There’s a certain type of magic that happens when a talented filmmaker collaborates with Disney on a live-action remake of an animated classic. Not the good kind of magic where two proven entities come together to craft something brilliant and special, but the kind of black magic that seems to destroy everything that once felt inspired, innovative, and organic.
David Lowery directs and co-writes (with Toby Halbrooks) Peter Pan & Wendy, following his critically acclaimed string of recent films that includes The Green Knight, The Old Man & the Gun, and A Ghost Story. Those movies are interesting, fresh, and have a unique sense of color and atmosphere. However, vibrance is at a premium in his latest film, which seems to be washed with browns and grays rather than possessing the lush, dreamlike milieu that instantly comes to mind whenever we hear the word “Neverland.”
This isn’t Lowery’s first Disney remake. In fact, he helmed 2016’s Pete’s Dragon (based on the 1977 live-action / animated original). But that was from a decidedly different Disney company than the one that’s been bearing down on us the past few years. While not nearly as good as its progenitor, Pete’s Dragon still had a succinct vision and was even inviting – not to mention, it was a really good kid’s movie.
Peter Pan & Wendy is none of those things. The first 30 minutes plays out in the same basic fashion as the 1953 original, albeit with some visual flair (the movie’s sole example of such). Wendy (Ever Anderson) – who, this time around, is unhappy as she’s preparing to leave for boarding school the next day – and her two brothers are taken by Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) to a far-off world called Neverland, where they must face the wrath of a child-hating Captain Hook (Jude Law).
And so, we begin with a sense of redundancy, like we’re watching a less-colorful carbon copy of a better movie we’re well familiar with. There’s nothing new enough or intriguing from a story standpoint to set the tension into motion early on. Lowery never plays with our expectations to get us leaning forward in our chairs, wondering what’s going to happen next. And once we arrive in Neverland, nothing really changes.
Heavily inspired by the 1953 Disney movie, Peter Pan & Wendy does away with the unforgettable experiences Wendy and her brothers have in Neverland with the Lost Boys. There are no games, no follow-the-leader, no ceremonial festivities with the Piccanniny tribe, and not even a single mermaid. Lowery removes the actual adventures from the original story yet later asks us to believe that Wendy is going to fondly look back on her time spent on Neverland once she leaves. In fact, she and Peter only spend about 4 minutes interacting with one another on screen, and most of it contentiously.
Nothing feels magical about the magical world of Neverland. Unlike the lushness of Lowery’s last movie, The Green Knight, where color was almost a character itself, Peter Pan & Wendy is drab and depressing. There’s no charm to the atmosphere of this film, let alone Neverland itself.
Despite its flaws, 1953’s Peter Pan, adapted from the original books by J.M. Barrie, is among the finest examples of the House of the Mouse’s character art and production design. Not only is every character memorable and instantly recallable but seemingly every detail is seared into our minds unlike any other Disney film from that era. But Lowery manages to do away with all that here as well. And if the lack of imagination weren’t enough, the people playing these iconic characters only add to the bland experience.
For starters, Jude Law is miscast here. He definitely seems to be enjoying his new wig and cadence as he talks like an angry pirate, but he’s just not Captain Hook. The problem is he sees Hook as an evil villain and so never gives the character any personality or charisma. In reality, Hook is a naïve buffoon with a (understandable) bone to pick with Pan for getting his hand chopped off. Compared to previous villains at the time of the 1953 original, Hook was goofy, dumb, and non-threatening. And that’s what made him fit the dreamlike and contradictory world around him.
As a rule, I don’t like to criticize child actors but the kid who plays Peter Pan is marginal at best. Confident, immature, deceptively unworldly (a quiet result of his motherlessness), Pan was written by J.M. Barrie to have a specific level of energy that Molony can’t ever hit. And as the title character, he instantly drags down the film’s believability and our enjoyment of the character.
Perhaps the only standout is Anderson (daughter of actress Milla Jovovich and director Paul W. S. Anderson) as Wendy, the only child actor here who feels real and lived-in. It’s unfortunate that she doesn’t have a better cast around her, but when she’s on screen and the only one talking, it’s easy to forget, briefly, that the movie around her isn’t terrible. She has a bright career ahead of her.
A central tension in the original is the triangle between Peter Pan, Wendy, and Tinker Bell. In fact, almost all of the conflict stems from Tinker Bell’s jealousy. In this version, the two ladies are painstakingly cordial. In fact, the existence of Tinker Bell as a character in this film can’t even be justified.
Lowery does contribute some of his own lore by employing interesting ideas involving Pan’s origins, though he never knows how to utilize them – or studio notes may have forced him in a “different” direction. He tries to insert the intriguing backstory without ever making it part of the actual plot. Rather than showing us the origins, the film just tells us a bunch of details along the way in monologue form.
Along their string of live-action adaptations, Disney has either aggressively invoked the original animated versions (e.g., The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio) or gone in different directions entirely (e.g., Cruella, Dumbo, Maleficent). However, with Peter Pan & Wendy, the studio has never so faithfully stuck to the original while simultaneously trying to trick us that it’s completely different. While this trickery doesn’t really indicate much in terms of quality it does, however, serve as a reflection of the creative discordance at the movie’s core.