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Peter, Peter, Scenery Eater: Jeremy Sumpter brings a boyish energy to the role of Peter Pan.

Pantastic

A new version of 'Peter Pan' is the surprise of the holiday season

By Richard von Busack

Why do Peter Pan again? The Disney version has exerted such a detrimental effect on the psyche of Michael Jackson--who knows whom it'll claim next? Though it's a never-failing entertainment for children, the original play bears Victorian weight, darkness and depth that Disney scrubbed away. This new version, based faithfully on the play, is as all-ages as The Lord of the Rings. Australian director P.J. Hogan, who did My Best Friend's Wedding, oversaw this lavish yet soulful remake.

The story needs no recapping, or does it? It's about a London family at the turn of the last century: Mr. Darling (Jason Isaacs), a clerk who looks like he's incubating a business-related ulcer, and his coldly pretty socialite wife, Mrs. Darling (Olivia Williams). They have financial troubles, signified by the sad fact that they can only afford a St. Bernard to act as their children's nurse. One night, a sprite called Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) visits their children and rapts them away to Neverland: a faraway place inhabited by Indians, Lost Boys and the vengeful but well-spoken pirate Captain Hook.

"A public-school man gone wrong," commented the actor Gerald du Maurier, who originated Hook on the London stage. Isaacs, in his double role, demonstrates why Hook is the best villain in the English theater after Richard III. Hook has been a great part for any actor, from Hans Conried to Alan Rickman to Dustin Hoffman, but Isaacs is one of the best. He wows you with his smoldering handsomeness, his crisp insinuation, his gorgeous raiment, and--a keen piece of CGI--an actual stump when we first see him. Children who saw Pirates of the Caribbean and who have been begging for more ever since should love Hook and his appalling crew. One holdover from the Disney version is the modern idea of Tinkerbell as rather hot stuff (the cartoon version was seemingly modeled on Kim Novak). French sex symbol Ludivine (Swimming Pool) Sagnier plays the pixie.

Peter Pan was a marvel when it debuted on the stage 100 years ago, because of its technical wizardry. The new Peter Pan sets a high standard of handsomeness for computerized color, from the clouds in Maxfield Parrish pink to the luminous night scenes. The unsettling mermaids Peter visits were engineered by the same special-effects house that created Gollum. And there's a Jurassic Park-size croc: scary, but not too much so.

Having a real boy play Peter Pan for the first time (it's usually a young woman's role) was a real inspiration. Sumpter plays him with dirt under the fingernails and a boisterous American accent. Sumpter infuses the part with untrustworthy little-boy energy and a smile that goes two ways. The pangs of first love between Pan and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) are an essential part of Hogan's version. So, unlike Spielberg's goopy Hook, an ode to eternal childhood, this Peter Pan decides that childhood is a prologue: the real, awfully big adventure begins when you've grown up.


Peter Pan (PG; 113 min.), directed by P.J. Hogan, written by Michael Goldenberg and Hogan, based on the play by J.M. Barrie, photographed by Donald McAlpine and starring Jason Isaacs and Jeremy Sumpter, opens Dec. 25 countywide.


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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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