Starz Kids & Family is currently showing the 2003 live-action version of Peter Pan, directed by P.J. Hogan, and I decided to watch it and see not just how good it was, but how it compared to the 1953 Disney animated feature. Though I’ll grant I haven’t re-watched the cartoon version recently, it was one of many Disney features that were watched multiple times in my childhood, and sticks in the memory fairly well (and I have seen it as an adult at least once). I remember that when Hogan’s film was being advertised, there was a perception among several people that it was going to be a “darker and edgier” take on the story; this is certainly true, but it’s not particularly meaningful. Darker and edgier than Disney’s version still leaves plenty of room to be light and fluffy. Plus, it’s clear that while Hogan was trying to be a bit truer to the book, he also paid homage to the Disney version in some ways, indicating a degree of respect for the earlier film. But while there are inevitable similarities, due to the same source material, these are still two very different films.
The most obvious difference between the two films — well, besides one being animated and the other live-action — is in the portrayal of the children, particularly Peter and the Lost Boys. In Disney’s version, the Lost Boys are a lot more Boys than Lost. They’re happy to have adventures in both versions, and ask Wendy to be their “mother” in both versions; but in Disney’s version it seems more like a bit of play, a game of house. In Hogan’s, the request seems to come as a need; these are boys who have lost their parents, and though they can fend for themselves in Neverland, they’re desperate for the care of a parent. When Peter and Wendy argue (and cross swords), one of them even complains that “Mother and Father are fighting again”, as children sometimes do when their actual parents argue.
Then there’s Peter himself. Pan and all the Lost Boys appear more feral in the live-action version, but it’s Peter who seems the most changed. Gone is the Robin Hood tunic, replaced with a garment made of leaves and thatch. The animated Peter, voiced by Bobby Driscoll, is a cocky carefree boy who is simply out to have fun. The live-action Peter, played by Jeremy Sumpter, is similar on the surface, but he’s more wild, and more blood-thirsty when seeking to fight Captain Hook. Where animated Peter merely lacked interest in growing up, live-action Peter seems to actively fear it, though he’d never be willing to express it in those terms. He hates the idea of growing up, or of having any feelings beyond having adventures. This is a Peter who would never try to nuzzle noses with Tiger Lily; he wouldn’t even understand the impulse. And both he and the live-action Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier, mostly pantomiming her role) are ruder, more stubborn, and heavily impulse driven; the film states fairies only have enough room in their head for one idea, but this can just as easily describe Peter, who has to be constantly reminded that John and Michael even exist.
The Darling children are mostly the same, though Michael (Freddie Popplewell) is a few years older than his animated version (Tommy Luske), and Wendy, played by Rachel Hurd-Wood, appears to be a few years younger in this version (though this may simply be due to the way ages in cartoons can appear a bit vague). Still, animated Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) seems reasonably self-assured, and goes along with Peter out of curiosity, but still with a sense of properness and politeness. Live-action Wendy is a bit more rambunctious, happily learning sword-fighting from Peter and even entertains the notion of taking up with the pirates. Michael and John (Harry Newell) are mostly unchanged, and Captain Hook — though given a bit more depth with his obvious jealousy of Peter’s enthusiasm and lack of solitude (apparently pirates aren’t good company) — is very similar in both his actions and his appearance. Smee, played by Richard Briers, also bears a strong resemblance to his animated counterpart.
The plots, naturally, are virtually the same; the Darling children feel a bit neglected, Wendy meets Peter, they fly to Neverland, meet the Lost Boys, mermaids, and Tiger Lily, fight Captain Hook, etc. In both cases, a lot of the scenes seem just a bit superfluous, but at least the live-action version doesn’t foist “What Makes the Red Man Red?” upon us. Don’t get me wrong, I can roll with it, but even as a kid I found that a bit offensive (and I’d probably be lying if I said this was the only time I’ll bring this scene up). Still, neither the scenes with Tiger Lily nor the mermaids seem all that important to either version. There are a couple changes to the ending, which I’ll refrain from spelling out due to not wanting to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. (I realize that with an 8-year-old movie the concept of “spoilers” would generally be obsolesced, but I’ve always felt that spoiling the ending of a movie should have no statute of limitations.) Without giving away too much, there’s a greater sense of finality to seeing justice served, more cheer to the homecoming, and more of a sense of wistfulness as Peter and Wendy say their goodbyes.
In terms of acting, it may be just a bit unfair to pit the live-action version against the animated one. There are advantages to using voice actors, such as the ability to fudge the ages even more. Though Kathryn Beaumont was only 15 when she played Wendy, that’s two years over Hurd-Wood at a critical age, and she had already played the title role in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Plus, it’s easier to get the best part of each take; when a voice actor flubs a line, only their line needs to be re-performed. When a live-actor errs — and this can be vocally or in any number of other ways — the whole scene needs to be shot again. However, the live-action film comes off well in the comparison, as all the children pull off believable performances, filling the roles of their characters without seeming like they’re playing scripted roles.
Visually, it’s largely a case of apples and oranges, of course. Animation doesn’t have to worry about blending in the special effects, or hiding the guide wires, or any of that; at the same time, although it can look beautiful in its own way, it can never make the fantastic look real, because it does not look real itself. The animated version looks good, but I don’t think it’s quite as striking as, say, Snow White or Cinderella. The live-action version is mostly pretty good, but it does have some times where the CGI is very obvious. It’s not a big detraction — particularly as one of the points is the parrot, which will have you laughing anyway — but it’s there.
As to which film is better overall, after considering it a few different ways, I have to call this one a wash. Both are good films, but not great films. I can’t say as I’d ever see the need to personally watch either again, but I wouldn’t object to watching either, and enjoyed both. And though the live-action one is rated PG, these are both inherently targeted at children, and I think children would happily watch either again and again. If pressed, I think I have to give the nod to the live-action version, because it has a bit more depth and — like I said — doesn’t include the oblivious racism. But it’s just a nod, not a solid endorsement of it over the other.
Version Verdict: The live-action film, by a hair.