Disney refuses to let any stone go unturned when it comes to remaking its animated classics into live-action, so ahead of this May’s The Little Mermaid, the Mouse House is slipping in an additional remake. Peter Pan & Wendy, which flies to Disney+ rather than theaters, aims to put a deeper, more grounded spin on the 1953 animated flick that was solely named after the male hero and based on J.M. Barrie’s iconic written works. Director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) brings a more mature sensibility to the tale of a boy who never wants to grow up, and it ultimately yields some mixed results. While Peter Pan & Wendy is strangely lacking some magic, it is saved by a scene-stealing Jude Law and a narrative that forces one to reckon with Peter’s more negative traits.
Peter Pan & Wendy begins in a very familiar place: The nursery of three children living in Edwardian London. It is the night before young Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) is set to leave for boarding school, but rather than packing, she’s getting into mock sword fights with her two brothers, John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe). That night, the Darlings are visited by the eternally young Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), who is in search of his shadow and ready to whisk the kids off to Neverland with the aid of his loyal fairy friend, Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi). Neverland initially seems like a dream for Wendy, entranced as she is by the ability to fly, but reality swiftly comes calling when the children run afoul of Captain Hook (Law), whose vendetta against Peter won’t rest until the flying boy is permanently grounded.
Peter Pan & Wendy eschews a deeper exploration of Neverland in favor of prying a bit more into its central characters, Peter, Wendy, and the dastardly Captain Hook. Lowery, who co-wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, sought to work with practical locations as much as possible, and when it comes to settings like Peter’s hideout with the Lost Boys and Hook’s ship, it gives the film a refreshingly grounded look; special credit must be given to production designer Jade Healy. However, it also has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the overall wonder of Neverland. This no longer feels like a magical world outside real life. Instead, it’s like an island anyone can visit.
Perhaps this was by design. After arriving in Neverland, it doesn’t take long for Wendy to begin questioning Peter’s refusal to never grow up. Peter is perfectly happy fighting Hook, safe in the assumption he’ll always win. However, as Peter Pan & Wendy quickly makes apparent, there is more to the story here. Captain Hook has been given a backstory that turns the villain and his relationship with Peter on its head. Coming on the heels of other Disney live-action remakes like Maleficent and Cruella, this isn’t too surprising. Law then gets the opportunity to really sink his teeth into the role, first appearing menacing and cruel before gradually hinting at the wounded layers that lie beneath Hook’s skin. As his truth is revealed, Peter suddenly isn’t looking like the hero he often appears to be.
Peter Pan & Wendy is at its strongest when it is confronting the darker aspects of the well-known story. Lowery has insisted his take isn’t a gritty reboot, but it’s impossible to deny that Peter Pan & Wendy is far from a lighthearted Disney romp. The Darlings enjoy only a brief period of levity in Neverland before the stakes rise up around them and force them — particularly Wendy, who gets the meatiest role aside from Hook — to confront the notion that growing up is actually a good thing. Anderson, whose previous credits include playing a young Natasha in Marvel’s Black Widow, walks the line of Wendy’s childlike innocence and her rapidly approaching maturity quite well and makes the heroine someone to root for.
While Peter’s introduction comes so swiftly that it, like Neverland itself, is missing some of the wonder, Molony truly shines in the scenes where Peter lets his youthful walls down and faces his own mistakes. All told, the young cast of Peter Pan & Wendy is very talented and capable of going toe-to-toe with experienced performers like Law and Jim Gaffigan, who plays Hook’s silly (yet quietly sweet) right-hand man Smee. Shahidi, perhaps the next most recognizable performer in the cast, gets to play a new kind of Tinker Bell, and while her role is disappointingly under-served, the Grown-ish star makes an impression. Peter Pan & Wendy is further aided by some impressive below-the-line figures. In addition to Healy’s production design, the score from Daniel Hart makes up for some of the missing magic, particularly in the cleverly-rendered sequence when the Darlings first pass into Neverland, and Ngila Dickson’s costume design strikes the right balance of fantastical and realistic.
Similarly to his past films Pete’s Dragon and The Green Knight, Lowery brings a grounded, mature approach to a familiar tale. While this does leave Peter Pan & Wendy with the feeling that it doesn’t soar as high as it could, the director has presented a genuine remix of the animated classic it was based on. It certainly wins points for trying something new, and it just might give viewers a new perspective on the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
Peter Pan & Wendy is now streaming on Disney+. It is 106 minutes long and rated PG for violence, peril, and thematic elements.
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