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Peter Pan & Wendy Review

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Peter Pan & Wendy premieres on Disney+ on April 28, 2023


Of the 20-plus live-action remakes of Disney animated movies since 1994’s The Jungle Book, one of the standouts is writer/director David Lowery’s 2016 reworking of Pete’s Dragon. Arguably, it remains the gold standard in that it has an original take that did its own thing, and did it very well. Now Lowery returns to try again with Peter Pan & Wendy, which is partially based on Walt Disney’s animated Peter Pan (1953). It’s certainly a gorgeous film to look at thanks to its lush sets and costume design, and gorgeous locations representing Neverland. But it sure is a bummer of a take on Peter Pan’s story; at one point, Pan even laments, “This isn’t fun anymore,” and that sums up this adaptation to a tee.

The first half of the screenplay, by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, is a surprisingly traditional retelling of novelist J.M. Barrie’s original story of the same name. It’s set in Victorian England, on the eve of eldest child, Wendy (Ever Anderson), going away to boarding school. She’s fearful, a little bitter and wholly uninterested in embarking on this monumental change in her young life. And that’s essentially what summons the silent fairy Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) and the boy who’s never grown up, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). It’s all very familiar, a bit too stagey and not particularly imaginative in terms of injecting anything new to the Peter Pan lore.

And that continues deep into the first hour as Neverland locales and characters are presented with almost checklist uniformity. Aside from the actual entry into Neverland, it’s all pretty rote. Even the requisite flying scenes aren't captured with much cinematic grandeur or delight. Some of the problem is that Lowery uses a lot of wire work, and while going practical is generally a good thing, here it’s done to questionable effect. None of the kids move with any ease in those harnesses, so they all look like they're executing the low-fi, stage play version of flying, which is jerky instead of fluid and pulls the eye often. As the primary repeated visual effect, and one that is supposed to add a sense of wonder, it's odd that it wasn’t executed better.

Jude Law's Hook might scare very young viewers, but he’s going to come off pretty bland to tweens and teens.


Once in Neverland, Captain Hook (Jude Law) and his pirates come into the story as Pan’s archenemies. I don’t envy any actor trying to reinvent Hook when there are already plenty of interesting performances out there, but Law really doesn’t do much to create a memorable version of this pirate presence. He’s obviously been told not to go camp or comedic, and that just leaves him unwashed and mean. He might scare very young viewers, but he’s going to come off pretty bland to tweens and teens (and older).

Peter Pan & Wendy does finally make some inroads towards originality about an hour in, with some major remixing of the Pan vs Hook dynamic eating up the last 40 minutes. But there are far too many places before that point for kids to check out from the whole thing because of its self-serious tone and lack of charm. The kid actors do their best, but the Darling siblings in particular appear to have been directed to play their character as archetypes, and that means they never really cross over into feeling like real children. Anderson is certainly a much spunkier Wendy than we’ve traditionally seen, but she’s saddled with a lot of scolding of Peter and stressing out about Neverland not being the idyllic world she’d been promised in books.

Peter Pan & Wendy does finally make some inroads towards originality about an hour in.


On the plus side, Lowery and Halbrooks thoughtfully tackle a common criticism inherent to the Pan character, which is his churlish obstinacy about being asked to change or think of others. In this version there are finally some consequences to his behavior towards The Lost Kids and Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk). And speaking of them, the Lost Kids are portrayed through an array of children that represent a spectrum of backgrounds and even disabilities, which broadens the appeal to all audiences. Lowery has also remedied the overtly racist portrayal of indigenous people in the original story by reframing Tiger Lily as the protective older sister to the impulsive Pan, and in that capacity she adds some solid moments to the story.

Peter Pan & Wendy Images

Overall, Peter Pan & Wendy suffers most from its lack of joy and escapism. Neverland is supposed to be the pinnacle example of getting away from real-life problems, but that doesn’t come through in this adaptation. Everything that could have lightened the vibe gets reduced to almost nothing: the Tick-Tock crocodile gets little more than a cameo; the comedians in the cast – including Alan Tudyk and Jim Gaffigan – are given nothing funny to do or say; and there’s nothing to replace the animated movie’s Sammy Fain songs other than traditional sea shanties or various score allusions. Not to mention there are some really heavy things that happen to Pan and Hook that you can’t laugh off easily. Overall, this is a remake in dire need of more laughter and fun.

Verdict

Peter Pan & Wendy is most successful in making Neverland look like a place you’d want to visit. But then you get there and realize the attractive fantasy is just that – especially when poorly done effects shatter the illusion that kids can fly if they believe. There are too many heavy themes and repercussions playing out that strip away the fun that’s found in other adaptations of this story, such as this bland, gritty version of Captain Hook when compared to Disney’s animated film or Hook, in which Robin Williams’ grown-up Pan faced off against Dustin Hoffman’s pirate. If Lowery had reinvented Peter Pan, much like he did with Pete’s Dragon, a much better movie would have likely been the result. Instead, there’s a front-loaded fealty to the traditional interpretation of the story that’s pretty boring. It’s too little, too late when the truly inventive stuff finally shows up toward the end – and much of that is kind of a downer.

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