"Peter Pan" is old enough — 99 years as of Saturday — that its draw, as both theatrical property and television show, has traditionally been the excitement of seeing someone actually flying. In today's movie world, where even pigs can likely fly and Captain Hook (at least in this version) certainly can, that would not be enough.
So the latest "Peter Pan," directed and co-written by P.J. Hogan, has to look elsewhere for its raison d'être. The hook (no pun intended) is a promised fidelity to the original. This is the first live-action theatrical feature version of the J.M. Barrie play since 1924's silent starring Betty Bronson, and unlike that venerable item (and the Robin Williams-starring "Hook"), this is also the first to star an actual boy ("Frailty's" Jeremy Sumpter) in the title role.
That all sounds well and good, as does the film's notions of mixing slapstick and genuine peril with a certain degree of psychological sophistication. As written by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, this is a "Pan" that deals with the emotional implications of Peter's refusal to grow up as well as a certain undeniable attraction Wendy feels toward the rather dashing Hook.
But like a sophisticated child that stubbornly refuses to fulfill expectations, this is a "Peter Pan" that's more interesting to think about than experience. Though being magical is very much its intention, it never manages to cross the threshold that makes that happen in our hearts.
Why this is so is difficult to puzzle out. The likeliest explanation is a succession of near-misses, a combination of several things going not quite right. For something as delicate as a fantasy to be successful, everything has to line up just so and the margin for error is unforgivingly small.
"Peter Pan's" biggest problem is a question of tone. Hogan (who wrote and directed "Muriel's Wedding" and directed "My Best Friend's Wedding") and company have tried to be witty and offhanded, but what results feels a little too arch, the result of trying too hard to be casually clever. It's not off by a lot, but even a little matters in situations like this.
The film's acting also feels not exactly right. Though Olivia Williams is as she should be as Wendy's mother Mrs. Darling, Jason Isaacs, expert at playing villains ("The Patriot," Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), doesn't quite captivate in the traditional double role of Hook and Mr. Darling. Similarly, both Sumpter as Pan and newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy don't completely win us over. As for French star Ludivine Sagnier ("Swimming Pool"), someone has encouraged her to be overemphatic as Tinker Bell in a way that is regrettably clumsy.
Beginning as always in Edwardian London, "Peter Pan" presents the Darlings, of whom it is said "there never was a happier family." With Wendy telling thrilling adventure stories to her younger brothers under the watchful eye of nurse Nana (actually a St. Bernard with a nurse's cap), it seems like the good times will go on forever.
But good times never go on forever, and clouds soon appear on the horizon. One is the dead-end nature of Mr. Darling's job (not a fascinating detour) and the other is the determination of Wendy's Aunt Millicent (a flighty Lynn Redgrave) to turn her niece into a proper young lady before she's finished being an adventurous girl.
Fortunately for Wendy, Peter Pan, who's been listening in to her stories from the bedroom window, provides a convenient escape hatch. Fly with me to Neverland, he says, where no one ever need worry about growing up. Be a mother to the Lost Boys, all six of them. What could be simpler, or more fun?
What Peter doesn't tell Wendy about is the captain and his nefarious bunch of miscreants, not to mention a monstrous crocodile that has already munched Hook's right hand and is after the rest of him.
Nor does Peter predict that Wendy will find Hook kind of attractive, especially when he tells her he's lonely and makes her an offer an adventurous girl has to at least consider. Wouldn't she rather run away with his pirate crew, telling them stories they love as much as the Lost Boys, and fie on a Peter Pan who refuses to acknowledge the existence of feelings.
All that sounds intriguing, and in a way it is, but even the existence of oodles of special effects and fairy dust for flying can't make the fantasy flourish on more than a sporadic basis. This is by no means a bad film, just one that's not as successful as we'd wish.
'Peter Pan' MPAA rating: PG, for adventure action sequences and peril Times guidelines: Some of the action may be too intense for very young audiences Jason Isaacs ... Mr. Darling/Captain Hook Jeremy Sumpter ... Peter Pan Rachel Hurd-Wood ... Wendy Darling Lynn Redgrave ... Aunt Millicent Richard Briers ... Smee Olivia Williams ... Mrs. Darling Columbia Pictures/Universal Pictures/ Revolution Studios present a Douglas Wick-Lucy Fisher/Allied Stars production, released by Universal Pictures. Director P.J. Hogan. Producers Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick, Patrick McCormick. Executive producers Mohamet Al Fayed, Gail Lyon, Jocelyn Moorhouse. Screenplay P.J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, based on the stage play and books written by J.M. Barrie. Cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine. Editors Garth Craven, Michael Kahn. Costumes Janet Patterson. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Roger Ford. Art director Michelle McGahey. Set decorator Kerrie Brown. Running time: I hour, 53 minutes. In general release.