'Peter Pan & Wendy': A Fresh Take on a Classic Tale
The idea of yet another live-action Disney remake, let alone one bypassing theaters and going straight to Disney+, doesn't exactly inspire confidence. It doesn't help that the last film to be released using this strategy was last year's disastrous Pinocchio remake, and the fact that many are growing tired of all of the live-action remakes that Disney keeps churning out. On its surface, many might view Peter Pan & Wendy as just another re-telling of a beloved Disney classic. This assumption isn't completely wrong, but the film isn't a shot-for-shot remake of the original like one might expect. In fact, it functions as more of a fresh take on both the 1953 animated film, as well as the original story by J.M. Barrie. It breaks away from the copy/paste method of storytelling most of the Disney remakes use, and it is all the better for it. It does feel uneven, and it has a moodiness that both helps and harms it, but it is certainly one of the better live-action Disney remakes to date.
The story for this film largely hits some of the same familiar beats as most iterations of Peter Pan. Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) is a young girl who is about to be sent off to boarding school. She spends her final night at home playing with her brothers and lamenting how she doesn't want to grow up. When Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) arrives claiming to have heard Wendy's wish, he and his companion, Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) transports her and her brothers to Neverland. Upon arriving, they soon encounter Peter's archenemy, Captain Hook (Jude Law). This sends Wendy on a life-changing adventure that sees her confronting the possibility of growing up, and leads her and Peter facing off against Captain Hook.
If just about any other filmmaker was directing this, I would have been pretty pessimistic about the film. Thankfully, David Lowery is at the helm here, and he does an excellent job. Lowery is a filmmaker that I greatly admire, as no matter what kind of film he is making, he always does a great job at capturing the heart and humanity within the story and its characters. He continues this here, while still retaining some of the wonder and imagination of the source material. The scenes where the characters are simply interacting with each other are handled with care, and feel so genuine. It's so nice to see a film like this have emotional depth, as most of the Disney remakes feel hollow. In Lowery's hands, however, the film's themes of growing up and escapism are even more resonant, and Lowery treads some interesting territory with this.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic of the film, outside of Peter Pan and Wendy, is the one between Peter Pan and Captain Hook. This version of the story delves more into the past friendship of the two, and leads to some interesting moments between the two characters. It gives the actions of both characters more dimension, and is a great touch. The writing in general is mostly solid, especially in how it both honors the source material, while also making changes so the film doesn't feel stale. Lowery co-wrote the script with Toby Halbrooks, who he previously collaborated with on the 2016 remake of Pete's Dragon. Both films do a great job of taking the bones of their source material, and using it as the foundation for a new spin on it. While Pete's Dragon, makes significant changes to the overall story, Peter Pan & Wendy keeps a lot of the story beats, but takes a more humanistic approach to them. This does mean that the story isn't as thrilling as one might expect, but it is still quite compelling. We still get some of the magic and fantasy elements from the original story, but it is much more concerned with the characters than being an all-out spectacle.
That's not to say that the film doesn't have some visually intriguing components, as the world of the film is captured quite beautifully. The visual effects are a little dodgy, but the production design is quite solid. The camera movement is quite great as well, and is utilized nicely throughout the film. One thing that stuck out to me is how washed out the film looks in terms of its color palette. It certainly feels intentional, but it doesn't mean that I particularly enjoyed this choice. It isn't too bad overall, and it helps with the general mood and energy the film is going for, but there are some moments where it looks a little rough. I'm a little torn on the lack of color in the film, but I can get why Lowery would want to use this as a way to present Neverland with a dose of realism. It's a choice that might not work for some, and I'm not a hundred percent sure how I feel about it, but it at least feels like a conscious decision as opposed to poor filmmaking.
The film has some established actors in the cast, but I was particularly impressed by the performances from the younger actors. Lowery is great with actors in general, and he seems to have a knack for getting good performances out of young actors. Alexander Molony is a pretty solid Peter Pan, playing him as more cocky and less starry-eyed. It's kind of fun to see a take on the character that breaks from the norm, and Molony handles this well. Ever Anderson is also quite good as Wendy, and tackles the more internal aspects of her character quite well. She truly feels like a real kid all throughout the film, which further highlights the conflict of growing up that the character is dealing with. The young actors who play The Lost Boys also do a great job, and feel so genuine throughout the film.
I primarily associate Jude Law with his more charming, romantic leading man performances from the 2000s. I never would have guessed that he would ever play Captain Hook, but he ends up being pretty great in the role. Law isn't going the more flamboyant route that most other versions of Captain Hook end up being, which helps tap into the underlying sadness of the character. Law has a firm grasp on the pathos of the character, and while he is still a compelling villain, he is somewhat sympathetic, which is refreshing to see with this character. Yara Shahidi is pretty good as Tinker Bell, but it is a bit of a thankless role. Shahidi is talented, but this version of the character is a bit weak. I was surprised to see Jim Gaffigan in this film, although he is quite good as Smee. Gaffigan has proven himself to be a decent actor over the years, and he does a great job of being the comic relief in this film.
Compared to the other Disney live-action remakes, Peter Pan & Wendy at least manages to have some heart and passion behind it, which helps it have more of an impact. It is a bit toned down, and the more emotional aspects might turn some viewers off, but I liked the fact that David Lowery and company were able to take the classic Peter Pan story and have a fresh approach to it. It might not be the best version of the story, but it is still quite well done. Those expecting a shot-for-shot remake will be disappointed, but there is plenty to connect to with this film in regards to how it handles strained relationships and the idea of getting older. It won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I'm just glad that this film truly takes some swings, even if some of them don't pay off. It's nice to see a live-action Disney remake that has some life and a distinct vision to it, and more of them should follow this film's example.