Don’t be fooled by the direct to Disney+ of it all: David Lowery’s lush and transportive “Peter Pan & Wendy” is neither a creatively bankrupt “live-action remake” in the vein of 2017’s soulless “The Beauty and the Beast,” nor a similarly hollow “live-action” remake in the “style” of 2019’s CGI “The Lion King.”
For one thing, Lowery’s update doesn’t look horrible — quite the opposite, in fact. For another, it doesn’t cynically adhere to the stale narrative beats that audiences have been conditioned to expect. That’s partially because “remake” isn’t the right word for Lowery’s film, but also because the animated “Peter Pan” that Disney adapted from J.M. Barrie’s novel in 1953 doesn’t have quite the same stranglehold over the collective imagination as some of the Mouse House’s more beloved movies (it’s older, and based on a story that has since been retold in a billion different ways).
None of this will come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s seen Lowery’s revelatory take on “Pete’s Dragon,” but that doesn’t make the “Green Knight” filmmaker’s latest “one for them” any less refreshing. While “Peter Pan & Wendy” is clipped and uneven in a way that prevents it from reaching the same heights as the director’s previous Disney project, this spirited fairy tale is still able to take flight for one simple reason: It maintains the courage of its own convictions.
Here is a movie that achieves its magic by embracing the same changes that its title characters are determined to avoid at all costs. Lowery and long-time co-writer Toby Halbrooks stop well short of radically transforming their source material, but in a sea of Disney remakes and adaptations that rely on high-tech cosmetics to disguise a profound fear of growing up, “Peter Pan & Wendy” dares to suggest that we can only cling to the past for so long before we begin to sink under its weight.
The first and most telling change that Lowery and Halbrooks make to the story has to do with the precocious Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson). The oldest and most mature of her siblings, this Wendy is also the most anxious about what the future might hold. The movie begins on the eve of her new life at boarding school, and tweenage Wendy is understandably sick at the thought of leaving home behind; you would be too if you lived in a spiraling London townhouse created by production designer Jade Healy, whose four-story set is flush with the kind of dark shadows and deep greens that might seep into someone’s most fantastical memories of her Edwardian childhood home.
Wendy may not be the most nuanced role in the world — her polite defiance is par for the course when it comes to Disney heroines, and her distaste for change is more compellingly explored through other characters — but her relative maturity brings texture to the urgency of her situation. After a bit of Peter Pan play-acting lands the Darling kids in trouble with their parents (Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk, underused), Wendy doesn’t hesitate to throw her brothers under the pirate ship. “It’s every man for himself,” she scoffs, trying on some adult cynicism like it’s part of the uniform she’ll presumably be forced to wear at her new school.
When Peter Pan flies into the Darling house a few minutes later and offers to spirit the kids away to Neverland, something about his wondrous solution comes off as equally ill-fitting. Peter is traditionally thirsty for attention — showing up whenever kids tell stories about him is basically the pre-war equivalent of searching for yourself on Twitter — but Alexander Molony’s otherwise flat take on the role is enlivened by the occasional peevishness of his performance.
Not just the sad and lonely character he’s always been, this Peter is genuinely pissed off that anyone might push back against his permanent adolescence, and the best parts of Lowery’s film challenge that attitude with a clever twist on the history of Peter’s relationship with Captain Hook (who’s played by Jude Law in a wonderfully scabrous and semi-hammy performance that uses his “character actor with a leading man’s face” screen image as a window into Captain Hook’s inner conflict).
Inspired by the Faroe Islands and played by the primordial shores of Newfoundland, Neverland feels similarly familiar but different, and that vibe clicks into place from the awesome moment when Peter and his high-flying new friends wormhole through Big Ben in order to get there. Emerald and radiantly earthy in a way that cleaves a lot closer to “Pete’s Dragon” or “The Green Knight” than it does more typical Disney fare, Lowery’s Neverland is at once both the most grounded and enchanted take I’ve seen on the place that time forgot.
Barrie’s fantasy realm is a natural playground for Lowery, who’s always been drawn to the liminal space between myth and reality. “How are you real?,” Wendy asks Peter when they first meet. “I thought you were just a bedtime story.” “Why can’t I be both?,” he replies. This movie answers that rhetorical question with gusto, and there’s something fiercely contagious (and contagiously sincere) about the childlike fun that it finds in recreating Barrie’s world from the ground up. If only we got to see more of it, spend more time with its locals and lost boys, or understand more about how Peter feeds his addiction to it.
Alas, this threadbare 93-minute adventure is seldom afforded the chance to fill in the world that extends beyond the frame. Lowery’s imagination is levitational enough to carry a kids movie on happy thoughts and handclaps alone, but his attention is spread thin until it seems like he’s trying to squeeze the whole of Neverland through the head of a needle, and major characters are left to recede into the background, as if Lowery got into the edit and realized that his scenery were more expressive than his stars.
Peter survives on the strength of his unexpected backstory, but Wendy is reduced to a curious bystander for long stretches of time, even if the thoughtfulness of Lowery’s approach — which reflects a rich understanding of Barrie’s story, a direct line to its deepest veins of emotion, and a rare willingness to rewire them when it matters most — ensures that both of his title characters get the lump-in-your-throat payoff they deserve.
Others are less fortunate. Alyssa Wapanatahk’s Cree-language Tiger Lily is given so little to do that her warrior princess character only functions as a corrective to Barrie’s anti-indigenous racism, while Yara Shahidi’s Tinker Bell mugs for the camera in close-up while her magic fairy dust does most of the heavy lifting, eventually carrying Hook’s ship dozens of feet in the air for a simple but dazzling climax that eschews the usual overkill in favor of character-driven action.
Set to a spirited Daniel Hart score that harkens back to the madcap energy of ’90s-era family fare, that sequence is an elegant exception to a film that prefers to be intimate and tactile rather than massive and plastic (a balance that sadly doesn’t leave much room for a massive crocodile with a taste for human flesh). If the sword fights between Peter and Hook ring a bit slow at a time when most movies super-charge such things with layers of CGI gloop, that analog feel keeps the action on a human scale in a way that allows the characters’ mutual resentment explode into a spectacle of its own.
The genius of Law’s performance is that he plays Hook as Peter’s equal in all ways; the story defaults to Peter’s vulnerability and Hook’s mercilessness, and yet Law’s weary eyes suggest that each of those feelings is shared right down the middle by these two man-children. Jim Gaffigan makes a fine Smee, while John DeSantis’ Bill Jukes delivers the most iconic line of dumb henchman dialogue since “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!,” but the real standout are a pair of hilarious and thunderously catchy sea shanties that inject some much-needed humor into a film that mostly relies on the lightness of its tone and the levity of its imagination.
Those songs — timeless but new, baritone-voiced but juvenile — epitomize how effectively “Peter Pan & Wendy” charts its own course without forgetting where it came from. The bolder its choices, the more they underline why Barrie’s characters persevere in the public imagination (and not just in the public domain).
There’s comfort in staying ashore and sticking to the safety of dry land, but trying to stay forever young is no less foolish than using the power of new technology to emulate the wonder of old movies. Lowery recognizes that Peter Pan personifies Disney’s brand-tarnishing determination to keep stealing the magic out of its own vault, and his 21st century take on this age-old tale flies high and sticks the landing because it stays true to the moral of 119-year-old story: Accepting that everything changes is the first step towards discovering that nothing is truly lost.
“Peter Pan & Wendy” is now streaming on Disney+.