Film Length: 114 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (2.40:1)
Subtitles: French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; French – Dolby Digital 5.1
May 4th, 2004
For better or worse, when I think of Peter Pan, images of Walt Disney’s interpretation of the character always come to mind. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I will begin this review by telling you all that I despise the Walt Disney version of Peter Pan for its grating rendition of Wendy, the depiction of the Indians, and because of how ridiculous Captain Hook comes across to me as! Come to think of it, the animated Pan is a real ass in that film as well!
There, I came clean and said it! Sorry, I just had to get it off my chest, but I can promise you that this review will be the better for my dislike of the “Disney classic”, because I do not have a bias towards the animated version that will distort my opinion on the most recent adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s timeless tale, or a preconceived notion of what this Peter Pan should be like. Well, that last part is not entirely true. It should definitely not resemble Steven Spielberg’s downright awful Hook in any way, shape, or form!
Anyway, if you are at all familiar with this story, you will not be surprised that P.J. Hogan’s version of Peter Pan chronicles the adventures of the Darling children, and everyone’s favorite “boy who wouldn’t grow up”, as they battle the wicked Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). As the film opens, we meet George Darling (also played by Jason Isaacs), head of the Darling family, who has thus far been unable to move his career at the bank along the way he would have liked. Mrs. Darling (Olivia Williams), his wife, works hard to keep the home in order, and is completely devoted to her family, but the vile Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) still manages to find fault with her brand of homemaking and child rearing. And since professes to be quite the society matron, she is bound and determined to provide George with the kick in the rump he needs to advance professionally and raise his children in a manner she deems more “proper”.
To begin with, Millicent insists that the eldest child, Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), be given her own room, and that she refrain from participating in tomboyish games with her brothers. In particular, Millicent is horrified that a young girl is permitted by her parents to engage in imaginary battles with pirates and sleep in the same room as her brothers, when she should be receiving an education in the ways of high society. In her view, it seems that thirteen-year-olds have too much growing up to do to have any fun, especially if they are young girls.
The rest of the clan consists of Wendy’s younger siblings, Michael (Freddie Popplewell) and John (Harry Newell), and their dog Nanna, who serves as a caretaker of sorts. Unbeknownst to any of them, however, a resident of the fantasy realm of Neverland has been watching their actions through their bedroom window, and listening intently to the fanciful tales Wendy enjoys telling to her brothers. This magical youth, named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) has his eye on Wendy, but before the two can get properly acquainted, Nanna senses his presence, catches his shadow, and imprisons it in a dresser drawer. And as fate would have it, the omnipresent Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier), Peter Pan’s fairy companion, is unable to set her friend’s shadow free.
Subsequently, Peter comes looking for his shadow just as George is set to impose Millicent’s will on the children, and when Wendy catches him, he asks her to come away to Neverland with him. It seems that Peter is looking for a mother figure for his band of “Lost Boys”, and he imagines that Wendy will fit the bill nicely. Since Wendy is not quite ready to grow up the way Aunt Millicent wishes, she seizes this golden opportunity, and flies away to Neverland with Peter, taking Michael and John along with her, courtesy of a little pixie dust provided by Tinkerbell!
Once in Neverland, the Darlings realize that all of the products of their active childish imaginations have become a reality! Initially, this makes the children very happy, as they do not have to repress their imaginations and “grow up”. Soon, however, they discover that the world of Neverland is not without peril, for Peter and his Lost Boys are engaged in constant conflict with the Indian Princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray) and her tribe, not to mention always being on the lookout for the dastardly Captain Hook and the pirates of the Jolly Roger. As the kids try to rid Neverland of Hook’s menace, their parents worry themselves silly back home…will they ever return to their grief-stricken parents, or will they refuse to grow up, just as Peter Pan did? I am sure you already know the answer, but I am not going to tell you anyway!!!
With Peter Pan, I think director P.J. Hogan took on a substantial challenge, and came out on the winning end. After all, entertaining children and adolescents can be every bit as tough as entertaining an audience of adults, and takes a filmmaker who knows precisely when and how to ratchet up/dial down a film’s tension and excitement. The infusion of too much frightening or dark material, and you risk giving little tykes nightmares; on the other hand if too little excitement is offered, youngsters’ minds might wander. In this regard, Hogan exhibits quite a degree of skill in juxtaposing the action and semi-romantic elements of this story, and as a result, his spin on this classic fantasy is fraught with danger, excitement, and even a little love.
However, if you are familiar with the Disney version (unfortunately, my little girl loves it! ), there are aspects of P.J. Hogan’s film that will throw you for a loop. This is especially true of Jason Isaacs’ characterization of Captain Hook, who is a lot more menacing and ruthless than he has been in any of his previous film incarnations. This Captain Hook, who is far from buffoonish and clumsy, has no tolerance not only for Peter and company, but also for ineptitude amongst his crew. In fact, he does not display the least bit of remorse as he casually guns down crewmembers that fail to pull their weight, or otherwise annoy him in any way. And yet another change is that the offensive “What Makes the Red Man Red” song is gone! Thank goodness for that!!!
One thing I was not really surprised by, however, especially given today’s technology, is the dreamy and surreal nature of Peter Pan’s visuals. Come to think of it, even the rendition of early 20th century London had a distinctly dreamlike and unreal quality to it, despite obviously being rooted in reality. The beauty of the various Neverland “locations” is even more undeniable. Though not all the CGI is photo-realistic, I would not say that any looked “fake” enough to be distracting, especially if you allow yourself to be absorbed by the story. For the most part though, this film’s exquisite scenery is a feast for the eyes!
Another really pleasant aspect of this film comes in the form of the delightful performances by the cast. To begin with, Rachel Hurd-Wood is spunky and charming as the heroic Wendy, who is trying desperately to stave of becoming a young woman. Likewise, Jeremy Sumpter does a fantastic job of bringing to life the brash, adventuresome, and mischievous Peter Pan. As unbelievable as this sounds, Sumpter is the first lad ever to play Peter Pan on film, and the confidence he exhibits is remarkable!
The most impressive performance, however, may be that of Jason Isaacs, who is absolutely wonderful as Captain Hook, giving the character the edginess, wit, and menace that he has sorely lacked in the past. This Hook is not only adept with a blade, but he relishes using it, even on his own crew if need be. Indeed, much of the film’s suspense is generated by the way the Hook character was written and portrayed. On the opposite side of the spectrum, P.J. Hogan cast the alluring Ludivigne Sagnier as Peter’s fairy companion Tinkerbell, and after reading the book, her comic facial expressions and body language bring the character to life exactly as I imagined her. The fact that she had the aid of some really powerful computers did not hurt either!
To be sure, like his predecessors (especially Disney) have, P.J. Hogan did take some creative license with Barrie’s story, but he has still managed to stay much more faithful to the original story than the previous cinematic versions of this tale have. The way the film pushes different emotional buttons throughout is also quite fascinating, and makes for a real roller coaster ride – at times suspenseful, at times playful, but in the end a film that is just plain fun, and suitable for all but the tiniest tots.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Peter Pan is offered by Universal in its ultra-wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio (anamorphic), and it looks splendid overall! Specifically, whites are clean and brilliant, and black level remains rock solid throughout, without any apparent low level noise. As a result, the image exhibits a lovely texture and sense of three-dimensionality.
In terms of color, the rich earth tones in the Darling household, the colorful solar system (when Peter takes the kids away), and the wonders of Neverland are all reproduced quite accurately. Flesh tones, however, do appear to be slightly overcooked in a few sequences early in the film. Additionally, film grain does not pose a problem, and there is no evidence of digital signature (edge enhancement, artifacts, or other visual abnormalities), so the image has a pleasing film-like appearance. Indeed, from two screen lengths away, even solid-colored backgrounds also appeared to be free of video noise.
About the only problem I had with the image was that fine detail is lost in an apparent softness during some of the interior shots. Close-ups and outdoor scenes, however, look marvelous! On the whole though, if there is anything you don’t like about this release, it shouldn’t be the quality of its visuals. Another very good transfer by the folks at Universal!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Peter Pan’s adventures are brought to life by an energetic and well balanced Dolby Digital 5.1 channel mix, which has a wide, enveloping soundstage. Dialogue is brilliantly rendered, and always easily discernable, even during the action-packed Neverland sequences. Similarly, sonic details, like the tinkling of pixie dust, or the clang of metal whenever characters’ are engaged in swordplay, ring through in a truly natural manner.
The encoded audio is boisterous whenever it needs to be, and the rear channels are quite active, especially when Peter and Hook are doing battle, or when Tinkerbell is buzzing about the screen. Finally, bass response is both powerful and composed, which really puts the listener into the thick of the action. For example, when Captain Hook’s minions fire cannons on Peter and friends (at thirty-one minutes in), a decent sub should get your walls shaking! Unless you live in an apartment or condo with thin walls (been there), or have a wife who gets displeased when pictures get rattled off the wall , that is a good thing though!
To sum it up, Peter Pan is given a quality mix by the folks at Universal. Speaking for myself, the smooth panning, balanced frequency response, active surround usage, and powerful low bass sure moved me! Not bad for a “family” film!!! Not bad at all…
The wealth of extras is divided across five sections, as follows:
Through the Eyes of Captain Hook
In this short featurette, Peter Pan’s Jason Isaacs (Mr. Darling/Captain Hook) takes viewers behind the scenes, often through footage from his own camcorder. There is plenty of footage of Mr. Isaacs hamming it up with co-stars, practicing sword techniques, and undergoing wire training. Not terribly insightful, but it is amusing, and Jason Isaacs appears to be quite a character.
The Lost Pirates’ Song
This extra consists of footage of the cast (pirates) recording a never-before-heard song, and director P.J. Hogan talking about why the song was never filmed, even though Captain Hook’s gang of swashbuckling pirates worked very hard to learn it!
Board the Pirate Ship
This extra offers a look at the process of designing and building the Jolly Roger pirate ship featured in the film. Basically, concept art, models, and set construction are shown over music for just under a minute. Sadly, it took about as long to navigate through menus and sit through loading times as this extra runs for.
The Pirates vs. The Lost Boys
The “Pirates vs. The Lost Boys” featurette allows viewers to take an inside look at the relationships between the two groups of characters (for all of two minutes).
This alternate ending shows Peter checking in on Wendy, who has now grown up! This is only my take on it, of course, but I think it is wise that this ending was scrapped.
The Darlings become distraught when their children go missing, and George opts to confine himself to a doghouse until they return home. Though a little long, it is an amusing scene, with some really funny footage of Mr. Darling traveling around in the doghouse.
Me and My Shadow
In this brief (1-minute) featurette, Lynne Redgrave and Jeremy Sumpter briefly discuss the difficulties of working out a scene where Peter Pan’s shadow causes mimics Aunt Millicent’s actions.
In the Dog House with Nana
In this bonus feature, viewers get to hear from the film’s head animal trainer, who talks about the qualities of the 3 dogs that played Nana in Peter Pan. Though this extra is just about as short as the others, there is some amusing footage of how Nana “makes” the Darling children take a bath, and how the dogs rehearse for scenes. I don’t know why, but I am always a sucker for that stuff.
Tinkerbell: Behind the Fairy Dust
“Behind the Fairy Dust” is a mildly entertaining 4-minute featurette, consisting of interviews with actress Ludivine Sagnier and the crew, who discuss the process of bringing one of the world’s best known fairies to life. Interestingly, it seems that Tinkerbell was to be a completely CG character at one point. Personally, I am glad that did not come to pass.
I Do Believe in Fairies
Wow, we get to visit the magical world of fairies for an entire minute-and-a-half! Hmm, let’s see – that gives us enough time to do nothing! Basically, this valueless featurette consists of behind-the-scenes footage played over music.
Explore the Forest
This feature is billed as an “experience of the process of creating the lush Neverland Forest sets”, but it is really less than a minute of footage of the forest sets and models being built. I think this is a real shame, as these sets were really nice, and it would have been interesting to learn anything about their creation.
Princess Tiger Lily
“Princess Tiger Lily” is another blink-and-its-over featurette, which runs a mere 58 seconds, that introduces viewers to Native-American actress Carsen Gray, who actually speaks the language of her tribe. If you want to know anything more about Carsen than that, you’ll have to track her down, because it is not in here!
THE BLACK CASTLE
Learning to Fly
The “Learning to Fly” featurette (6 minutes) provides a behind-the-scenes look at the flight training the actors were given for the production. In addition to discussions with the actors, there is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of the actors honing their skills on trampolines and wires.
The Mermaids’ Tale
In my humble opinion, this extra is probably the most worthless on the disc, and that is really saying something. Really, it consists of nothing more than the mermaids, who are in makeup, introducing themselves. This is followed up by an abundance of extremely annoying visual effects and audio tricks that were included for no particular reason.
Enter the Castle
Selecting this bonus allows viewers to glimpse the mysterious castle sets being built, again for barely over a minute, while music plays.
HOME UNDER THE GROUND
The Legacy of Peter Pan
During this 11-minute featurette, Duchess Sarah Ferguson explores the legend of Peter Pan, and outlines the origins of J.M. Barrie’s timeless work of fiction. She also discusses Barrie’s real-life inspiration for the story, the books that preceded it, and some of the previous film incarnations of Barrie’s tale. If you really want to learn a little something about both this film and J.M. Barrie’s classic tale, just spend your time here. Most of the other extras are just window dressing.
Dig Under the House
In this 1-minute featurette, concept drawings and a behind-the-scenes look at the Lost Boys’ secret lair are exhibited, as music plays.
Lost Boys on the Set
You’ve read it before, now read it again (don’t blame me!): This is a two-minute extra that offers almost no insight into the film. Basically, Peter Pan’s boys are given some face time, via interviews (more like sound bytes) about their experiences working on the film, and some behind-the-scenes footage.
The Duchess’ Outtakes
This two-minute series of outtakes features an extremely melodramatic interaction between Fergie and Jason Isaacs, as well as a few choice foul-ups by the Duchess.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
The DVD release of Peter Pan is technically sound, featuring lavish visual imagery and a surprisingly active and engaging Dolby Digital 5.1 channel mix. Unfortunately, however, the majority of the extras are almost completely worthless, as they are largely devoid of either insightful or interesting content. Moreover, most of them will take almost as little time to watch as it does to navigate through the five different menus and select them. Really, this is a good example of how more is not always better, and I would have preferred one or two well thought out and insightful featurettes to the myriad of crappy minute-long bonus features that we have here. On the other hand, if you are afflicted by Attention Deficit Disorder, these extras might be right up your alley! (Insert dead silence after bad joke here!)
Moving on to the film, even though his Peter Pan contains sound performances (the children included) and dazzling special effects work, P.J. Hogan never fails to keep the story, which is the most important element in any film, squarely in focus. Not to directly compare the two, but Hogan achieves on a smaller scale what Peter Jackson achieved in his LOTR trilogy, namely by carefully adapting a classic piece of literature, using technology to serve the story, and by getting the very best out of his cast. As a result, this film has a genuine sense of warmth that is sorely lacking in most modern “family” films.
Therefore, in the final analysis, if you are looking for a movie to watch with the little ones I can recommend this DVD, despite the generally disappointing nature of the extras. Quite simply, this is a fine family film, and Universal has endowed it with a great transfer (for the most part) and soundtrack. Now all I have to do is steer my daughter towards this version, and away from the Disney version!