'Peter Pan' finally becomes a real boy

Friday, December 26, 2003

— "Peter Pan" is about a boy who never grows up, but usually he's played by women who are old enough to be his mother.

In previous live-action films based on the J.M. Barrie story, the mystical flying troublemaker was played by Mary Martin, Cathy Rigby and even Mia Farrow. But in the latest version, he finally is being played by an actual 12-year-old -- Jeremy Sumpter.

"The director, P.J. Hogan, told me that, 'Jeremy, you are Peter Pan. Just go in there and be yourself.' So I just went in there being Jeremy," he said.

So how does Jeremy describe himself?

"Energetic, funny and going all over the place," he said. "And hyper."

The new film, which its makers describe as the most faithful to Barrie's original 1904 play and later novel, emphasizes the puppy-dog romance between Peter and Wendy, the daydreaming young girl who ventures with Peter to the mythical world of Never Land.

Amid the mermaids, Indians and swordfighting, Wendy and her two brothers -- bookish John and baby Michael, encounter the grumpy, embittered Captain Hook, who represents the worst in grown-ups.

In Barrie's time, a woman played the part of Peter Pan because child-labor laws prohibited youths from working onstage beyond a certain hour of the evening. To maintain the character's childlike voice and physique, petite and tomboyish women were hired for the role instead.

The tradition stuck -- even in the 1924 silent movie with Betty Bronson -- in part because it's a demanding role, one that carries the entire play or movie and often requires stunt work for the wire-flying scenes.

Disney hired 15-year-old Bobby Driscoll to voice the prankster for the 1953 cartoon classic "Peter Pan," but that screen character was, of course, rendered in ink-and-paint.

Captain Hook

One longtime tradition when staging "Peter Pan" is to have one actor play two important roles: Captain Hook, the villainous pirate, and Mr. Darling, the stuffy father of Wendy, Michael and John.

Jason Isaacs, who plays both roles in the new "Peter Pan," said there was more to the tradition than using one performer to play two characters who are never on-screen together.

"It's much more symbolic than that," the actor said. "Wendy goes to a place where she's working out what she wants to do about growing up. ... When little kids imagine growing up and having a family, they look at their dad."

Director P.J. Hogan said Peter Pan represented Wendy's fear of adulthood, and the dual casting is a way to highlight how important her real father is.

"Mr. Darling is everything that Captain Hook isn't. Hook is a man who follows every impulse he's ever had, usually the basest one. He's a pirate. If he wants it, he takes it. He's a wicked man, but he has LIVED," Hogan said. "And Mr. Darling is a totally constricted man, one who has made a lot of sacrifices, and his children can't see that that makes him brave. Hook comes across as brave, but is, in fact, not."

First love

Most versions of "Peter Pan" focus on adventure -- the pirates, the swordfights, the Indians, the mermaids and crocodiles.

This film focuses on romance.

With Peter played by a real boy instead of the usual adult woman, the filmmakers were free to explore the childhood innocence of first kisses and budding infatuation.

"When Peter Pan was played by a middle-aged woman who's slapping her oversized thighs around and you'd wonder why Wendy is so attracted to this person," Isaacs said. "None of it made much sense."

Rachel Hurd-Wood portrays Wendy. She and Jeremy Sumpter both were around 12 when they started work on the movie.

They shared their first screen kiss in the movie. But was that peck a first for the young actors in real-life, too?

Jeremy shrugged, saying, "I've had a few kisses before I made the movie."

Rachel giggled: "I'm not going to answer that question."