The trend of turning animated classics into live-action spectacles turned into a cash cow for Disney. With billion-dollar hits like Beauty & The Beast and The Lion King, these films racked in money. However, the quality rarely lived up to their box office potential. In most corners, these versions “disappear” within a year or two of their release. Yet David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon shook that trend. Arguably more popular than the original, Lowery established a unique tone for the story of a boy and his dragon. Apparently, lightning can strike twice when you have an outstanding director at the helm. As a result, Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy stands out as one of Disney’s best live-action films in a decade.
Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) gets ready to go to boarding school. With her brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe) staying home with their parents (Molly Parker & Alan Tudyk), Wendy wishes she never grows up. Suddenly, a fairy named Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) and the legendary Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) arrives at their window. They promise to take the Darling children to Neverland. Yet Wonderland has pirates running amuck, including the feared Captain Hook (Jude Law).
The story of Peter Pan & Wendy takes much of its structure from Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Wendy and the other Darling children know the fables around Peter and Neverland. Yet Lowery adds some unique aspects to help his version stand out.
Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks dig into the characters and deconstruct aspects of the characters. For example, Peter’s arrogance pushes characters away from him. Hook’s determination to capture Peter stems from his missed opportunities and anger. Wendy discovers herself away from her home, leading to her realizations about the power of adventure and growing up. Add some gorgeous visual flourishes, and Lowery almost takes Peter Pan & Wendy to the next level. However, the color correction mutes some of these moments. While there’s nuance in the story, it’s still a Peter Pan film.
Law steps into the role inhabited by many great actors over the years. The British actor nails the high-level frustrations and anger inherent within Hook and brings a subtle emotional lens out of character. While Disney seems to hinder some of Law’s creativity (to keep it within brand), he still imbues Hook with enough kindness and angst that you can see the boy he once was. As a result, Law’s performance allows Lowery to communicate his ideas. He also facilitates actual drama on screen, a revelation for these live-action films.
Lowery and his casting director find a group of young adults and teens who step into the iconic roles with flare. Anderson assumes more agency than most Wendies, but more importantly, she proves up to the task of showing her personal growth. Her evolution makes for something special in the context of this story, almost setting up the stage for the Maggie Smith take on the character from Hook.
The Peter and Tinker Bell dynamic is far more complicated. Molony brings arrogance and swagger to Peter, which helps maximize the character. In Lowery’s version, this creates a prickliness that ensures we do not fall head over heels for his actions. Yet Molony also allows this version of Peter to feel more heroic than other portrayals, in part because of the vulnerability he seeks to hide. The face this Peter puts on is not a true reflection of the boy.
Tinker Bell gets underserved by Peter Pan & Wendy, both in terms of weak CGI and because Shahidi does not get enough screen time. Often relegated to background roles, she never gets spotlight moments. Making the character appear inaudible to others helps thematically but becomes frustrating during the movie.
While Hook often received criticism for its depiction of characters, no one could question the energy the supporting cast brought to the table. In this instance, Lowery allows the side characters to play big, boisterous, and silly games. The mild-mannered Smee from Jim Gaffigan creates many funny moments. Likewise, the bumbling idiocy of the pirate gang makes room for pratfalls and brilliant physical bits.
The Lost “Boys” create comedic moments throughout and keep “scumbum” antics and energy front and center. They are brilliant throughout. Last but certainly not least, Alyssa Wapanatâhk‘s Tiger Lilly feels like the best version of this character to date. However, with even less screen time than Tink, it feels like a missed opportunity.
While many disregard Disney’s trend of remaking their classics, Lowery proves once again that he’s the man for the job. He’s wildly overqualified to direct these films. Yet, if it means he gets to make a Green Knight every few years, we should be thrilled. His unique eye makes Peter Pan & Wendy a successful and fun adventure for the family.