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Peter Principal 

To fly, one only requires a sprinkling of fairy dust and a few happy thoughts, a simple alchemical reaction known to all fans of Peter Pan. Director P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding) has apparently been experimenting; his big-screen version of the classic J.M. Barrie tale abounds with all the buoyancy of a true believer.

While adapted for screen and stage multiple times over the years, Barrie's book has never been translated quite accurately from the page -- the action/adventure part, sure, and the more precious aspects of its never-grow-up philosophy, but not so much the bittersweet between-ness of Pan and certainly not the darker facets of his persuasive personality. In that regard, Hogan's Peter Pan is a truer fairy tale, equal parts fantasy and frisson; Pan (Jeremy Sumpter), Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Hook (Jason Isaacs) move in a psychologically satisfying world that just happens to be wrapped in stunning cotton-candy digital imaginings straight out of a child's storybook.

Make-believe is obviously a milieu in which director of photography Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge) and production designer Roger Ford (Babe) excel. There is a visual magic to every frame of this film, a richness only complemented by gorgeous casting. Sumpter's Pan is a charming and stubborn scamp with just a hint of menace, Hurd-Wood's Wendy a sweet, Victorian (and literal) lady in waiting. Following stage tradition, Isaacs performs daring double duty as Mr. Darling and Hook, and a more enchanting, evil captain of the Jolly Roger there never will be.

Not all is well in Neverland, however. Tigerlily is brutally banished from the primary plot, and Tinker Bell is all but ruined by Ludivine Sagnier's buffoonish, silent-era squints and squeaks. Their dismissals change (and simplify) the Pan dynamic. Other narrative liberties taken here and there are a bit easier to accept, fitting more seamlessly into the spirit of the original. Hogan, who co-wrote the Peter Pan screenplay with Michael Goldenberg, gambles audaciously with Pan and Hook's final face-off, but the result is cheeky and charming and, rarer still in literary adaptations, utterly forgivable. Oh, the cleverness of him!

A sad coda to this production, revealed as the credits roll, is executive producer Mohamed al Fayed's loving dedication of the film to his late son, Dodi al Fayed, who died in a Paris car crash with Princess Diana, a pair of children who grew up but will never grow old. -- Carlson

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