Synopsis: Wendy Darling, a young girl afraid to leave her childhood home behind, meets Peter Pan, a boy who can fly and refuses to grow up. Alongside her brothers, Michael and John, and a tiny fairy, Tinker Bell, she travels with Peter to the magical world of Neverland.
Stars: Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk, Jim Gaffigan
Director: David Lowery
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: In 2016, I grumbled through the pre-release news of Disney’s remake of their fun 1977 film Pete’s Dragon. Now, it’s not as if that blend of live-action and animation (featuring a gorgeous Oscar-nominated tune sung by star Helen Reddy) was a jewel in the crown of the House of Mouse, but it was one of my childhood go-tos’s when I needed a pick-me-up. I wasn’t bothered by the other makeovers the studio had given their previous releases, but this seemed too sacred. I balked before giving director David Lowery’s take on the material a fair shot. And was I ever proven wrong!
Lowery managed to keep the patina of the original film for devotees like me while coaxing a modern look at it that capitalized on its big heart. It was one of the best films of that year and still the best representation of how to do it right in the cycle of Disney remakes. With that success, Disney lined up Lowery to bring Peter Pan, another animated classic, to life, but it would take seven years for it to take flight. During that time, Lowery released four more films (A Ghost Story, The Yellow Birds, The Old Man & the Gun, and my favorite movie of 2021, The Green Knight) and produced four more. Thankfully the schedules lined up, and he’s made the time for Peter Pan and Wendy, a personal passion project he’s taken pains to get right.
By now, J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (aka Peter and Wendy), could be filed under the ‘oft-told’ stories section of our collective consciousness. We’re all familiar with the tale of the boy searching for his shadow in the nursery of a stately London home one evening and taking the children living there on a joyflight to Neverland. With his trusted fairy Tinkerbell giving them the pixie dust to buoy their “wonderful thoughts” that help them fly, Wendy, Michael, and John go on adventures with Peter Pan and his troupe of Lost Boys.
Danger lurks in the form of the dreaded Captain Hook, always out to get Peter and only stopping to evade a crocodile stalking him. Pirate shenanigans ensue, with Tiger Lily joining forces with Peter to save a captured Wendy from walking the plank and forcing Hook to stare down his reptilian nemesis that has returned for seconds after getting a taste of his hand. With balance restored, the three children return home to their panicked parents with new friends who want to try this “getting old” business, but one boy holds back, determined to stay young forever.
I wouldn’t typically give such a complete description of the plot, even if the story of Peter Pan is one that we’ve seen numerous times on film in the 1953 animated Disney flick, on stage with Cathy Rigby, or in television specials starring Mary Martin or Sandy Duncan. Or perhaps we’ve waited in line for the ride at one of the Disney theme parks (an old-school track ride, for my money, it’s still the most enchanting one there) and are familiar with the storyline and could recite it in our sleep. It’s what Lowery does with that familiarity that makes this version so impressive.
Unlike Pete’s Dragon, a ‘lesser’ Disney title that Lowery could take some big swings with, there isn’t as much room to change things up in Peter Pan and Wendy, and that’s a smart move. Aside from rounding out the more problematic areas that have plagued the plot as the years go by and we’ve all learned about better representation, Lowery lets Barrie’s story speak for itself and instead focuses on creating a magical world with emotional performances that feel resonant. Performing a bit of a balancing of sorts to allow Wendy to be more in the equation where the narrative force is concerned helps the film not feel like it’s being ruled by the whims of an immature flying boy that only learns his lesson when a man-child (Hook) taunts him. In Lowery’s eyes, both have important lessons to teach the other, and the story isn’t complete until they understand what the other is bringing to the table.
Lowery has consistently shown himself fascinated with that transition from the young to the old. There’s a critical examination in Peter Pan and Wendy of not wanting to age and resisting it as long as possible for fear that life won’t be fun anymore. The tweaks made in Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks’s script make sense, including adding more nuanced interplay for Peter and Hook (an excellent Jude Law, The Grand Budapest Hotel, overdoing it slightly but only so far as the character he’s playing will allow it) and reducing the irritability of Tinkerbell (the lovely Yara Shahidi, Alex Cross) to make her more of an ally for Wendy (Ever Anderson, Black Widow) than a competitor for Peter’s affection. Peter (Alexander Molony) is also smoothed out a bit, asking him to be more responsible for his actions and behaviors than previous iterations have.
It’s silly that this is bypassing movie theaters and heading straight for Disney+ because Lowery has made Peter Pan and Wendy for the big screen. The production values are luxe, the art direction is meticulous, and the cinematography from Bojan Bazelli (Underwater) is creative without distraction. Watching it at home, even on a large screen, doesn’t do it justice. Also, a vague attempt at making sections have a musicality doesn’t exactly work…as much as I wish it had. Still, I enjoyed hearing the strains of the songs from the original used as recurring themes in Daniel Hart’s score. As with every Lowery production, it looks impeccable and easily puts you into the world the filmmakers have created.
Lowery waited so long to make the film because he wanted to get it right. I think the wait was worth it. The work is yet another showcase not just for the intuitive filmmaker Lowery is for tapping into emotions but for how to take a known property and change its form while retaining what was so special about it at the beginning.