought, nearly giving up the fight altogether, until Wendy steps in to give him a restorative kiss, which not only revives him but actually turns him pink.

Hogan makes another noteworthy change to the original Hook-Pan duel when he allows the Captain a little pixie dust… so that he can fly too. “Hook flies… and he likes it!” he crows. All for nought in the end, for he meets the saddest, most pathetic fate of any stage or screen Hook. Since nobody wants to see Peter actually kill anybody, all versions have relied upon Hook either falling overboard (Disney), or simply giving up and jumping off the ship. There has always been an element of depression and despair to Hook’s end, but Hogan pushes this even further. After Peter’s kiss and revivication, he and the other children mock Hook, chanting “Old, alone, and done for!” The chant goes on until, with a pitiable expression, Hook simply gives up, neatly folding his arms and plummeting out of the sky into the mouth of the crocodile. Never before has youth been pitted so dramatically against adulthood and all the darkness that attends growing up. The whole sequence is particularly chilling, and should resonate strongly with sensitive young teens.

As already mentioned, many changes have been made to the plot and new scenes and characters added. Most of Hogan’s changes are well thought out and riff convincingly on facets of the novel, adding to the richness of the story. Others… not so much. Much business is added at the bank where Mr. Darling works, presumably to establish that he is meek. An Aunt Millicent is added, and while I love Lynn Redgrave, this new character is unnecessary. Her role is to threaten Wendy with growing up and being matched with a husband, the prospect of which fills Wendy (and her parents) with horror. I guess Millicent is there simply so that Mr. and Mrs. Darling don’t have to play the heavies.

All modern versions of this story make strenuous attempts to strengthen Wendy’s character and this is no exception. Here the old Wendy, happiest when darning Peter’s socks, has morphed into Wendy the ambitious adventure-seeker and wannabe author. As a result she is much more engaging for today’s young audiences, who won’t be so well-versed in the conservative psychology of the British girl circa 1900. (A psychology that still worked for Disney in America in 1953!)

In another nice move, Hogan cast Carsen Gray, a young actress of Haida descent, who adlibbed her insults to Hook in Iroquois. And a genuinely funny Tinker Bell is given room to rant and ham it up. Her big near-death scene is brought back, too. Instead of appealing directly to the viewing audience to clap if they believe in fairies, as was the method on the stage, Hogan’s clever solution is to instead show children and adults everywhere suddenly declaring their belief in fairies, thus saving Tink’s life.

Another strength of this film is that Neverland has regained the darkness and danger of Barrie’s original vision. One doesn’t doubt that death could lie behind any corner. The mermaids here are no Disney coquettes, but frightening, glistening sea creatures with murder in their hearts, as they attempt to drown Wendy. Fantastic, but again, not for young viewers! There is much violence on show, swordfights and shootings, and several pirates are killed rather convincingly, though there is a remarkable lack of blood and gore. Children are chained to a rock to drown, alongside the skeletons of past victims.

One final bit that has been resurrected from the original novel is Mr. Darling spending his time in the doghouse until the children return. This is a welcome addition, as it is an interesting situation… Mr. Darling resides in the doghouse to show his repentance over removing Nana from the nursery and precipitating the disappearance of the children. The act also demonstrates that he is no longer a slave to public opinion… and yet he is quietly revelling in the newfound fame that his doghouse has earned him.

Conclusion: A very worthy addition to the Peter Pan canon. A dark and dangerous version, done with great care and much thought. Many of the changes, though totally original, are true to the spirit of Barrie’s novel and play. Terrific performances and wonderful special effects. Worth watching, although violence and threat make it more suitable for older viewers, who will also more fully appreciate the subtleties and subtexts.

To read all about the original literary classic Peter Pan, see the shortform Overview.

Or go crazy with the longform Overview. (Emphasis on LONG.)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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