The other Neverland - P.J. Hogan's 'Peter Pan' ill-served by the ladling-on of special effects

It's like I keep telling my son: just because you can spend all your money-and a lot of mine-on disposable, plastic junk toys doesn't mean you should.

Apparently, the same message didn't go down well with the makers of the new, live-action "Peter Pan." Despite the film's fidelity to the spirit and psychological perceptiveness of J.M Barrie's famous adventure, many scenes attempting to evoke the story's dreamy enchantment are so obvious, so ornamental in effect, as to prove a cheesy distraction. In the end, "Peter Pan" looks like a well-meaning production hijacked by wrongheaded industriousness and an insistence on costly, forced elaborateness.

Not that one resists seeing Pan sailing Hook's ship triumphantly over London, carried on clouds past Big Ben on its way to an open window of Wendy Darling's bedroom. Certainly we want to witness Tinker Bell's magical resurrection following her death saving Peter from an enemy's poison.

But it would be nice if such moments were stronger on authentic emotion than computer-generated razzle-dazzle. As with the "Harry Potter" films, "Pan"'s heavyhanded effects-e.g., Hook's crocodile nemesis, or Wendy and her brothers' moonlit flight to Neverland-are supposed to suspend an audience's disbelief. Yet they fail because they try too hard, because they pacify us with prefabricated visions instead of engaging our natural hunger for mystery. As the great American film director Howard Hawks ("Red River") said, at some point a storyteller has to step back and let the audience's imagination do some of the work.

Fortunately, between waves of contrivance, filmmaker P.J. Hogan ("My Best Friend's Wedding") remains true to the essence of Barrie's seminal fable about the melancholy business of growing up. Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and her brothers-a fanciful lot recently oppressed by their father, John (Jason Isaacs), a man disillusioned in midlife-flee to Neverland with Pan (Jeremy Sumpter), a beguiling, eternal boy whose magic extends from the unshakeable confidence of youth.

In Neverland, Wendy finds a living allegory for her father's crisis and her own introduction to the adult world of love and commitment. Pan's counterpart is the pirate Hook (also played by Isaacs), a florid ruin whose dreams of conquest have been shattered by the younger hero and darkened by the pressure of time. (The terrifying tick-tock of a swallowed clock emanates from a great crocodile that ate Hook's hand and waits to devour the rest of him.)

After an overbearing start, the film kicks into gear when Wendy inadvertently disrupts Neverland's status quo by stirring emotions in Pan that he denies (out of fear of growing up), thus making him vulnerable to Hook when Wendy is kidnapped. The heat turns up on Peter when his taken-for-granted but passionate ally, Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier, recently seen in "Swimming Pool"), drinks Hook's lethal mix of "malice, disappointment and jealousy" to save Pan from the potion. Shaken by glimpses of something larger than a romp with the Lost Boys, can Peter fight Hook and remain his perfect, uncompromised, child-god self?

Several destinies are at stake in Hogan's thrilling, climactic battle sequence, which prompted (for the best of reasons) a number of children at a recent screening to look away because Pan might actually lose. Hogan's real achievement is making the dramatic crossfire of the characters' motivations truer, clearer, and more profound than in previous film or television versions of "Peter Pan." But so much of what should delight and even enrapture-the flying, the fairy dust, Pan's mischievous shadow-are flattened in a gratuitously busy production that stifles our love for the fantastic.

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