Peter Pan and Wendy, David Lowery’s humanizing interpretation of JM Barrie’s existential classic about the boy who refuses to grow up speaks more to the inner child of jaded adults than to actual children. This version of the fairy tale bases the original tale’s fundamental wistfulness on empathetic backstories, while ensuring that the original’s overt racism and latent sexism are remedied.
Despite criticism submitted to Lowery (The Green Knight) in the months leading up to this movie’s release on Disney+, Peter Pan and Wendy keeps much intact. Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks have a good understanding of the enduring qualities of Barrie’s story, which, as they rightly suggest throughout the film, has nothing to do with whether or not the Lost Boys gang includes girls. Their portrayal teases the conflicts between Peter and Wendy, diversifying the mythical leader’s ragtag group and developing the native people of Neverland into more realized characters. The duo, who worked on Lowery’s previous films, have created a fairytale for now and for the future.
Peter Pan and Wendy
It comes down to
Less of a retelling for children than for jaded adults.
Unlike previous versions of Peter Pan, Lowery doesn’t spend too much time introducing Wendy (Ever Anderson) and her brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe). There’s an efficient setup, in which we look at Wendy’s reluctance to grow up and understand her relationship with her brothers. At one point, the elder Darling throws John and Michael under the bus to keep them from getting into trouble, adding a welcome shade of complexity to her character; Wendy loves her siblings, but she’s not above saving herself. Peter Pan (played by newcomer Alexander Molony) also still has an edge. Molony captures his character’s innocence and hubris, switching between the two depending on what the moment calls for.
Lowery’s slim opening – we meet Peter and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi), chase the shadow and learn to fly all within the first 15 or 20 minutes – gives him room to let his own imagination run wild. The four children set out from the Darling’s house, unbeknownst to Mr. and Mrs. Darling (played by Alan Tudyk and Molly Parker), and see London from a new vantage point. They bounce and swing through the air, speeding along the Thames and towards Big Ben. Daniel Hart’s light-hearted scores add a playful and exuberant touch. It’s a shame that the harsh and gritty palette that’s been so typical of Disney remakes lately makes all of this hard to see.
Things start to brighten up when the crew reaches Neverland, a vast expanse of green hills and a shimmering, azure sea. With the help of DP Bojan Bazelli, Lowery presents this piece Peter Pan and Wendy as an operatic ode to freedom and adventure. The camera pans over the ocean, where the mermaids swim in the shallowest part of the water, and the sky, dotted with spherical clouds and an inverted rainbow. Peter Pan and Wendy is most impressive in these compelling moments (as well as in the scenes where Peter shows off his fighting skills) that allow us to feel the director’s enthusiasm in depicting a childhood fantasy and to appreciate the grandeur of Neverland.
That level of excitement ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword. Lowery and Halbrook overload the story, which begins to falter and drag under the weight of its obligations. Nevertheless, there are interesting changes and subtle ways in which the duo corrects the original text. For example, Wendy and Tinkerbell form a fast friendship based on a mutual disdain for Peter’s stubbornness and moodiness. Wendy in particular tries to point out how much of his success in beating Hook (played formidably by Jude Law) has to do with his friendships. She wants to show him how often Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys and Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk), one of the native peoples of Neverland who takes on a more prominent role here, support him.
The relationship between Hook and Peter is also portrayed differently, and audience acceptance depends on how they interpret the original. Is Peter Pan a children’s story that warns children about the myopia of adulthood? Or is it a story about children that appeals to adults whose imaginations have shriveled up? Maybe it’s both. Lowery’s movie tries to play the middle ground by giving Hook, a character who’s gone from really bad to comically mean, a backstory. His relationship with Smee (Jim Gaffigan) and the rest of the pirates on the ship takes shape. We also learn about the history of his connection to Peter, which complicates the legacy of their feud and feels like a message for the adults watching. The tension between them offers a lesson in the loss of your inner child and also advances one of the film’s most poignant scenes.
The strength of that thread – the one between the boy who will never grow up and the pirate who refuses to give up – makes other parts of the story feel weaker in comparison. While it’s easy to surrender to the other relationships and enjoy the adventures that unfold out there, they don’t carry the same emotional weight. And as the movie nears its dutiful end, you may be wondering why Lowery didn’t make a movie about Peter Pan and Hook instead of Peter Pan and Wendy.
Production company: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk and Jim Gaffigan
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks, JM Barrie (based on the novel by)
Producer: Jim Whitaker
Executive Producers: Adam Borba, Thomas M. Hammel, Toby Halbrooks
Director of Photography: Bojan Bazelli
Production Designer: Jade Healy
Costume Designer: Ngila Dickson
Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin
Composer: Daniel Hart
Casting Director: Dylan Jury, Debra Zane
1 hour 46 minutes