I can’t remember when I fell in love with Peter Pan. The story has been a part of my life for as far back as my memories go, and it is dear to my heart. As I have grown older my visceral fascination has given rise to a scholarly interest in the work. I have sought it out in almost all its adapted forms, I have scrutinized each version to cross my path, I have put way more thought into this play/novel than many would think healthy. Recently I found myself with a few hours to kill and wound up at a screening of the new film Pan. The experience left me thinking about all the films I’ve ever seen on the subject matter; I’ve always had my own ranking in my mind, but something about seeing Pan seemed to ignite a fervor to finally verbalize what I have always felt so passionately about.
So here it is. The ultimate ranking of all things Peter Pan as they have appeared in film and television. To qualify for this list the piece had to be a full length adaptation, had to feature Peter Pan as the central character, and, in the case of the films, had to be theatrical releases (thus no Return to Neverland, no Once Upon a Time). Welcome to my fixation. Please do enjoy.
- Peter Pan (2014 NBC Telecast)
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Try to be sexy. Everyone likes sexy.”
After that God-awful Sound of Music I was in a state…supreme chagrin when NBC announced its second victim would be my beloved Peter Pan.
Allison Williams is routinely one of the things I like best about Girls, but as the lead in this telecast she killed me. She’s not Peter Pan, she’s a girl with a wig and a bad accent, whose tepid acting has no trace of the mischievous fun or endearing arrogance that are integral to the character. Nor, sadly, is any of his unbridled energy in evidence as Williams chronically underplays the role. She has no sense of how to play a twelve year old boy, least of all THIS twelve year old boy, illustrated as much by her feminized gestures and awkward physicality as by any other choice she makes in the role (When playing a guy, remember, ladies: keep your arms stiff, and bend from the waist. Insta-boy!). While no one has ever flown like Cathy Rigby, puppets are more lifelike on their strings than Allison Williams on hers. I hate to say this, but Allison Williams wasn’t playing Peter Pan, she seemed to be playing Marnie…playing Peter. The whole performance was embarrassing in its awkwardness, and sadly disingenuous despite the fact that she was obviously trying. Like Marnie.
However, as unsatisfying a Peter as Allison Williams was, she was a tour-de-force when compared with a doddering Christopher Walken as Grandpa Hook. He must have been a great performer ONCE, but with age and success he’s been allowed to play roles catering almost exclusively to his natural oddness, and I think it’s made him lazy. I knew this casting was a bad idea from the second it was announced; I could hear in my head exactly how he was going to do this role, and in the end I was pretty spot on. I don’t know if he was just bored, or if he’d overshot the Valium dosage, but his waxen, wooden, stilt-tongued performance left me staring at the screen going, “Do you even KNOW WHO YOU’RE PLAYING?” Phoning it in doesn’t begin to describe his performance. Suffice it to say that I have never heard a less believable line delivery than, “…Hammer and tongs…I’m burning.” (You KNOW you can hear it in your head, you KNOW you can)
A major low point came during one of several new songs (this one sung by Hook and Peter), and a rickety, tentative sword fight that left Peter too grievously wounded to fly despite having very little action. Watching Allison Williams and Christopher Walken awkwardly inching around each other as a means of a duel was…well…it happened. In combining the two weakest links in the proverbial chain their individual shortcomings were magnified to ignominious proportions, ensuring that the audience was, for five minutes, at least as uncomfortable watching the scene as the performers were playing it. It’s a solid strategy. If you can’t win the audience’s love, at least get their empathy.
The chief problem with the whole production seems to be the fault of the production TEAM, though. I don’t know whether to lay blame on the network, the script adaptors, the director…it’s likely a combination of all three. Let’s pass over the crappy fairy “effects” utilized when an actual light or a handful of glitter would have sold so much better. Let’s move past the poor casting choices. Let’s even ignore the bizarre blocking choices. They displayed again and again, not only a disregard for their source material, but a lack of understanding in it.
Let’s just start with the surface cosmetic issues: the Lost Boys as written and named by J.M. Barrie are: Slightly, Nibs, Curly, Twin, Twin, and Toodles. Notice how there’s only one set of twins. Yet the telecast features a veritable horde of Tweedles, jete-ing past, two by two, in doubled up English schoolboy motifs like twinkle-toed truants from Neverland prep. I also dislike the way they were directed. Most of these guys are Dancers (picture that with an out-thrust chest, beveled foot, and jazz hands), and so their quality of movement is very Dancer-y. The Lost Boys, a pack of rough-living, tumble around, undisciplined boys should have more rough-and-tumble in their choreography, right? As it stands Neverland appears to have quite a stunning ballet program. This isn’t to say that the dancing shouldn’t be good, but the quality of movement is altogether too polished for the characters. I lay this failing solidly at the feet of a choreographer more interested in tricks than in character work, and a director too disengaged to ask anything different.
The book for the musical of Peter Pan is a tightly written story that tells itself well, it didn’t need augmenting and it didn’t need rewriting, especially when the rewrites proved to be so expositional and clunky. However, angry as that made me, it was some of the odd rearrangements within the construct of the script that made me truly understand we were dealing with pirates on the creative side (and I mean that in the Hook sense of the term).
The first indication that we were in trouble came when it was announced that Christian Borle would be doubling as Mr. Darling and…Smee. In the history of this production, Mr. Darling has always, ALWAYS doubled Captain Hook. And there’s a very good reason for that. It makes a strong statement, it’s an evocative parallel. Mr. Darling and Smee? Not so much, it’s just NBC’s attempt to get their money’s worth out of Borle, who has to know by now that he is way too talented for anything NBC pitches him.
Another moment that revealed the ineptitude of these adaptors came in the Home Underground (which has windows?). “Distant Melody,” the lullaby sung by Wendy and Mrs. Darling in this telecast, is originally Peter’s song*. I assumed that is was reassigned to Wendy here because Allison Williams isn’t vocally up to singing it. That choice dilutes a revelatory character moment (and removes one of the most bittersweet moments in the show), but the lullaby IS immediately followed by a short monologue that reinforces and underscores the poignancy of the lullaby, so as long as that survives, it’s fine right? Right. So let’s take a machete to that, since coherence at this point in the telecast would only confuse the audience. Peter’s monologue in inexplicably cut, only to be replaced with another original song that (obliquely) communicates the same points. Reassign a song to a stronger singer, only to then cut a monologue and give the weaker singer a song? Excuse me, but…WHAT?!
Saddest of all is that NBC managed the impossible. Or what I thought was the impossible. They made Peter Pan boring. I have rarely found the story or it’s telling to be anything less than magical. But NBC managed it. They stripped the magic away and made it into something weak and lame, and for that I am abysmally sorry. I don’t blame the ensemble that worked so hard and did so well following leads who were unequal to their tasks, I don’t even really blame Allison Williams. I blame a network that has become synonymous with Musical Theater Heartache. Let’s just close our eyes and see if we can pretend this one out of collective memory.
- Peter Pan (1924)
Released in 1924, this silent movie was the first significant film representation of Barrie’s story. The special effects were hailed as groundbreaking, and eventually the film was judged to have enough cultural and historical significance to win a spot in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Points for casting a minority woman, the ever underappreciated Anna May Wong, as Tiger Lily. She’s not the RIGHT minority, mind you (Hollywood, it seems, has never understood that all pigmented people are not the same, more on that later), but in an era when no one would have blinked at a blonde girl in a feathered headdress as the Indian Princess, and when an enormous lack of opportunity made minority film actors scarce to say the least, you have to appreciate the attempt, even if it was a weak one by modern standards.
So why the low ranking? Simply because I’ve never seen this adaptation. But then why does it rank higher than one I HAVE seen? Because I don’t need to see it to know that a ninety-year-old silent movie is still a vast improvement on Marnie Pan and her nemesis, Grandpa Hook.
- Neverland (Sy-Fy 2011)
“We’re having at least as much fun as those boat guys in Ben-Hur.”
I watched this, all four hours of it, I KNOW I did…but I can’t seem to recall any wealth of information about it, which is a pretty dismal indictment against any Peter Pan adaptation that comes across my path.
What I DO remember is that it was dark (in theme and in design), it was slow, and it was hell bent on finding pseudo-sciency explanations for all that screwy “magic” stuff.
Note to all Producer Guys: When choosing to adapt a story that prominently features flying children, fairies, mermaids, giant ticking crocs, and death undone by passionate applause…maybe don’t try to find a realistic explanation for any of it. Just embrace the magic idea and move on with your life. While I will talk your ear off about how Peter Pan is not just some fluffy fairytale, a production that is so thoroughly stripped of joy and magic has likewise missed the point. This is one of many stories that does not benefit from the fashionable penchant for Gritty Reboots.
Rhys Ifans was a good pick for Captain Hook, and it was fun to see Hook’s Bob Hoskins step back into Smee’s boots (though with far less inspired material to work with this time around), but the script is just no fun. Peter Pan is not without its mature themes (again, don’t start me, we’ll never get out of here) but to maniacally shoehorn grim and aggressively adult scenarios in around the existing structure of the story creates such a dissonance that it’s unsettling, and even a little absurd. What’s the point of a land of eternal youth if no one there is having a good time?
- Pan (2015)
“You don’t look like Tiger Lily…”
Ah, the most recent attempt to mine gold (or, “Pixum,” as it were) from the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This actually shares several similarities with Sy-Fy’s Neverland. Both are origin stories, and, as I hinted above, both feature the riveting subject of mining as a major plot point (“Mineral Dust” in Neverland, “Pixum” in Pan…Let’s cut to the chase: it’s all Fairy Dust). Likewise, both establish Peter and Hook as fast friends, and partners-in-crime prior to their immortal rivalry. However, unlike Neverland, Pan never reaches the point at which their paths diverge, instead hinting winkingly, and hopefully at events to come, at adventures to be had…at franchise potential (I wouldn’t hold my breath there, guys).
I was seriously torn on my feelings about this prior to its release. I have a natural skepticism towards any attempt to adapt Peter Pan. I’ve been burned in the past; lots of people miss the point of this story, and because of the nature of my connection to the material a part of me can’t help but take it personally, no matter how irrational my intelligent brain knows that to be. Joe Wright’s prior films (notably, for me, Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina) are visual feasts; moving works of art. He’s someone that I felt was fully capable of realizing Neverland in a visual sense if nothing else. I tried to be hopeful.
My first moment of real trepidation came when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great actress, but she’s a blonde haired, white girl playing a role that has almost always been depicted as some kind of minority. When even the 1924 production has more progressive casting practices than a movie from 2015 you know you’ve got a problem.
“But, but,” the production team sputters, “but we wanted a MULTICULTURAL native tribe! Just look how COLORFUL it is!” And it is very colorful. The village is a riot of varicolored striped tents, its racial grab bag of residents decked out in bright, fanciful costumes. Why, a fatal gunshot wound will even induce them to explode into a burst of vividly colored powder. Which, in case you’re wondering, is how you depict brutal genocide while still maintaining your family-friendly PG rating. And Rooney Mara isn’t the ONLY white person wandering around. There’s, like, two or three others in amongst the ensemble of minority players. One of them is not Rooney Mara’s father, mind you, that actor is an Aboriginal man (“See! We put a brown-skinned person in a position of power! …And then we killed him off so his white daughter could go be the hero.”), but why quibble. If you’re still not convinced that everything’s A-OK in this scenario, just remember the production team’s vehement assurances that to cast Tiger Lily they looked all over the world, they even auditioned…Lupita Nyong’o. Proving beyond a shadow off all doubt that they really are as clueless as they seem since A. They still cast Rooney Mara instead, and B. Kenyan is not the same as Indian (in either sense), though I suppose we could kind of see that as a side step in the right (ish) direction. If we’re being charitable. Or if we’re going to go with a direct (if racist) interpretation of Barrie’s actual term for the Neverland natives (more on that later). Point is, American Indians are one the most underrepresented group in cinema, bar none. Why get rid of one of the few major roles that we all tacitly acknowledge belongs to them anyway? In 2015 it seems bafflingly backward.
Bumping the initial setting of the movie from Edwardian London to the Blitz of the early 1940’s was a weird move, too. I was confused as to what the rationale behind that was, but fifteen minutes into the movie I got my clear answer. It exists for no other reason AT ALL than to have a flying pirate ship caught in the crossfire between the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Seriously. That’s the only reason. But we DO get a fun shot of this particular conflict through the uncovered windows of a well-lit civilian passenger train as it clatters along the benighted tracks of urban London.
I’ll pause here while all my fellow history nerds have the thousand little aneurysms I did in that moment.
There are other things that don’t make much sense either. Like Garrett Hedlund’s characterization of Hook-to-be, as a roguish, yet inherently moral, adventurer, who dresses like Indiana Jones and talks like Karl Urban’s Bones McCoy. Or the impetus for the central conflict being Blackbeard’s quest for eternal youth, which is bewildering in a realm whose defining characteristic is that time is suspended inside its borders. This scores higher than Neverland on the strength of Joe Wright’s abundant skill as a visual storyteller, but ultimately the story and characters are very weak. They generally only serve as a framework for one elaborate action sequence after another. It’s a shame to see such a great director so disconnected from his source material, so unable to understand the world or the characters that populate it. There are so many inside references to the book! He obviously did his homework! Alas, oh well. Better luck next time.
- Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)
“This waaaay to…Disneyland!”
I might catch serious flak for this, because the animated movie is so beloved, but as tellings of the original play/novel go it’s actually pretty two-dimensional (HA! Get it? two-dimensional? Because…it’s…okay, moving on). It hits the plot points, it gets the central gist of things, but it only manages to capture one narrow facet of what is actually a pretty complex story. That was almost certainly a deliberate choice. Disney wasn’t interested in thematically complex in 1953. They wanted to make beautifully animated movies, with catchy songs, that would be loved by children, and could provide the company with ample merchandising potential. On that level I’d say they succeeded handily. It has all those things going for it. It’s a fun, cute animated movie with a Puckish hero, a simplistic villain, a sweetly dull damsel-in-distress, and a colorful cast of supporting characters all embroiled in a series of never-too-dire shenanigans. Also a mortifyingly racist caricature of American Indians (if you’re not noticing a pattern yet, don’t worry, we’ll visit this again). Eesh, is that scene painful to watch; unfortunately this was just one of many instances where early Disney handled issues of race and culture with all the finesse of a sledgehammer. But egregious blunders in sensitivity aside, it’s a mostly enjoyable movie about free-wheeling fun on a magical island in the stars.
However, the movie lacks the weight necessary to help it truly resonate as it should. Disney reduced the story to a fluffy fairytale, which I have always passionately maintained it is not. But hey, at least we got the fabulously sassy Tinkerbell out of it.
- Peter Pan starring Mary Martin (1960)
“And my legacy shall be THIS big.”
Just a year after Disney’s Peter Pan became an animated hit, Broadway lit up with a new musical starring stage darling Mary Martin in the titular role. It enjoyed both critical and financial success, and when it was recorded for a live telecast (three times between 1955 and 1960) it also gained immortality.
I think this is the first version of the story I ever became acquainted with. It’s very hard to say because, as I mentioned, I don’t clearly remember a part of my life that didn’t include Peter Pan. What I do know is that I wore out two copies of the VHS, and had every word of both the script and songbook down pat. However, it’s not JUST because of my childhood attachment to this version that it rates in the top half of this assessment (though, if we’re being honest, that certainly didn’t hurt). It established the musical Peter Pan as a classic of American theater, which in itself is our great contribution to the legacy of the character, and the story. It helped to give the material new legs (wings?) and refreshed its cultural significance with a longevity that I don’t think the Disney movie ultimately would have.
Of course, it also features some very nice performances. Cyril Ritchard’s Hook (modeled on Gerald du Maurier’s original 1904 interpretation of the role) would be the definitive version of the character for decades after, and is certainly a lot of fun to watch. How do you make a bloodthirsty, child-murdering pirate fun? You give him some good physical comedy and you play up the gentleman fop aspects of his demeanor, of course. Likewise, Mary Martin gives a strong, spritely performance as Peter, though, if you want my opinion, her star power was actually a bit of a hinderance here. She’s quite good, she just never seems to give herself fully into the character. She’s not ever Peter Pan, she’s Mary Martin AS Peter Pan. However, both Martin and Ritchard won Tonys for their portrayals, and with Jerome Robbins’ direction and a strong supporting ensemble the show really is pretty delightful.
BUT…you didn’t think we would avoid mentioning the Indians did you? No, of course not, how could we?
So let’s talk about the big blonde buffalo in the room.
That’s not a crack at Sondra Lee who is, indeed, quite petite. But she is unquestionably blonde. Very blonde. We’re not talking Rooney Mara dirty-blonde either, we’re talking full-on platinum. No attempt was made to disguise the fact that this was a 100% white girl playing the role of the Indian Princess. Even as a toddler this struck me as odd enough to ask about on more than one occasion.
Over the years, many people have come to the defense of white-washing in adaptations of Peter Pan by arguing that because Barrie never specifically said that they were American Indians the Neverland natives COULD be white, or look any way at all, really. Yes, I suppose you could make the case that way. If it wasn’t for the fact that Barrie does actually refer to the natives by a specific and decisive term: Pickaninnies. No, that is not an American Indian tribe, what is is is a variation on a very offensive term for dark skinned native people (generally African, but it was occasionally applied elsewhere). While I think it’s best that we leave that term firmly in the past where it belongs, I don’t think there can be any further argument on the original intent of the author. While the natives don’t HAVE to be American Indians, Barrie obviously meant for his Neverlanders to be decidedly “other” when compared to his English leads; he was not envisioning the Easter variety of lily for his native Princess, let’s just put it that way.
In the case of this Peter Pan, the incongruity of white-bread Tiger Lily is only more pronounced given the overall design of her tribe. Their costumes are clearly intended to reference buckskins (insofar as orangey-brown pajamas can reference buckskins), with feathers in their braided black wigs,and big red spots painted on their cheeks, just to really hammer home the point. They all speak in that offensive halting, broken English that we have come to associate with American Indian caricature, thanks to early/mid twentieth century media depictions. In short, they are animated stereotypes of American Indians made flesh, and they are ruled by a white girl. While the pervasive racism and lack of political correctness rampant in the 1950’s may earn this production some minor leeway on that account (I’m not saying racism gets a pass, I’m saying that we can’t flog them too hard for being products of their culture), I will never understand the rationale behind Easter Lily the Indian Princess. It was a weird choice then, and it doesn’t stand the test of time now. Let’s just agree on that.
Ultimately this production shows its age in a number of ways, but Mary Martin’s Peter Pan introduced the world to the now-classic musical, and rejuvenated the story. It also precipitated later, even better stagings of the musical. High marks for cultural relevance, with an edge for childhood nostalgia.
- Hook (1991)
Steven Spielberg is one of the most respected film directors of the 20th Century. His filmography is packed with iconic movies; he has the unique distinction of being able to find success across multiple genres and target demographics, and as a result he probably has an entire room in his home for the awards he’s accumulated.
I lost all respect for the man when he failed to stand behind Hook in the years that followed its release.
It’s true that when Hook came out in 1991 it was raked over the coals by critics and, despite making around $500 million for the studio, it still somehow qualified as a financial disappointment. Yet through VHS and television airplay Hook gained a cult following, and is now a fiercely beloved classic, especially among people of the Millennial generation.
Its story is a supposition on what might happen if the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up decided to. And jeez is it a depressing entry point. Hook shows us a Peter who has no memory of his former life, now a high-powered corporate attorney and, as Hook himself will eventually state, “A cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children.” This is actually pretty well in keeping with the epilogue Barrie gives for John, Michael, and the Lost Boys; it is one of the saddest endings to a book I’ve ever read. To be honest, given Peter’s particular personality, this is likely EXACTLY the way he would have ended up if he’d come back with Wendy when she begged him to. I don’t know if the spot-on character progression was the result of a writer’s impressive knowledge of Peter Pan as an individual entity, but if not then it’s one of the best accidents in script writing I’ve seen.
As our hero, Robin Williams is incandescent. He is the only actor I can think of with the range to take Peter from self-absorbed, emotionally distant Peter Banning, to playful, boy swashbuckler, and then, finally, to a mature, fully realized Pan the Man. It’s a difficult arc, and he nails it like no one could have. This is a role that really showed us a full spectrum of Williams’ considerable abilities. He is very funny, but also brings a pathos, and a great deal of genuine heart to the role; as we watch his journey we are with him every step of the way, and when he finally finds his Happy Thought we soar right along with him. This role isn’t often mentioned with some of his more critically acclaimed dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society), but it is a masterful portrayal, and a true privilege to watch.
Actually, the casting is almost uniformly fantastic. The actors find wonderful dimensions to their characters, and their is hardly a mediocre performance among the bunch. Even the small role of Toodles, erstwhile Lost Boy and current nutty uncle, is brilliantly memorable in this movie. Dustin Hoffman is a wonderful Hook, and surprisingly menacing for such a petite man (his dark comedy tag team with Bob Hoskins’ Smee is completely delightful). He gives us an elegantly cruel, and quietly simmering psychopath, with a bitter vendetta that he will stop at nothing to fulfill. The similarities between Hook and Pan are much more sharply drawn in Hook than in any other version of the story, but then that makes sense. When they face each other both as adults the likenesses that have fueled their rivalry are bound to be more pronounced, and it is easier to see them for what they are: two sides of the exact same coin.
The one off note in the casting would probably be Julia Roberts. Again, a very talented actress, and obviously trying quite hard in this role. That might be part of the trouble. With every other cast member so effortlessly inhabiting their character, Julia Roberts is very, very noticeably reaching for Tinker Bell. Her performance isn’t bad, per se, it just doesn’t feel as easy and believable as every other one around her.
Now. Let’s talk about the Indians.
Oh! We don’t have to. While obliquely mentioned in this movie, they don’t actually show up, so there’s literally nothing to quibble about on that account. Well played, Mr. Spielberg.
Seriously though, as much as I adore this movie, it’s not totally perfect. There are a few things I would change. Mr. Spielberg thinks so too. He would let Robin Williams run wild with the madcap comedy, and he would shoot the Neverland sequences on entirely CGI’d sets. I’d tell Mr. Spielberg to sit down and stop talking. The comedy in the movie works perfectly the way it is, and amping it up would dilute the emotional impact of the overall story. The sets look really cool precisely because they’re real environments for the actors to run around in. James Cameron might be able to work wonders with a green screen and a team of animators, but not everyone has his dark sorcery, and too often these CGI heavy films don’t come off as well as their directors would hope. Neverland looks good. Leave it alone.
No, the one nit I have to pick with Hook (beyond Julia Roberts) is with the Lost Boys, and some choices that were made to make them seem “hip and cool” but really just make them look hopelessly dated.
In the novel (and the stage version), Peter insists he will never grow up, but when given a chance his tribe of Lost Boys are not so set on the idea of eternal childhood if the alternative is a loving family. They return to London with the Darling children, are adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Darling, and grow up to enjoy respectable, English lives. Thus Wacky Old Toodles crawling around Wendy’s parlor looking for his marbles. Now, Peter isn’t going to just hang around being lonely and sad, no, he’s going to go out and find himself some new friends. The pack of assembled Lost Boys makes sense to me in that regard, especially the core group of kids who really support Peter’s efforts to find his Pan-ness and save his kids. Their hodgepodge costumes reference everything from Edwardian England up through the 1950’s (gotta love Don’t Ask with his checked blazer and greaser-boy hair), which is consistent with the story continuation Hook has concocted. Then there’s this other group of kids. They’re the older ones grouped around Rufio, and they don’t look so much like Lost Boys as they do extras from The Lost Boys, what with the headbands, and the spiky hair, and the earrings, and all that mishigas. Seriously, where did these kids COME from? Peter Pan hasn’t been around to bring anyone to Neverland in thirty years. Now, in the mythology of the book, boy babies who fall out of their cradles and aren’t claimed in seven days are just SENT to Neverland, but I feel like Hook dispensed with that setup, and even if it didn’t then how, if they’d always lived in Neverland, would these weirdo kids know what skateboarding was? Or breakdancing? It just doesn’t fit with the story. As with “Cool Moms,” attempts to look funky fresh and “with it” often have the exact opposite effect. An effect that is not improved as time marches ever away from the early 1990’s.
That aside, Hook really is a wonderful movie. It takes some of the darker themes running strong below the surface in Peter Pan and it brings them to the forefront: Loss, innocence, choice, memory, the nature of adulthood, and of courage…and then it adds its own points and counterpoints to the stew. No matter how Spielberg may dismiss this movie now, he made something beautiful and poignant, something true to the spirit of its source material, which is a lot harder to do than you might have realized before you spent too much time reading this list. Of course the brilliant score by John Williams also lends the film quite a boost. As addenda on the original story go this movie is the best of the best.
- Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby (2000)
“Trust me. We are gonna do great things.”
Former Olympic gymnast, Cathy Rigby plays Peter Pan on Broadway in 1990, produces a remount in 1998, tours off and on until 2013, returns to the role for special engagement in 2015. This is a woman who feels a connection to this role, and that it why her telecast (filmed in 2000 at one of her tour stops) stands apart from all other stage versions, and most other film versions. While we’re continuing to plug our ears and hum every time the 2014 telecast is mentioned, I urge you to help drown it out by scooting over to Youtube, where this one is available in its entirety. THIS is how this musical is supposed to be done.
This is a production made by people who really and truly love Peter Pan, possibly as much as I love it. Their love certainly helped to increase mine, that’s for sure. Cathy Rigby understands both her character and his story in a way that few purveyors of the material seem to, and it is evident in every aspect of this production from the technical to the performative. It is bursting with life, joy, silly humor, great choreography, and the occasional pangs of melancholy.
As Peter Cathy Rigby is perfection. She plays a twelve-year-old boy with such aplomb that it’s uncanny. Her Pan is a careful balance of his arrogance with his playfulness, his bravery with his occasional petulance, his bold self-assurance with a childish uncertainty, and then for good measure she lets us see moments of deeply repressed longing. In her hands Peter is allowed to be a fully-formed human child and not just a mischievous sprite. Her medal worthy gymnastics are also a perfect fit for the part, allowing for a physical performance that is every bit as vibrant and expressive as her emotive performance. If her work on the stage wasn’t good enough, once her feet leave the ground she really is exhilarating. I’ve never seen anyone quite so at home in a flight rig; as Rigby boomerangs fearlessly through the air it’s easy to believe, just for one moment, that she really is Peter Pan leading the way to Neverland.
This production also features Paul Schoeffler in one of my absolute favorite portrayals of Captain Hook ever. As we discussed above, Captain Hook’s villainy is a bit watered down in the musical; he has to build to menacing by the end of the show, but on stage he can never be fully realized as the diabolical, murderous villain that he is; that would be wildly out of keeping with the tone of the show. Rather than being a cold-blooded psychopath he’s a narcissistic fop with elephantine delusions of grandeur. Many actors who take on this role play him to the campy hilt. Paul Schoeffler does not. Paul Schoeffler’s dryly delivered Hook is self-serious, grandiose, and endlessly exasperated by the bumbling idiots that surround him. Even as he obsessively redoubles his efforts to finally best Peter Pan, you can almost see a glimmer of self-awareness, asking himself where his life took such a wrong turn. By refusing to make Hook ridiculous, Schoeffler makes him duly ridiculous; it’s a treat to watch him whenever he’s on stage.
The cast is filled out with an ensemble that really fires on all cylinders (special call outs to Mr. Smee, a brilliant physical comedian, and to Slightly, who’s just adorable). The production value is beautiful. The choreography, substantially beefed up from previous productions, is athletic and energetic.
Let’s talk Indians.
They’re a mixed-race, multicultural group of people, wearing costumes that vaguely reference the tribes of the Northeastern US, led by a dark-haired, bronze-skinned woman with abs that you could bounced quarters off of. Oh thank God.
Really, with the way I’ve been pounding on other productions for their Neverlanders, you might think that I cannot be satisfied, but this is a case where I think they’ve hit a happy medium. Stage productions are generally constrained by who shows up to the audition with a mastery of certain skills, which can be both limiting and liberating in terms of putting together a cast. Here they’ve assembled a strong group of dancers who look decidedly different from the Lost Boys and the Darlings, while going with a design that is a fantasy patchwork of North American native people. Their song, Ugg-a-Wugg, previously a bit of nonsense meant to convey that A. There are Indians, and B. They no speakum heap good English (it’s facepalmingly cringey to the modern ear; every bit as bad as the Disney animated film), has been reworked and repurposed into a high-octane dance number, where they establish friendship with the Lost Boys, and the two groups have a bit of a cultural exchange. It all works very nicely, especially compared to so many other portrayals, and it actually manages to come down as a win no matter what side of the Neverland Natives debate you find yourself on. I do also realize that plenty of people may feel the opposite, but for me this is one of the few productions of any medium where I think big steps were taken to portray the natives well and respectfully. And Dana Solimando is a really kickass dancer.
Overall it’s a magical production, one that has been so carefully crafted in every aspect. One in which the love, and respect for the source material is evident in every second of stage time, and in every nuance of every performance. It, like Peter himself, is a moving embodiment of “Youth, joy, and freedom.” Peter Pan is a hard story to adapt effectively, but if you’re going to do the musical, this production is what getting it right looks like.
- Peter Pan (2003)
In a production that got so much exactly right it’s very sad to me that this movie was so detrimentally impacted by the one thing it got wrong. WHO. In their right mind. Thought it was a good idea to release this movie ON THE HEELS of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King?
What? You thought that because it wasn’t released the same day that it wouldn’t be in competition? You thought that there wouldn’t be audience crossover? Are you insane?! LotR: RoK was the epic conclusion to a juggernaut, landmark film trilogy! Everyone saw it. And then saw it again. It ruled supreme at the box office for the entire season; I didn’t expect anything different and I don’t even work in the film industry! However, because the studio team responsible for Peter Pan either didn’t think it would matter, or didn’t care whether or not the movie succeeded, poor P.J. Hogan’s masterpiece adaptation swept quietly in and then out of theaters with very little fanfare, and without much audience attention. I didn’t even manage to see it during its initial theatrical release, and I’m…well, you might have noticed that I’m a tad bit invested.
This version is a revelation. To me it is the definitive film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s story; the only one to exactly capture, not just the narrative, not just the thematic elements, but, more importantly, the tone and overall spirit of the the work.
Just from a technical standpoint this film blows me away. It has a very specific quality, hyper-saturated, richly detailed; it is more like a vivid series of illustrations come to life as opposed to strict realism. Stark, snowy London appears in a cold and somewhat dreary palette, the cozy Darling Nursery is all rosy warmth, and Neverland…Neverland is a visual realization of every cherished fantasy. It is lush jungles, and eerie lagoons, and seas full of stars. It is enthralling night shots awash in dreamy silver. The stunning skyscapes are the perfect backdrop to the soaring, swirling children as they achieve an organic (and exhilarating) impression of flight the like of which has never been seen before. And it’s all set against an expressive, adventurous score by the incomparable James Newton Howard.
This is no slavish, fundamentalist retelling of the story either.** As we have seen time and again those rarely work (The Watchmen, anyone?). No, the best adaptations of any material retain the narrative and the essence of the original, while offering us some new perspective on familiar territory. In the case of Peter Pan that is often in the way characters are given a bit more to round them out. Wendy, who actually isn’t shrinking violet in the book, is allowed to really develop her backbone in this version. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy being “Mother” to the Lost Boys, but when adventure presents itself, she wants to make sure she gets a piece of the action. John Darling, an aspiring English gentleman, but not much of a major player in most versions, is actually given a developed personality here, and some time to play hero himself. Whereas most adaptations make Peter the object of all feminine attention for miles around, in this movie it is John who holds the interest of the fiery Princess Tiger Lily (played by Carsen Gray…AN ACTUAL FIRST NATIONS TRIBE MEMBER!!!), and their mutual crush makes for some really fun isolated moments throughout the film. Likewise, it’s nice to see all of the Lost Boys with distinct personalities for once, instead of just being an unruly mob. Hogan really found some superlative young actors for his cast, especially Theodore Chester (as my favorite Lost Boy, Slightly Soiled) who delivers every line with such charming brilliance that I just want to hug him.
No character benefits from this extra attention more so than Captain James Hook, in no small part because of the brilliant choice of casting in Jason Isaacs. In Isaacs’ deft hands he is cold, cruel, selfish, violent, commanding, unstable, elegant, manipulative, and dangerously alluring; in short he is a fully realized psychopath. Yet we also see moments of despair, jealousy, deep longing; we see the emptiness that threatens to consume him, the fear or mortality that drives him. Not even Dustin Hoffman did as well (though he probably gives the closest competition). In Isaacs’ portrayal Hook is, for the first time, alive to the fullest extent of the character both as he is written and as he is implied. The result is brutally compelling.***
On the flip side of the coin is Jeremy Sumpter, a relative newcomer in 2003, as the titular hero. With his tousled hair, and intoxicatingly mischievous grin he could have won the part on looks alone, but the young actor attacks the part with the part with obvious glee, and gives us an exuberant, exasperating, irrepressible Pan that any kid would gladly follow out the window. While many other versions of this character reduce Peter to a fun-loving scamp, here (as in Hook) we are allowed to see the parallels between a boy and his nemesis. Peter, while the embodiment of “Youth, joy, and freedom,” is also commanding, and arrogant (how else do you keep six other rowdy boys in line?), self-centered, sometimes selfish, and eternally on the run from an existential loneliness (and perhaps dread) that hovers just at the fringe of his carefree existence. We see the longing for things that lie just out of his grasp, and the temptation that almost tips him over the edge.
This movie is notable for really embracing the theme of choice that is so paramount to the story. While many versions linger on the coolness of living an eternal childhood in a magical world apart, Hogan’s Peter Pan shows us that there is a price for everything. In a scene written specifically for the movie Mrs. Darling defends her husband to his less-than-impressed children by telling them that he is, in fact, a brave man, a man who has made many sacrifices, and put up many dreams for the love of his family. By the end of the film that point has been realized in most of the principal characters; even without the burdens of actually growing up life is an eternally unbalanced scale, and to gain anything you must be prepared to lose something else. Peter will never grow up, but he will also never know reciprocal love or the closeness of a family. Wendy will gain all those nameless things she is just beginning to realize she wants, but she will have to let go certain parts of herself to do so. Life is choice, and no choice is perfect. No matter what path we walk, there will always be a piece of us that wonders what would have been if we’d done differently.
By embracing the melancholy of this story Hogan shows real understanding of the qualities that have caused it to stick in our collective consciousness this last century. His film has a depth and truth that few other adaptations have managed to capture; it rises above the base image of the source material as just a fanciful children’s story and gives real life to Barrie’s most enduring work. I can’t imagine anything that will ever surpass it, but I hope someday someone might come close.
* Actually the song “Distant Melody” WAS initially written for Wendy, but in the original Broadway production Mary Martin asked to sing it instead, and it has remained Peter’s song forever after. While we could chalk this up to a moment of diva syndrome, I actually agree with Martin that this song makes a more poignant character moment when sung by Peter than it would coming from Wendy.
** Big, BIG points for being the only adaptation to incorporate the “Hidden Kiss.” In the book it’s a fascinating, briefly mentioned symbolic element; Hogan turns it into a major plot theme. And it’s wonderful.
* **On a side note, Jason Isaacs is also a brilliant foil to Captain Hook as Mr. Darling, and the best example I’ve seen of the frequent choice to double cast that part
Disclaimer: No photographs used in this story belong to me. All were sourced via Google Image Search.