The fanciful realm of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has stood on its own for over a century as a novel, a play, a Broadway musical, varied types of experimental theater, and a suite of feature versions. Everyone knows its most recognizable spin, Disney’s 1953 animated adventure. A childhood favorite, personally speaking, imperfect, problematic, and yet no less magical. Spielberg’s Hook may resonate as its live-action equal, particularly with Dustin Hoffman forever nailing the connive and snideness expected out of the baddie. More recently, we’ve seen a handful of cinematic tales going more off the cuff with Peter, either utilizing or completely veering off the familiar template with grand expectations and small payoffs. That’s even without the stray crossover attempt (re: Come Away).
Could it be said, therefore, the expectations are a little up there, if not a trifle muted, for David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy? Maybe. Are they surpassed? Far from. Yet the level of detail and affection this director shows for the old source material is admirable enough, even as it becomes the elephant in the room, stifling his creativity. Even when his best ideas to break from the original’s formula can indeed shatter a window or two, the fact that it’s still a live-action reimagining of a Disney classic hobbles it before an otherwise satisfying finish.
Lowery (The Green Knight), with co-writer Toby Halbrooks, does err on the side of “cautiously faithful” to start. It’s turn of the 20th century England, and the Darling kids – John (Joshua Pickering), Michael (Jacobi Jupe), and Wendy (Ever Anderson) – are about to say goodbye to their London townhouse in favor of boarding school in the country. The boys are excited enough, while headstrong Wendy is defiant to the idea of growing up and moving on. Blind enough to how getting older can be a real adventure, our Peter (Alexander Molony), with sidekick Tinker Bell (an almost silent Yara Shahidi) hears her plea to stay a kid, whisking the trio off to Neverland for a jolly romp. Of course, Captain Hook (Jude Law), first mate Smee (Jim Gaffigan) and their rowdy crew are all prepared to take Peter down at the first chance. But not if the sprightly hero gets the upper hand first.
The major difference here: their animosity is more than just a game. There’s a deeper strain of emotional baggage; something Wendy will try to confront while charting her star field for the future. And that’s easily the winning element in Lowery’s playbook, coupled with DP Bojan Bazelli’s (Underwater) very sharp eye for natural scenery, and Daniel Hart’s rousing, oft-dreamy musical blueprint. Aside from a hit-and-miss line of CG flourishes, technical proficiency is far from a problem. Its overall story concept doesn’t fully match that, at times having a new statement to carry along, but most often having little to say at all. To see Peter and Hook’s relationship as ally and nemesis gain fresh ground with a beat of regret is a delight. But to have one side entirely overshadow the other is troubling.
Molony does fair work as Peter, but he’s a weak link opposed to Law, eager to school the lot with an eccentric flair. If there’d been any doubt over his will to redeem his last efforts – his Dumbledore will be quick to fade into obscurity – he eliminates that concern on the spot. Gaffigan flexes his hidden knack as a character actor, landing all dry wit at his arsenal, his Smee providing the oomph essential for a break-out role. Could be spin-off worthy in some distant, alternate timeline. And somehow in this verse, Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) has much more to do but not enough character development, playing the role of Peter’s adoptive sister, without really going too deep, yet still with a faithful respect to the Cree, who are effectively represented.
The simple good vs evil aesthetic is not entirely lost on Lowery, although it’s tough not for him to take an awkward step backward, more so than his still enthralling, superior version of Pete’s Dragon. His juvenile cast on that 2016 adventure stood out strong, making the film all their own. The same doesn’t apply here with the other kid characters. They don’t add much that prior iterations already had, even with Return to Never Land factored in. The Lost Boys, well anchored by Nibs (Sebastian Billingsley-Rodriguez) and Slightly (a charming Noah Matthews Matofsky) don’t add much, moving in and out of frame like extras from Oliver. Jupe and Pickering are amidst the madding crowd on sibling duty, even with Michael gaining personality points.
It’s perhaps Miss Anderson, in her third film role, who effortlessly steals the show, bringing to Wendy newfound naivety, optimism, and a finer grasp of just where childhood is meant to end, without thinking too practically. Such a confident portrayal doesn’t make her any less of a casualty, however. Lowery struggles to make up his mind on whose movie this is, whether it’s more Peter’s story or Wendy’s. The former’s thematic plight flies higher than the latter, flipping any manner of focus to the inverse. When we ought to be hearing from Wendy’s perspective, we go in the opposite direction, and vice versa. It’s as if the microphone intended for the right person was placed thirty feet away, and we hear nothing, muddling Lowery’s vision and oversight. And above all, diluting his emotional compass, trajectory misaligned while it navigates derring-do and quieter empathy with minimal connection.
A stirring fantasy adventure, with an affirming sense of heart, snuffed of the narrative voice to back it up. That’s the core of Peter Pan & Wendy, at its most boiled down. Lowery and Halbrooks still find those welcome creative avenues to give the old tale a more contemplative approach, instead of it being merely daring for the sake of it. The leads are a bit more down to earth by comparison to the animated original, and Neverland looks just as attuned. How they all go about this new angle is what I will never understand, nor wish to psychoanalyze further about this adaptation. It may excite the mind, particularly the wonderfully choreographed final battle, all before its dulled focus seeks to confuse it at the same time. How it still appears worthy of an uncompetitive theatrical berth with all those gorgeous wide shots is beyond me. (C+; 3/5)
Peter Pan & Wendy streams on Disney+ April 28; rated PG for violence, peril, and thematic elements; 106 minutes.