Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Peter Pan


The festive time of year continues at Chateau Maine. I was a little less opulent with the decorations than I have been in some years past. I settled for a tasteful display of the nativity using ten foot high inflatable Barbie Dolls in the major roles. Barbie was simply lovely, swathed in shimmering white silk as the angel on high and in a simple blue taffeta as the Virgin Mary. My distributor did not have enough inflatable Kens in stock for the male figures so Barbie also had to play two of the three wise men, several shepherds, a camel, Ebenezer Scrooge, and a flock of sheep. I must say that she did so with great flair. I did have a few complaints from the neighbors about the banks of halogen flood lights that lit the scene and the 150 dB sound system playing 'Silent Night' in a continuous loop, but they soon calmed down after I dispatched Mrs. Jerry, my housekeeper, with a peace offering of Christmas punch, laced with Everclear.

On the advice of Debbie Reynolds, I have contacted Madame Arcati, to come to Chateau Maine to meet darling Norman, who seems to have returned in spiritual form. He's been busy creating a lovely wall mural of irises on the upstairs landing using my best mascara, eyeliner and rouge. Fortunately, my stock of Lesterne brand cosmetics is quite large and he should be able to complete the project. He took Christmas day off and spent the time floating lazily around the dining room ceiling, levitating the occasional piece of Spode from the china cabinet. He's improving as the breakage has dropped considerably from his first manifestations.

Tommy, my therapist, suggested that a break from routine might be in order for Christmas evening and I thought an old-fashioned British pantomime might be in order. I searched through the arts section for one, but the greater Los Angeles area seemed to be fresh out. I did find the next best thing, however, a new film version of the J. M. Barrie classic, Peter Pan. Tommy and I rang for the car and headed off to enjoy it, stopping at Hooter's along the way for a few Buffalo wings - open restaurants are so difficult to find on December 25th.

Peter Pan is the famous tale of the boy who refuses to grow up. It started life in 1904 as a stage play, using conventions of the British pantomime (humans playing animals, the principal boy being played by a woman, a foppish villain, audience participation) and was an enormous success. Encouraged, author James Matthew Barrie expanded the tale further into a novel for children, published several years later. The story, with its mythic themes exploring the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, has become familiar and various versions have been created over the years, most notably the 1953 Disney cartoon and the 1960 television version with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard repeating their Broadway roles.

This version tears away all of the accretions of time and other adaptations (many of them musical in nature) going back to the original play and novel as inspiration and source. The film begins in Edwardian London where the Darling family, headed by pipsqueak banker George (Jason Isaacs) and understanding mother (Olivia Williams) has three children, Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a girl on the verge of adolescence and two younger boys John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell). Wendy is being pushed by her well meaning parents and starchy Aunt Millicent (a scene stealing Lynn Redgrave) into needing to leave the land of make believe and the nursery, ruled over by canine nursemaid Nana, and to prepare herself for her place in society as a young lady. Wendy prefers her dreams and her stories, not knowing that outside her window, Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter), the boy who would not grow up, has been listening in on her tales. One night, Peter enters the nursery and convinces Wendy and her brothers to come with him to Neverland, teaches them to fly with the help of some fairy dust from his fickle companion Tinkerbelle (Ludivine Sagnier) and off they all tear through the night skies.

In Neverland, Wendy quickly becomes mother to Peter's father to a small tribe of abandoned boys and helps in the fight against the pirates, led by the wicked Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs again) and his lumpish mate, Smee (Richard Briers). Various adventures follow involving princess Tiger Lily of the Indians (Carsen Gray), mermaids, an evil fortress, a ticking CGI crocodile and, eventually a showdown between Pan and his nemesis full of buckles and swashes. Eventually, choices are made, separated characters are reunited, there is death and resurrection and all ends happily.

People, especially parents, whose only exposure to Peter Pan is through the sanitized Disney and musical versions of the tale, are going to be somewhat alarmed at this version. The original play and novel are full of psycho-sexual subtext on the subjects of love, growing up, familial relationships and the like. Wendy, especially, is exploring the nature of sexual attraction with Peter and it's no accident that the villain is played by the same actor as her father (a conceit direct from the original play). There's a lot of profound understanding of the process children must go through while growing up in the material and the major strength of this film is that it does not shy away from these uncomfortable truths. It gives the film more of an edge and a darker tone than one might expect.

The film is also a glorious visual symphony, full of radiant colors and rapturous designs. The Neverland sets, from Peter's underground layer to the fortress to Captain Hook's ship are beautifully realized by production designer Roger Ford and well complemented by Janet Patterson's lovely costumes. There are exquisite images. Children bouncing through cotton candy clouds. Wendy and Peter floating through a darkling forest filled with the luminescence of the fairy folk. Unfortunately, the realism, given the nature of film, is the major downfall. On stage, the metaphors are given free reign as we delight in the stage magic that creates Tinkerbelle or laugh at an actor in a dog suit as Nana. Making them so real and literal takes some of the imagination and fantasy away making the suspension of disbelief next to impossible and things fall flat.

It's not helped by a crucial piece of miscasting. Jeremy Sumpter, as Peter, is visually perfect. He's a young man just on the cusp of adolescent change; unfortunately, he comes across more as a sort of walking Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement dressed in green leaves than as an unchanging child. It may be asking too much to let a thirteen year old take the part and the tradition of casting a woman in the role starts to make more sense. It requires an actor of a certain stature to grab our attention and keep it focused. On the other hand, Rachel Hurd-Wood, as Wendy, is the real thing. She nearly saves the film single handed. If she'd had a slightly stronger Peter, she might have been able to do it. Jason Isaacs, in the dual role, shows his versatility. He's become the king of the snarling villains in recent years and does it well, and cleverly keeps Captain Hook just this side of camp.

I truly wanted to like the film more than I did. I must say that there's much to admire, but ultimately the film remains emotionally unengaging, the material is there, but it occasionally gets buried in masses of CGI effects (especially the crocodile) or an ineffective performance. It's a bit of a puzzle as to who the film is aimed at. Children under eight or ten might find the film too intense. Older children, who would benefit from the themes of maturity in the subtext, will be turned off by the twee fantasy elements. It's therefore difficult to recommend, but there is good stuff here.

Bank lobby collision. Shadow entrapment. Top hat stealing. Cotton candy clouds. Choreoathetotic Ludivine Sangnier. Bear decapitation. Bear repair. Manacled children. Fairy death. Flying galleon.

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