When detractors decry Disney for cannibalizing IP for profit, they could point to Peter Pan & Wendy, a live-action recreation of a classic movie that mercilessly bleeds life out of its iconic characters and passion out of its heralded helmer.
Before the limp atrocity of this CGI-laden remake, writer/director David Lowery adapted the story of Sir Gawain into a rapturously gorgeous, mind-bendingly surreal, unapologetically lusty, and hauntingly poetic film. The Green Knight was willfully slow and pondering, urging the audience into an odyssey of ambiguity, texture, atmosphere, and yearning. Peter Pan & Wendy is astounding only in that it’s so wildly different from Lowery’s last film, and in the worst ways possible.
Peter Pan & Wendy delivers a shallow reinterpretation.
Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Lowery co-wrote the Peter Pan & Wendy screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, a frequent collaborator who also shares screenwriting credits on Lowery’s wonderful Disney live-action remake Pete’s Dragon (2016). Their previous collaboration managed to combine the whimsy of older Disney animated features — including the studio’s classic 1953 Peter Pan — with an earthy humanity. However, this translation of J.M. Barrie’s story is tonally chaotic, veering between the kind of theatrical performance you’d expect on a stage (perhaps of a middle school), the snarling intensity of a teen drama, and the gruff, madcap style that is Jude Law’s take on Captain Hook.
The first act is the same as it ever was: Wendy Moira Angela Darling (Ever Anderson) is a girl on the brink of growing up, and as she rants to her mother (a beautiful but all-too-brief Molly Parker), she doesn’t want things to change. Lucky for her, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) appears in her nursery and — with the help of Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) — he’ll whisk her and her young brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe) away to Neverland. There, they’ll meet the Lost Boys, Princess Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk), and a band of kid-hating pirates led by James Hook (Law).
While the beats are familiar, they’re lacking in fun. Part of the problem is a color palette that is tinged a sickly green, making the whole film feel as if you’re peering through an abandoned soda bottle. Even the pirates are a wash of beige and grey. While fans of the 1953 version may perk up at callbacks in costuming and score, they might well be bored by how rote the film’s first hour is. Lowery’s imagination and flare for the fantastical feels hemmed in by a checklist of iconography — a shadow, a thimble, a hook — and plot points. It’s not until the second act that the film begins to feel like his, pushing at emotional complexity.
Peter Pan & Wendy toys with its hero and villains.
Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Despite its title, the emotional core of Peter & Wendy is James Hook. Departing from the Disney lore (and perhaps borrowing from Christina Henry’s excellent fantasy novel Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook), Lowery and Halbrooks bestow their Hook with a tragic backstory of lost love, abandonment, and regret that mingles with his quest for vengeance. Incredibly, this Disney movie dares to consider— albeit briefly — that Peter Pan may actually be a little jerk. While Wendy is initially in awe of his ability to fly and fight and crow, she soon sees he’s more braggart than noble hero, stealing credit and perverting stories to suit his narrative. Indeed, the most riveting scenes are those between Wendy and Hook, untangling their thoughts on Peter and their trauma around their far-off mothers.
Ingenue Ever Anderson has the vibe of a young Keira Knightley, her gaze steady, her lip trembling as she regards a ruthless world of cannonball fire, swordplay, and the battling egos of Pan and Hook. Lowery’s version of Wendy is given a girl-power polish in the vein of the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which is to say earnestly yet clumsily in the Strong Female Character mold. She wears pants, fights instead of flees, and gets to play the hero on par with her titular cohort. As the film is about Wendy growing and changing — whether she wants to or not — this elementary shift in character works well enough. This is a kids’ movie, after all. And here, Hook is her contrast.
Admittedly, I prefer my Captain Hook with the gentleman pirate bravado seen in the animated version, or Dustin Hoffman’s drama queen from Hook, or Jason Isaacs in P.J. Hogan’s undersung 2003 Peter Pan(opens in a new tab). However, Lowery’s take makes sense in this context. Law’s Hook is a greasy old man, bedecked in rotting finery, dying his hair black to maintain an air of youth. But, like a flop-sweating Rudy Giuliani, his grays shine through when wet, running streams of shameful black dye down his sullen cheeks. Just as Peter is stilted by eternal childhood – ruthlessly interested in his own desires, be they for endless adventure or stories from “the Wendy” — Hook is a prisoner of static Neverland too. He ages but cannot emotionally mature, stuck forever in this battle with a boy who broke his heart and then stole his hand.
Wendy is warned that growing up is not the enemy, stagnating is. In this, Lowery scratches at the profound. But it is lost amid misfires and a third act determined to feel happy, no matter how little sense that makes.
Peter Pan & Wendy fails in action, spectacle, and character.
Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Ultimately, it feels like the real war of this movie might be between Lowery and Disney. His somber color palette collides awkwardly with many of the young actors’ broad performances. The colorblind casting that served him well in Green Knight (and gave cinema the gift of Dev Patel as Gawain) feels undercut here, as several iconic characters are reduced to one-note sidekicks. Tiger Lily has been recast as a stoic babysitter, while Tinker Bell’s signature fury has been swapped for soft shrugs and smiles as she too swiftly becomes Wendy’s BFF (Best Fairy Friend). The pirates and the Lost Boys feature girls in their ranks now, but none of them feel defined beyond costume choices. Even John and Michael are best defined by props: a top hat and a toy bear. They are gestures, not characters.
Making matters worse, the glory of Neverland is rendered in too-slick CGI. Everything looks like it was shot in one of Disney’s enormous green screen soundstages, lacking the kind of texture that might make this imaginary land feel real. While some creatures are exhilaratingly rendered — like that man-eating crocodile and some bioluminescent mermaids — much of the visual effects feels false. As such, flying scenes are underwhelming, lacking perspective. Meanwhile, sloppy swordplay can’t be sufficiently covered up with quick cuts and a swooping camera. It looks like kids playing with toy swords, so the stakes never feel life or death. It all feels like a game, one where nobody wins.
Don’t mistake me. Lowery’s thumbprint can be seen faintly in Peter Pan & Wendy. But it is globbed over by the demands of a studio whose success in remakes and sequels and prequels and repacking IP of all sorts to sell toys, and t-shirts, and collectibles, along with movie tickets or Disney+ subscriptions, suffocates risk and daring.
Lowery was tasked with recreating a beloved but problematic animated movie. He made damsels in distress into self-rescuing princesses, turned a salty romantic rivalry into gal-pal goals, and eradicated the gender barriers, because who doesn’t dream of being a Lost Boy sometimes? Most thrilling, he offered empathy and complexity to one of Disney’s most fiendish villains. Yet in the end, these choices are forced into the Disney mold of safe, inoffensive, and family-friendly. Just as Lowery’s spark has been squelched, so too have Pan’s most fantastically fun elements. And as this movie lacks in crowd-pleasing spectacle, there won’t be enough clapping to save the day.
Peter Pan & Wendy is now streaming exclusively on Disney+(opens in a new tab).