Producer: Jim Whitaker Director: David Lowery Screenplay: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks Cast: Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Jim Gaffigan, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk, Yara Shahidi, Florence Bensberg, Sebastian Billingsley-Rodriguez, Noah Matthews Matofsky, Caelan Edie, Skyler Yates, Kelsey Yates, Diana Tsoy, Felix Da Sousa, John DeSantis, Garfield Wilson, Ian Tracey, Mark Acheson and Jesse James Peirce Distributor: Disney+
It should come as no surprise that in fashioning his live-action Disney take on J.M. Barrie’s work about the boy who refused to grow up, writer-director David Lowery should not have been content to emulate the route taken by Robert Zemeckis in his recent remake of “Pinocchio” for the studio. Zemeckis hewed closely to the template of the 1940 animated classic, with only a few changes, not all beneficial. Lowery, a much more imaginative filmmaker, has taken a fresh look at the story and constructed a plot that, while not unfaithful to the original, adopts a more serious tone and more contemporary attitudes, readjusting the tale in significant ways.
But while one can appreciate Lowery’s decision to create rather than simply replicate, in his hands “Peter Pan & Wendy” winds up a rather dour tale about accepting the necessity of change and responsibility for one’s decisions. It also strongly shifts the story’s focus. Adapted by the director and Toby Halbooks, according to the credits, from both Barrie’s book and the 1953 animated Disney film (though it also seems to borrow some elements from the latter’s underappreciated 2002 sequel ”Return to Never Land”) it stakes out a path quite different from both; more meditative than magical, it struggles to find its own footing and ultimately stumbles, winding up neither very engaging nor particularly insightful.
The film begins as all Peter Pan versions do, in the Darling house, where George (Alan Tudyk) and Mary (Molly Parker) and their dog Nana watch over their three children, Wendy (Ever Anderson), John (Joshua Pickering) and little Michael (Jacobi Jupe). In this telling, John and Michael are rambunctiously playing pirates—or more precisely, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, a fable with which they’re familiar, and Wendy is brooding over the fact that tomorrow she’s off to boarding school. She tells Mary that she doesn’t want things to change, but her mother tells her there’s no alternative.
After the children are bedded down, Pan (Alexander Molony) and Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) show up, looking for Peter’s runaway shadow. After Wendy sews it back on, they’re all off to Neverland.
But no sooner have they arrived than they’re blasted out of the sky by the cannons directed by Hook (Jude Law). John and Michael are captured and taken aboard his ship. Peter simply disappears in the blast. Wendy winds up with the Lost Boys (a group that now includes girls, thank you very much!) and the Indian maiden Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk). Together they go off to rescue Wendy’s brothers, who are about to be drowned in the notorious Skull Cave. It’s there that Peter reappears, and duels Hook.
And for the first, but not the last time, Pan is defeated and faces death, only to be rescued by Wendy and the famous Hook-seeking crocodile (its only appearance here). And that’s an essential change from the Peter we usually see, who’s not only cocky and self-confident (as here) but also genial and exuberant. Molony’s Pan, however, is instead a rather dour fellow, and one arrogantly dismissive of others (his first remark to Wendy on seeing her again is to express astonishment that she’s still alive), and he never gets around to thanking her, Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell for their help, though they were the real saviors here. Indeed, he continues to brag about how Hook will never defeat him, though the captain regularly does.
After this episode and some desultory bickering between Peter and Wendy, the plot moves quickly to an assault on the Lost Boys (and Girls) compound in which all the children are captured by Hook’s crew and Pan and the captain face off again. A death actually occurs, though it’s not the traditional demise of Tinker Bell, and resurrection is effected not by viewers shouting that they believe in fairies but through native medicine applied by Tiger Lily. A big final battle occurs on the pirate ship in which Peter, denuded of his ability to fly, again gets the worst of it until rescued. But a sort of rapprochement between him and Hook, accompanied by apologies, occurs before all the children are returned to the real world. There is, though, a coda which suggests that Peter and Hook will continue their relationship, though presumably in a revised form.
Part of the film is devoted to Wendy’s conversations with both Peter and Hook, in which each has the opportunity to explain, or rationalize, the cause behind their inveterate hostility. The captain gets a backstory that to some extent justifies his anger with Pan, and indeed shifts the onus for their antagonism onto the boy; indeed, as part of the message of the picture, Peter does grow up, at least emotionally, by recognizing his dependence on others and the damage his actions have caused. Meanwhile Wendy learns not to cling to her childhood and embrace moving on. The point is made rather heavy-handedly in bookending montages at the beginning and end; when her mother urges her to think happy thoughts early on, they’re all of episodes from her childhood, but when she does the same after returning home, they’re all of imagined moments from her future years. It’s all summed up in Wendy’s final injunction to Captain Hook: “Grow up!” But in fact Hook’s change actually involves recapturing some of the joy of youth.
These are all nice messages, but emphasizing them so much dilutes the sense of enchantment that most versions of “Peter Pan” exude. It also turns much of the focus from Pan to Hook, which perhaps explains why Molony’s performance as Peter is so wan, while Law often takes center stage as Hook, playing with gusto everything from explosions of anger to moments of teary sentimentality about missing his mother. The imbalance is frankly striking. Anderson makes a pleasant Wendy, and the rest of the cast is certainly adequate, though Jim Gaffigan gets surprisingly few laughs out of Smee.
Though it’s difficult to judge from a screening copy rather than a theatrical one, the film looks good, with a fine production design (Jade Healy) and costumes (Ngila Dickson) and lustrous cinematography by Bojan Bazelli, though quite a few interior sequences favor very dark tones; outdoor footage shot in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic provide some luscious vistas. The visual effects are not exactly wondrous but they’ll do, while Lina Zeno Churgon’s editing is sometimes a bit lethargic—but then Lowery’s pacing can be a trifle droopy. The music by Daniel Hart and Oliver Wallace aims for a sense of wonder that’s never achieved, but fits the action suitably; there are a few songs, but the less said of them, the better.
A knockabout farce that’s recently opened on Broadway is called “Peter Pan Goes Wrong.” Sadly, the title isn’t inappropriate here either. Anyone searching for a live-action version of Barrie’s tale might check out P.J. Hogan’s underrated 2003 film. It alters the story in some respects (a few not unlike those found here), but is generally more faithful to the original, and far more enjoyable–not least because in Jeremy Sumpter it has a Pan who much better embodies Peter’s childishly mischievous character.