Personally, I find it tough to get too excited about a new Peter Pan movie. Adaptations of JM Barrie’s fantasy about the boy who wouldn’t grow up tend to all follow the same track with very little variation. Same Captain Hook, same Wendy, same Lost Boys. Attempts to truly create something fresh are rare, such as Benh Zeitlin’s deeply misunderstood and brilliant Wendy, or terrible like Joe Wright’s Pan. But surely David Lowery, accomplished filmmaker who turned a seemingly minor Pete’s Dragon into arguably Disney’s best remake, would bring some new innovation and insight to Peter Pan & Wendy?
Well, not quite. While technically proficient and wonderfully diverse, Peter Pan & Wendy lacks the spark of wonder that soaring over Neverland and dueling with pirates ought to bring. Perhaps that’s why the film has been dropped unceremoniously straight to Disney+ rather than on the big screen where it would surely be dwarfed by the arrival of next month’s The Little Mermaid, which is sure to be an epic blockbuster. Still, it’s an acknowledgement by the Mouse House that this Peter Pan can fly, but only so high.
Combining elements of Barrie’s novel with Disney’s 1953 animated movie, Peter Pan & Wendy tells the familiar story of Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson, Milla Jojovich’s talented daughter), who on the eve of leaving for boarding school, where she will leave youthful hijinks behind, she and her brothers are warped to Neverland by their fearless, forever-young guide, Peter Pan. Peter is played by Alexander Molony, with Tinker Bell by Grown-ish actress Yara Shahadi. Trust that the toxic right-wingers have already blown their stacks at having two brown-skinned actors playing such iconic characters. It’s just a taste of the welcome cultural enhancements added by Lowery and his longtime writing partner, Toby Holbrooks. Another is that Wendy is a much richer character, with inner strength and a sharp tongue that makes her a match for any Lost Boy. Speaking of which, the Lost Boys also have some girls, including the fierce Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk), whose indigenous tribe is based on contemporary cultures and not ugly stereotypes of Barrie’s era.
Another feather in the film’s cap is Jude Law as Captain Hook. I’ll throw in Jim Gaffigan as the loyal, hopeless Mr. Smee. Law, who has grown increasingly comfortable shoving aside his pretty boy good looks as he gets older, creates a somber, almost sympathetic Hook whose association with Peter has brought him nothing but pain. Because of this, Peter Pan & Wendy always has this looming sense of danger. More than any other adaptation, the threat of Hook feels deadly imminent, and walking the plank a torturous path to Davy Jones’ Locker.
On the flipside, Molony’s Peter Pan is an arrogant prick whose selfishness is matched only by his ego. He’s tough to root for, and his transformation into a courageous leader of children doesn’t feel completely earned. The rest of the Lost Boys, and Wendy’s siblings for that matter, lack personality and distinguishable personality. Female are truly pushed to the front in ways that previous Peter Pan movies have been unwilling to do.
Making the most of a smaller-than-usual budget by Disney standards, Peter Pan & Wendy‘s visual effects only get dicey when the CGI is pushed to the limits. While the magical flight over London still captures that surreal spirit, it’s in Neverland where problems emerge. The big alligator fight scene, for example, would’ve accomplished more by showing less.
Peter Pan & Wendy doesn’t take many risks elsewhere, but it doesn’t really need to. The story is tried and true, capturing anxieties about growing up and leaving childish things behind, with a little more attention on the transition to womanhood. While Lowery’s vision reliably entertains, it lacks that little something extra, that sprinkle of pixie dust, to be truly memorable.
Peter Pan & Wendy is streaming now on Disney+.