It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a boy

Friday, December 26, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- "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.

Like almost any kid, Sumpter, now 14, talks a little fast, fidgets like he has ants in the pants and sees life as full of exclamation points.

His family brought him to Los Angeles when he was 9 for some open casting calls. His first role was in director-star Bill Paxton's 2001 horror thriller "Frailty," as the youngest son of a man who thinks the world is filled with demons.

Sumpter said his favorite part of making the movie was hanging on wires for the flying scenes.

"Sometimes they shoot you straight up four stories high, then they would drop me and I shoot out like this -- Whoooosh! -- and I'd fly around the whole stage," he said, rising from his chair. "I did all my own stunts except for one," he added, raising his index finger.

Which one?

"That, I'm not going to say. I even did one that could have killed me if I didn't do it right ... well, not kill me, but it could have broken my ribs."

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, ultimately rendered in ink-and-paint.

The middle-aged Robin Williams played Peter Pan in "Hook," but that modern-day interpretation had little to do with the original Barrie story.

Captain HookOne 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's 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.

"It's a little creepy, but it's meant to be creepy," Isaacs added. "There is someone who represents all the worst things and best things about growing up. Hook is this kind of animal character who she's strangely attracted to, but also repelled by -- and he looks a lot like her dad!"

Isaacs is used to playing mean fathers. He also played the sinister father of bully Draco Malfoy in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

"Peter Pan" director P.J. Hogan said Peter Pan represents 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."

Isaacs, 40, said one of the biggest challenges of playing Hook was keeping real swords out of the hands of child-actor Jeremy Sumpter.

"They are much more dangerous, and sharp. I always insisted on using the very heavy, rubber ones," Isaacs said. "Then one time he smacked me full in the face with it. He couldn't be more apologetic. He was horrified. And I said, 'Do you think that might be the last time we discuss the rubber swords or the metal swords.' He said, 'Yes! I'm so sorry. You were so right.' The next morning at work we've got a new stunt lined up, and he says, 'Come on, please, can we use the metal swords on this one?"

But what's behind all the fighting in the first place? Why does the adult Hook have this irrational hatred of Peter Pan?

Hogan said it's because Hook is trapped in Never Land.

"J.M. Barrie, wrote about it like this: Hook is like a lion in a cage. And in that cage is a butterfly. If the lion were free, that butterfly would never bother him," Hogan said. "But the lion isn't free, and so the butterfly drives him insane."

Tinker BellAlmost everyone knows the graceful Marilyn Monroe lookalike fairy from Disney's "Peter Pan" cartoon. But Tinker Bell in new live-action version of the story is a little like the cartoon version's grumpier, messier twin.

"She's wild, she's dirty -- she's quite rough," said French actress Ludivine Sagnier, who plays the pixie like a female version of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. "I didn't want her to be too glamorous and too much of an adult. We don't want her to be too sweet. We wanted Tinker Bell to be very clownish and cheeky."

In the original J.M. Barrie play, Tinker Bell was performed by a tiny light dangled on a wire and the offstage ringing of a small bell. Over the years, she has been played by the petite 5-foot actress Virginia Brown Faire in the 1924 silent film, and Julia Roberts in 1991's "Hook."

"For me, the big downside of 'Hook' was that Tinker Bell spoke," said P.J. Hogan, director of the new "Peter Pan."

Sagnier uttered some French phrases as the fairy, but those were replaced with tiny rings, squeaks, pops and splutters.

"She's a fairy," Hogan said. "She should have her own language."

In each version, Tink is very jealous of Wendy and tries to sabotage her friendship with Peter. This time, Sagnier said she wanted to emphasize Tink's "naughty side."

"Wendy is everything she cannot be," the actress said. "Wendy is a storyteller and Tinker Bell cannot talk. Wendy is strong, she provokes the desire of Peter and that's something Tinker Bell can never have."

But the pixie isn't all evil, Sagnier said. "It's just that she only has room for one emotion at a time."

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

The new live-action film of J.M. Barrie's 100-year-old story focuses on romance.

With Peter played by a real boy -- Jeremy Sumpter -- 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," said Jason Isaacs, who plays Captain Hook. "None of it made much sense."

The new movie stars Jeremy Sumpter as Peter and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy.

Both were around 12 when they started work on the movie, but Sumpter is many months older than his female co-star. "That seems like a lot when you're that age," said Hurd-Wood, now 13.

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

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

Hurd-Wood giggled: "I'm not going to answer that question."

"But it was embarrassing," she added. "Because Jeremy is a very, very close friend. It was just weird."

Ultimately, in the story, it's too weird for "the boy who would not grow up," too.

"Think of the phrase 'Peter Pan syndrome,"' said Douglas Wick, who co-produced the film with wife Lucy Fisher, a lifelong "Peter Pan" fan. "This story has made a real cultural impact: It's that idea of a girl who is growing up and wants more in a relationship, wants feeling and depth -- but she's with a boy who doesn't want to grow up and wants to just have a good time."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: