Neverland

| June 20, 2003

Peter Pan is one of those characters who captures the imagination of generation after generation of both children and adults, but never seems to escape from the literal descriptions laid out by his creator J.M. Barrie. From the 1924 silent version to the charming 1953 Disney production, all the way to the Hook-centered version starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, each big screen rendition of the classic flirts with the idea of expanding the theme of the boy who never grows up, but never really steps foot out of Barrie’s original pirates-and-Lost Boys tableau in any meaningful way. Neverland is an attempt at an innovative interpretation of this ultimately fantastical story of hope and sorrow, a psychedelic ride through the adventures of the Darling children, strewn with transgendered Indians, pirates with leather fetishes and bits and pieces of the original dialogue thrown in for good measure.
Neverland opens in the Darling home, where a harassed Mr. and Mrs. Darling are preparing for a dance competition. Their disaffected children, Wendy, Michael and John are lounging around, trying their best to make themselves as much trouble as possible to their adoptive parents. Nana, the family dog, who plays an important role in the original story, puts in a brief appearance at this point. Once the elder Darlings leave, the fantasy starts. Peter Pan is an orphan who enters the Darling house in search of his keys, and enchants the normally level-headed Wendy into following him to his home in Neverland. Peter’s quarrelsome and eternally high companion, Tinkerbell, disapproves of the proceedings, but joins them protesting along the way that she, in fact, is Peter’s fairy. Neverland turns out to be a burnt-out amusement park, and Barrie’s memorable — shapeless pool of lovely pale colors hanging in the darkness — line comes to life in the form of a carousel. Wendy and Peter talk out their differences in a swirl of lights — Wendy about the past and the future, and Peter about the present, the eternal present — while the Lost Boys, a bunch of abandoned orphans, take John and Michael to a drag queen dressed as an Indian in search of weed. Hook is the caretaker of the amusement park, and he and his sidekick Smee are displeased with Peter and his Boys for disturbing the peace, and are always looking for a way to get back at them.
Many of the elements of Barrie’s story are present in director Damion Dietz’s vision of this fantasy, yet somehow, none of the plot lines seem particularly important, or for that matter, even fleshed out very thoroughly. Instead, this telling of the Peter Pan tale is all about the images that invoke the flights of fancy at the heart of the story. The flashing neon sign proclaiming ‘Neverland,’ the deceptively welcoming lights of the carousel, the heightened colors on Tinkerbell’s face, and the spectacle of Tiger Lily, the Indian drag queen are all visualizations of the essence of the fantasy of not growing up and of time standing still. On this count, Neverland performs beautifully. Tiger Lily’s act is part home video, part Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: a stunning visual experience, but a little uneven like a low-budget local production. This, in fact, is the tone of the entire movie. All the colors present could conjure up a dazzling vision of the perfect life, but they often run into garish monstrosities that hurt your eyes. The sorrow that hides between Barrie’s lines comes out most vividly in this version, from Peter’s anguish to Wendy’s quiet acceptance of what fate holds in store for her to Tinkerbell’s flushed, angry little face. While the links to the elements of the original story seem strained at times, the fact that Dietz has managed to extract the essence of the story and distilled it into his own, largely consistent vision of the implications of this perfect life where no-one grows up, pulls Neverland through the rough spots.
Rick Sparks starts off a little unsteadily as a slightly scary looking Peter Pan, but warms to his role as the movie proceeds. After their first encounter, it seems that Melany Bell’s Wendy will be the more dominant character. But soon enough, Sparks opens up into a tortured child-man who insists that his solution to life’s problems is the best, even as we hear the conviction in his voice dying. He believes in fairies, or at least he wants to, but something tells him that Wendy’s pragmatism is going to win through. Gary Kelley plays Hook as a preening tough guy; he shares little screen time or chemistry with the rest of the cast, but his monologues are affecting and he is convincing enough as a villain.
All in all, it is very hard to film another version of a classic like Peter Pan, which is written so graphically that everyone who reads the book comes away thinking they have actually seen the movie. Universal is releasing yet another new live-action version in time for the 100th anniversary of the book, which will probably be a charming but ultimately redundant, line-by-line re-telling of the story. Instead a reading of the story like in Neverland seems like an appropriate way to celebrate the centenary of a book that never grows old. It opens up the book to newer dimensions, not to mention new audiences. Adults who remember the story only vaguely, will be induced to pick up the book again, to check how the metaphors line up with the events in the book, to see whether they can see those pale colors when they close their eyes. And if that is Neverland’s only legacy, it is a worthy one.

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