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Thursday
Dec182003

Peter Pan

[Our Sunday Visitor, January 11, 2004]

P. J. Hogue’s new production of ‘Peter Pan’ has a lot more sex in it, and that’s why you should see it. Not sex, exactly, but sexuality, the first budding of a young girl’s confused romantic feelings, and how she must learn to navigate them wisely. The film itself is wise and treats the topic with appropriate delicacy. You can take even young children to this film, and all they’ll see is a beautifully produced classic of fantasy and adventure. You’ll see something more.

Peter (portrayed by Jeremy Sumpter) is not the focus of this story, but Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). When we first meet her she is telling her brothers the story of Cinderella; in her version, Cinderella is battling pirates. But Wendy’s aunt notices that she has developed a ‘kiss, there in the right corner of her mouth.’ It’s something which must be guarded, and Wendy needs now to be educated as a young woman, not a child—a lovely metaphor for the tenderness and vulnerability of virginity.

Wendy is beginning to have bursts of infatuation and romantic longing, which are appropriate and preparing her for marriage and motherhood. But there is ambivalence about this; she has seen her dad saddled with the daily cares of work and home, and it looks very unexciting (though her mom stresses that this is another kind of heroism; the father has put away his dreams, yet sometimes looks at them in a drawer that is very hard to close—a speech that echoes themes of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’). This is difficult for Wendy to understand, as she’s more drawn to romance, swords, and fairies.

That’s the side Peter represents, a character author J. M. Barrie described as ‘gay, innocent, and heartless.’ Peter is never sad because he does not remember anything and does not care for anyone; in the novel, years later, he can’ t remember who Tinker Bell is. He is a boy-sized Pan, the goat-footed, nymph-chasing Greek god of woodlands, and the film shows him playing pan-pipes. Peter and Wendy pretend to be mother and father to the Lost Boys, but Peter fears she is getting serious; ‘Wendy, you know it’s just make-believe, don’t you” he asks, worried. He is only capable of playing house.

Enter Captain Hook, who per Barrie’s production notes is portrayed by the same actor who plays Wendy’s father (Jason Isaacs). Wendy had invented this scary character for her stories, but ‘When she saw his dark eyes she was not afraid, but entranced.’ Where Peter is egocentric and shallow, incapable of caring for anyone, Hook feels passionately and mourns his loneliness—he is, in Barrie’ s words, a ‘not wholly unheroic figure.’

The climactic battle between Hook and Peter is fought in the air amid the ship ‘s rigging. Hook nearly wins by telling Peter these hard truths: “Wendy was leaving you. Why should she stay? You are incapable of caring.” Hook tells Peter that he can foresee Wendy in a nursery with children of her own. “There is another in your place. He is called ‘husband.” Peter crumples and falls.

This is the right way these complex truths about growing up should be presented: that a girl develops a secret kiss which she must protect; that she must separate the players from men capable of caring; that she must turn from dreamy fantasy to the daily sacrifice of ordinary life, with a man who has undertaken that same commitment, itself a kind of high heroism.

Well, you couldn’t ask for more. In a culture which generally presents young women with the worst possible advice about how to understand their sexuality, this film stands out like an antidote. Where conservatives don’t know what to say beyond negatives, ‘Peter Pan’ dares to present a positive view, expressing the loveliness of guarded, chaste, yet warm desire.

So, for once, sex is the reason you should see a film rather than avoid it. Violence might be a reason to avoid it, for some children; when we first see Hook he is holding his hook in his left hand, and then brings the stump of the right into view. He threatens people with the hook, bringing it uncomfortably close to an eye. People are shot, run through, and almost drowned. Match the movie to the child.

When I came home from ‘Peter Pan’ I found my son watching a DVD of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ and my husband reading ‘Master and Commander.’ Looks like a theme’s developing here. If Hollywood was opening a fortune cookie at this moment it would read, ‘You will be going on a long sea voyage.’ 

***

I was thinking about how the “special effects” in Peter Pan, eg Capn Hook’s parrot, are not quite as realistic as we’ve come to expect; perhaps we are tired of realism and want a more fantastical look. I read in the New Yorker recently abt a Japanese filmmaker who has been exploring the impact of special-effects characters on viewers, and he found that as you make them more and more realistic people like it increasingly, and then it passes a boundary where it’s too realistic and they start finding them creepy. Instead of noticing all the ways the character looks human, they start noticing the things about these “humans” that are subtly alien. This makes people deeply uneasy. He calls this “the uncanny valley.” Fascinating, eh?

A bit of backstory about Peter Pan is that the story’s author, JM Barrie, was friends with a couple who had 6 children, five boys and a girl named Wendy. When the couple both died of cancer Barrie adopted the boys, and made up the Peter Pan story for them. They would play in Kensington Gardens with Barrie taking the role of Hook. You see at the end of the story Wendy brings the 5 “lost boys” to her parents and asks them to adopt them. But in real life, the daughter Wendy died before her parents did.

Barrie’s play was thought unstageable because people don’t, technically speaking, fly. It was an alarming thing to try to stage for the first time. He wouldn’t give his actors their parts until the day of rehearsal, and thus surprise them with the news that they were going to be flung up into the rafters that day. Not till 1954 did a stage engineer named Peter Foy figure out how to fly Mary Martin in a way other than just hauling the performers vertically up and down on wires. the technique is still used and called “flying by Foy.”

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