J.M. Barrie's story of Peter Pan has charmed people around the world for well over a century, told to people of many generations. It has been adapted into many different mediums including stage plays and several films, the most recent being Pan starring Hugh Jackman. Disney's 1953 animated adaptation is a cherished classic and Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991) is often remembered for Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan, Julai Roberts as Tinker Bell, Dante Basco as Rufio, and Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. Among these film adaptations however is one that mostly gets overlooked, and that is 2003's Peter Pan.
Directed by P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding, Confessions of a Shopaholic), based on the play, Peter Pan is played by Jeremy Sumpter, co-starring Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy Darling, and Jason Issacs as both Captain Hook and George Darling. Instead of just the usual story of Peter taking Wendy and her brothers John and Michael to Neverland to escape Wendy's oncoming step into adulthood and the children eventually returning home to London, the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan accomplishes something the others did not. It is not only the first live-action adaptation with a boy playing the part of Peter Pan, it sticks closer to the source material, and delves deeper into the serious adult themes of Barrie's story, exploring the mindset of a few characters, including the title character himself.
Spoilers ahead for those who have not seen the movie yet.
The main characters and story
Though Peter comes across as very sure of himself, the film shows him as a tortured and tragic figure as his cockiness is a mask to hide his underlying pain. In this version of the story, Peter's emotions and very presence are connected to the state of Neverland, as whenever he is there or not and whatever he is feeling affects the weather. As soon as he returns to Neverland with the Darling children, the sun comes out and the winter period ends, and it storms when he despairs over Tinker Bell's fate. He may be blessed with eternal youth but Peter is constantly at war with his emotions, abandonment issues, and the fear of loneliness.
All he wants to do is remain a boy and have fun forever and not have anything around to bring him down. As once a person is covered in pixie dust, they need happy thoughts in order to fly and any unhappy thoughts make them fall. He remains emotionally scarred by being abandoned or forgotten by his parents as they probably didn't even want him. When it comes to love, Peter refuses to admits his growing feelings for Wendy and tells her the very sound of the word offends him. When she, Michael, and John decide to return home with the Lost Boys wanting to go with them, Peter is clearly scared by the idea of being left alone again.
During the showdown against Captain Hook in the climax, Peter is grounded after his nemesis taunts him and fills his head with thoughts of Wendy leaving him. After Hook is defeated, Peter accepts that Wendy has made up her mind about growing up and he takes her and her brothers back home along with the Lost Boys, after which Peter and Wendy say their goodbyes.
Even though Peter is the title character, Wendy is the one who acts as the heart of the movie and goes through the most development. As the eldest child of the Darling family, Wendy is naturally held to a higher standard than her brothers. She enjoys playing with them and telling them stories, but one night, a visit from their Aunt Millicent (a new character created for the film played by Lynn Redgrave), sets Wendy's life into high gear.
When her aunt notices that Wendy now possesses a "hidden kiss" in the right corner of her lips like her mother Mary, Aunt Millicent announces it as a sign of Wendy now being a young woman. So then Aunt Millicent proposes to take Wendy under her wing and show her how to be a proper lady. For Wendy, this means spending less time with her brothers, leaving the nursery, and getting her own room, things she doesn't feel ready for. After inadvertently embarrassing her father at his job at the bank, George tells Wendy that she will being her lessons with Aunt Millicent the following day. After meeting Peter, she accepts his offer to go to Neverland and be a "mother" to the Lost Boys in order to escape her future. At first Wendy, just like her brothers, is enthralled by Neverland and what it has to offer but after she and Peter rescue Michael, John, and Princess Tiger Lily from Captain Hook and they share a romantic "fairy dance," the reality of Wendy's looming adulthood catches up with her.
When Wendy asks Peter to tell her whether or not he loves her, Peter is distraught, having brought Wendy to Neverland so that she will "never have to worry about grown-up things again." She talks about adult things like jealousy and love and how such things become easier to understand when growing up. Peter's refusal to act mature and acknowledge his feelings is what drives a bitter Wendy to side with Hook for a while, plus the fact that he is something Peter will never be, an adult man. Her attraction to Hook is first seen at the Black Castle. Wendy sees his piercing eyes "blue as forget-me-nots" and she finds herself “not afraid, but entranced.” Later as she lies beside a defeated Peter amidst his showdown with Captain Hook, Wendy gives Peter a hidden kiss she says will always be his, and it's what helps Peter take flight once again and defeat Hook. Returning home to London with the boys, Peter and Wendy part ways with Wendy promising to tell his story to her children, who in turn will pass it on to their children so Peter's legacy would live on.
Captain James Hook and Peter Pan more or less represent two sides of the same coin. Though they are sworn enemies, Hook and Peter share some similarities. Hook also balks at the idea of growing up and fears being alone, but is far more tortured than Peter. Captain Hook not only represents Peter's dark side but the dark and seductive side of Neverland, sensing his enemies' deepest insecurities and using their fears and desires against them. Audiences and even Jason Issacs have likened this iteration of Hook to a sexual predator, especially during his scenes with Wendy, given how often he is in close proximity with her.
When he sees Peter and Wendy amidst their fairy dance, Hook is taken aback, having lost Peter's attention to a girl of all things. Now in a situation like that of a banished Tinker Bell, Hook laments his loneliness and watches the two in jealousy. To regain the attention of his nemesis, Hook uses Tink's jealousy of Wendy in his plan to find Peter's secret hideout. Abducting Wendy and bringing her aboard the Jolly Roger, he is seen playing piano and showing off his hook when he finishes his song and says her name, symbolizing how he plans to "hook" Wendy and bring her onto his side. He uses Peter's inability to mature to lure Wendy away from him, and uses Wendy's budding maturity and sexuality to his advantage. Hook further entices her with the notion of becoming a pirate on his crew under the name of Red-Handed Jill and entertaining the crew with her stories.
In a failed attempt to kill Peter, Hook uses a poison made from his own tears, described as “a mixture of malice, jealousy, and disappointment.” In the climactic showdown, an airborne Captain Hook gives Peter "a peak into the future," using Peter's fear of abandonment to bring him down; saying that Wendy will grow up, forget all about him, and marry a man to replace him. Hook further taunts Peter saying he will be just like him, alone and unloved. Hook eventually meets his end when Peter and the gang uses his own tactic against him by taunting him and filling his head with unhappy thoughts, namely the fact he is "old, alone, and done for."
In this adaptation, the character of Mr. Darling also gets explored. George Darling works as a clerk in the bank who "knows the cost of everything, even a hug." He is a man who seeks to provide for his family, so following Aunt Millicent's advice, Mr. Darling tirelessly practices small talk in order to impress the bank president, Sir Edward Quiller Couch, a man who is said to "appreciate small talk as much as a good balance sheet." However, George's chances of advancement are inadvertently ruined by the uncalled-for arrival of his children and the family dog Nana.
Humiliated, George chains Nana outside as the children's punishment, shouting that he must become someone feared by children and respected by adults or else his family will end up living on the street. Later Mary Darling explains to the children that no matter how many dreams he is forced to put away, George has sacrificed a lot for the family, and although he's never held a sword or a gun, it's because of how he puts them first before himself that makes him brave.
In some deleted scenes, after the children run away to Neverland, George punishes himself by putting himself in Nana's doghouse as he and Mary wait for them to return. He even insists on traveling around in it until Wendy, Michael, and John come back, even to the bank. Once they do, George is overcome with emotion that breaks his hard exterior. When Wendy asks if the Lost Boys can stay with them, George immediately thinks of how expensive it will be having the boys around, but now reformed, he simply says "Dash the neighbors! And dash the expense! Welcome to the family, boys."
The character of Aunt Millicent serves as the voice of false ego, or how the world perceives someone. As a socially sophisticated woman, she wishes to pass some poise on to the Darlings, a well-meaning endeavor that comes across as elitist. She is somewhat embarrassed by the children's stories as she considers them a quality of someone of a lower class, and when Wendy tells for dream of writing stories, Millicent claims that novelists are "not highly thought of in good society," and that a novelist is seen as someone difficult to marry.
Once Aunt Millicent judges Wendy as now being a young woman, she enters a sort of advisory role to George and Mary, asking them to consider Wendy's future. In order to help Wendy's chances of eventually finding a husband, Aunt Millicent encourages George to climb the social ladder, socialize more, and engage in small talk with his superiors at the bank as "wit is very fashionable at the moment." After George is humiliated at work and he yells at the top of his lungs like a madman, Aunt Millicent asks him to keep it down or else the neighbors will hear, which he ignores. At the end of the film, when Wendy asks her parents if the Lost Boys can stay with them, Aunt Millicent asks George to think of the neighbors. Again, instead of listening to her, he says to hell what the neighbors will think and lets the boys join the family. When Slightly appears a moment later and says he is now the only boy left without a mother, the lonely Aunt Millicent adopts him, and finally gets what she's always wanted: a child of her own.
The score for Peter Pan is composed by James Newton Howard, whose known works include Disney's Dinosaur (2000), Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Hunger Games series (2012-2015). For this film, Howard creates some truly magical themes. The most notable one being "Flying," which is first heard as Peter and the Darling kids fly off to Neverland. It appropriately creates a feeling of setting off on a grand adventure and gets the juices flowing.
Another notable theme is "Fairy Dance," first heard during a romantic moment between Peter and Wendy as dance in the air surrounded by fairies. The tune creates a romantic atmosphere while introducing dark and sad notes as soon as Hook arrives on the scene, after which things go downhill for Peter and Wendy.
As a minor piece of trivia, this version of Peter Pan had Carsen Gray, a young Canadian actress of actual American Indian descent in the role of Tiger Lily. In her only film role, Carsen is a Haida-descendent and she got to speak in her ancestral tongue in the scene where she insults Hook, which translates to "You are the life-stealer. You are evil. You smell bad. You smell of bear-poop. You are many moons old and ugly."