There are countless Peter Pan adaptations – but this underrated version is the best

PJ Hogan’s 2003 film is uniquely magical, with Jason Isaacs doubling splendidly as Captain Hook and Mr Darling

All children grow up, except one. And almost 20 years since this adaptation was released, PJ Hogan’s film Peter Pan still charms the youngster in all of us.

Since its origin, first as a play in 1904, then a novel in 1911, JM Barrie’s story has had many iterations on screen. From the 1953 Disney animation to retellings from the point of view of Wendy, Tinkerbell and even a grown-up Pan, it is Hogan’s 2003 live-action film that is perhaps the most underrated adaptation. Equally gratifying, Finding Neverland (2004), which followed soon after, brought Barrie’s influences and inspiration to life.

With so many versions of Peter’s story, most of us are familiar with the story now, but: one snowy night in London, as Mr Darling (Jason Isaacs) and Mrs Darling (Olivia Williams) attend a lavish party, Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) is on a mission to rescue his shadow from the Darling children’s nursery. With his fairy Tinkerbell in tow, he meets Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the eldest of the Darling children, who quickly becomes enchanted by Peter’s tales of the lost boys, pirates and the promise of being taught how to fly. Faced with the prospect of soon becoming a woman and beginning instruction with her scrupulous Aunt Millicent, Wendy wakes her brothers, Michael and John. Together they fly out of the nursery window, “second to the right, and straight on till morning”, to a place where children never grow up: Neverland.

Bouncing through pillowy pink clouds, Neverland blooms with life when Peter Pan returns with his new recruits, but his arrival reignites his longstanding battle with Captain Hook (also Isaacs) and his crew. The Darling children must soon face the villains of their bedtime stories, their sword skills honed in nursery battles.

Revisiting this 2003 film, you may expect its special effects to appear outdated, but Tinkerbell’s fairy dust, Pan’s shadow (at times playfully independent of its master) and ticking crocodiles remain as real as make-believe can on screen. The dialogue is rhythmic and whimsical, and the twinkle in the eyes of the entire cast only adds to its enduring quality.

Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan.
‘A standout performance’ … Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan. Photograph: Universal Studios

Isaacs, well known for his malice as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, doubles splendidly as an uptight Mr Darling and the commanding Captain Hook. As a bank clerk hoping to climb the ladder, Mr Darling struggles to master the art of small talk, while Hook hopes to be master of all (before chants of “old, alone, done for” force him to take the plank).

And at just 13 years old, Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan gives a standout performance, navigating the love, jealousy, grief and joy that come with never growing up. His chemistry with Hurd-Wood as Wendy makes their innocent love story feel authentic, and his repartee with Isaacs as Hook shows talent beyond his years.

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Watching Peter Pan as a child growing up in Australia, the Darling household was almost as magical as Neverland. Why would you want to leave? Snow fell on the streets of Edwardian London, Mrs Darling’s radiance was enchanting and the children had a boisterous St Bernard, Nana, as their nurse, cajoling them to bathtime.

Elevated by a soundtrack by composer James Newton Howard, this adaptation pairs the terrors of a children’s adventure story, from sinister mermaids to poisoned medicine, with enough comic relief to keep a smile on your face. This Peter Pan is goosebump-inducingly good – so much so, you may find yourself chanting, “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do” at the end.


Maddie Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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