Disney’s latest live action updating of one of their animated classics, Peter Pan & Wendy, is, like a lot of their other efforts in a similar vein, good looking, underwhelming, and unnecessary. It’s exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a Peter Pan movie, another adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s childhood classic about a boy who refuses to grow up and lives in a fantasy land. When taking into account the sheer number of times in the past few decades where other studios have unsuccessfully tried to do their own spin on the character, it’s very clear that Peter Pan & Wendy has nothing new to add to the conversation. There are a few tiny tweaks and narrative wrinkles here and there, but ultimately nothing to truly warrant making something like Peter Pan & Wendy.
And that’s a shame, because Peter Pan & Wendy comes courtesy of co-writer, director, and overall indie movie darling David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Green Knight, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), who previously helmed Disney’s overall best modern updating to date, Pete’s Dragon. That was a film that took the concept of its source material and ran with it in dazzling, deeply emotional directions. But this time out, Lowery and co-writer/frequent collaborator Toby Halbrooks make only the smallest of changes to a story that’s more competently and mechanically delivered than turning in something deeply felt, at least until the film’s second half where things are slightly more interesting.
The first half, however, is basically a straightforward remounting of Disney’s version of events. Young Londoner Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) is horsing around with her younger siblings, John and Michael (Joshua Pickering and Jacobi Jupe), on the evening before her parents (Alan Tudyk and Molly Parker) are set to send her off to boarding school. They’re visited at night by the magical Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and his fairy helper Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi), and whisked off to the magical world of Neverland, where Wendy will meet the Lost Boys (and girls, this time out, too) and help the eternal boy do battle with his one handed arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jude Law).
Most of the first forty-five minutes or so of Peter Pan & Wendy plays out like a project that’s simply going through the motions. Outside of the outstanding production design (Hook’s pirate ship is gorgeously detailed), location shooting (some of which was done in Newfoundland and Labrador), and elaborate cinematography from Bojan Bazelli, everything pans out exactly as one familiar with the story would expect, especially if they’ve seen the animated version. It’s all well and good, and the casting is refreshingly diverse – with an indigenous performer finally getting a chance to play Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) and the inclusion of people of colour and the differently abled in both Hook and Pan’s respective crews – but that’s all there is to commend. Like so many other filmmakers who try to dress up Barrie’s material to fit their own visual sensibilities, Lowery never tries to deviate too far from the formula.
The second half of Peter Pan & Wendy has a lot more emotional life, and almost all of it comes from Law’s tremendous performance as Captain Hook. Lowery’s biggest victory is making the division between Hook and Pan into something acutely tragic and sad, giving the almost unrecognizable Law plenty of material to turn in a richly layered performance. Law turns Hook into someone relatable and sympathetic, not just some sort of killjoy keen on ruining Peter’s fun. It’s honestly the best any actor has done with the character in a live action film, and the same could be said for a surprisingly soulful performance from Jim Gaffigan as Hook’s literal right-hand-man, Smee. Law elevates the film so much that Lowery is able to place the focus in the second half almost entirely on the psychological underpinnings of this eternal battle between childish whimsy and the loneliness and drudgery of adulthood. It’s quite lovely, and builds to a visually impressive climax aboard Hook’s ship, but despite Lowery and Law’s best efforts, that overall air of familiarity never entirely shakes off.
The kids are all good, especially Anderson, and this looks like a good bit of fun, but Peter Pan & Wendy still seems like a space filler and time killer. There’s not enough of anything new here, and anything evolutionary is simply window dressing. It’s another Disney updating that’s the same old, same old; a double dip just for the sake of doing it and not because there’s much vision behind it. Maybe this thing was tinkered with quite a bit during its lengthy development over the past few years. Or maybe Lowery genuinely made the film he wanted to make. Who’s to say? At any rate, Peter Pan & Wendy is both disappointing and fine for what it is.
Peter Pan & Wendy is available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday, April 28, 2023.
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