While we have certainly seen our fair share of live-action versions of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” before, it’s no surprise that Disney itself would cash in on one of their most beloved animated films.
Directed by David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon” “The Green Knight”), Peter Pan & Wendy is a faithful but also reimagined take on the boy who refused to grow up is a grounded and faintly fantastical tale that doesn’t always work because of it.
Lowery is a gifted filmmaker and has written and directed two of this reviewer’s favorite films of the last decade, including “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “A Ghost Story.” His thoughtful but melancholy stories have clearly influenced this Peter Pan giving it a gloomy underbelly that takes away from the fun and adventure of the original story.
All of that said, there’s enough to enjoy here that fans of the source material might be satisfied – even if one still longs for one of the other iterations like the Hugh Jackman starring “Pan,” 2003’s “Peter Pan,” Spielberg’s “Hook,” or Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy.”
The story follows the familiar path of the Darling family getting ready for bed, putting away “childish things,” and getting tucked in for the night. Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Alan Tudyk and Molly Parker) are the doting, but strict parents, top-hat-wearing John (Joshua Pickering) is still all about playing pirates, little Michael (Jacobi Jupe) expectedly clutches his stuffed bear for dear life, and Wendy (Moira Angela Darling) played by Ever Anderson is their stoic big sister on the verge of being a young woman.
It is this fact – and the fact she is preparing to leave for boarding school – that gives the film its emotional weight. Wendy fears adulthood, and all it brings, wishing she could remain a child forever. Ultimately this brings about Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) and Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) himself to whisk Wendy and her brothers away to the far-off Neverland, where they never have to grow up.
Once there, they immediately encounter the dreaded Captain Hook (an unrecognizable Jude Law) and his put-upon right-hand man Smee (Jim Gaffigan). Hook isn’t thrilled to have Peter back (or is he), so he tries to blow him out of the sky. This results in Wendy getting separated from Peter and her brothers but running into the kind-hearted Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk), who helps reunite them all. This is one of the bigger changes to the original animated classic – giving the Native characters the respect they didn’t get the first time around.
The crux of the Peter Pan tale is the same: the lost boys (which include girls) want to be free but desire a mother figure, Hook wants to fight Peter Pan endlessly, and Peter never wants to grow up. Tinkerbell used to be a sassy, jealous sort of gal, but here she is more of a magical helper without much else to do.
Lowery and frequent collaborator Toby Halbrooks inject some depth into the story, touching on the previous friendship between Peter and Hook (then known as James), plus more female empowerment for Wendy. There is a moment where I thought they were going to stretch the story by making Hook the “grown-up” version of Peter, which is why they were always in a duel: Peter was fighting desperately to stay young. Alas, it didn’t go that deep, but nonetheless, Peter, Wendy, and Hook all have introspective moments that add weight to the fairy tale but also slow everything down.
This is really a Peter Pan story for grown-ups. Kids will marvel at the crocodile (who sadly only has one scene), the kids flying through London and Neverland, and Peter and Hook’s sword fights. But the moments in between make the story lag. Everyone seems a bit depressed, and it’s not as fun and fanciful to see them talk their problems out. I appreciate the depth Lowery and Halbrooks bring to Barrie’s classic story, but those expecting a kid’s movie might find their kids waffling between fascination and boredom.
The film looks incredible with massive sets (the inside of Skull Rock and the Lost Boys home, to name two), and the special effects are terrific, even when some of the character’s post-flying landings are clearly them being lowered by a rope.
The odd thing, however, is the lack of color. Similar to the indie version of Peter Pan called “Wendy” by the director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the colors are muted and lack the vibrancy of the animated film. It’s a slightly elevated, realistic take on Neverland that doesn’t feel as magical as it should. Skull Rock doesn’t even look like a skull. (If it does, you really have to look hard to see it.)
Additionally, aside from the main three, the rest of the characters get short-shifted. Most are one-note, and even the Lost Boys barely have personalities. While we all remember a handful of the lost boys in “Hook,” here, we only recognize them by their diversity. Even the pirate Smee – usually some good comic relief – is forgettable.
That said, there are moments of giddy whimsy, like when the kids fly through Big Ben as it breaks apart in slow motion as they pass a portal to Neverland. The flying sequence is beautiful and exhilarating, and the crocodile effect works spectacularly.
Ultimately, despite good performances by our leading actors (Anderson, Molondy, and Law), something is missing from Disney’s latest live-action adaptation. There’s a lot to be appreciated here, but it lacks the breathtaking fantasy we come to expect from both Disney and J.M. Barrie’s iconic tale.
Ironically, it looks like “Peter & Wendy” grew up.