As Disney churns out live-action adaptations of their animated features, it’s astounding how much of a mixed bag they have been. After all, the stories have already been field tested. All that’s left to do is let a new filmmaker put their spin on the movie that millions love. With Peter Pan & Wendy, despite enhancements to the story, some stunning visuals, and solid performances, something just does not work. Perhaps because Peter Pan, out of all of Disney’s grabbag of characters, has seen the most retellings, both from Disney and other studios. His story – to “never grow up” – has grown tired.
Wendy (Ever Anderson) prepares to go off to boarding school. She struggles with leaving the life with her parents (Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk) and brothers (Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe) behind. She makes a hasty wish that she never has to grow up and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) and Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) are summoned to her window to take her to Neverland. Once there, Wendy and her brothers quickly engage in a longstanding feud between Peter and the fearsome Captain Hook (Jude Law). Her adventures make her realize that growing up does not mean the adventure must end.
The story is familiar, but director David Lowery breathes new life into it by giving Wendy more agency and Hook a solid backstory. These changes are the strongest part of the film. Anderson has fearless independence that sets her apart from other versions of the character. Likewise, Law endues Hook with a level of fragile sentimentality that makes him a sympathetic character. Both characters shine, particularly in their interactions with one another.
The struggle here, as in most adaptations, is that Pan is clearly the villain. Without spoiling some needed backstory between him and Hook, his reactions to certain events don’t make him childish, they make him toxic. Molony also plays Peter with tired apathy, making the character further inaccessible. This is a Pan that punishes those who disagree with him and leads the Lost Boys using fear tactics. Pan’s unearned redemption comes later but that at least lets Hook and Wendy shine.
Lowery has crafted a visually beautiful film, however. With solid visuals and exciting set pieces, there is a lot to take in. The scene of Peter and the Darling children soaring over London elicits a particular joy. Another scene featuring Peter’s shadow stands out as well. Coupled with Daniel Hart’s score, the film is easy to enjoy.
Peter Pan & Wendy makes smart decisions that elevate Wendy and Hook but fails to make Peter more sympathetic. His mantra of “never grow up” has grown old and Lowery wisely focuses his attention on the other characters instead. The film is an enjoyable watch thanks to strong visuals, solid performances, and fun environments but does not make as big an impact as it should. It begs the question, why don’t most adaptations of Peter Pan work? The answer is because they never land.