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‘Peter Pan & Wendy’ Review: A classic rediscovers itself on Disney+

Yet another animated classic gets yet another live-action adaptation, but David Lowery's take has purpose and glints of wonder.
Credit: Disney

TEXAS, USA — No classic Disney story – not “Snow White,” not “Alice in Wonderland,” not even last year’s “Pinocchio” double-punch – has undergone such a stark modern-day evolution as “Peter Pan.” 

You can understand why. This is a tale that carries timeless appeal in its allure of staying forever young, one built on a charmingly simple structure and set in a cosmic setting whose spare beauty practically detaches it from any extraneous circumstances; there’s no worrying that younger audiences of a certain age won’t feel dual pangs of loss and comfort when Wendy and her brothers return home in the dead of night, having reckoned with vicious pirates, gators and the siren song of eternal youth. 

It’s an intriguing template filmmakers can stretch any which way—and stretch they have, to metatextual lengths in “Finding Neverland” and “Hook.” But recent years have seen artistic liberties stretched so wide – and by directors with strong credentials, no less – that the substance of “Peter Pan” is scraped thin over aesthetic priorities. 

Leave it to writer-director David Lowery to realize any new-age tweaks to the “Peter Pan” formula need be subtle ones. As the Texas-raised director’s marvelously moving “Pete’s Dragon” accomplished, if to greater, more striking success, “Peter Pan & Wendy” is rooted not in envisioning how it might look to fly straight on till morning but in the melancholy of realizing that's a two-way journey. Told with lush visuals and a confidence in the functional, if utterly unsurprising, dramatic outline of author J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play and Disney’s 1953 movie, “Peter Pan & Wendy” gets back to basics—in the process rediscovering a prickly heart of the matter amid an ongoing Disney Live Actionaissance that continues to shrug away thoughtful storytelling in the name of corporate bottom lines. 

In “Peter Pan & Wendy” (written by Lowery and frequent creative partner Toby Halbrooks), the changes are less wholesale modifications than slight adjustments, particularly, tellingly and ironically – given this film’s title – as it pertains to Jude Law’s haggard Captain Hook. Styled less as a roaring Blackbeard type and more as an exiled naval commander unable to square having his own agency with not knowing what to do with it, this Hook has a touch more regret than bloodlust in his eyes when forbidding the Jolly Roger crew to say Peter’s name. And when Hook later prowls through the Lost Boys’ cavernous forest home in search of their leader, Lowery – whose ability to conjure wonder and dread in the same images is unrivaled by most working American filmmakers – implies a tantalizing history forged not through the clanging of swords but the bonds of brotherhood. 

Young Londoner Alexander Molony fills the foresty garb of Peter this time around, bringing familiar overconfident swagger to a character who doesn't endear himself very much to variance. Still, for the effort Lowery and Halbrooks have taken to round out their villain, their comparably rote Peter veers between being an element that can't rise to narrative ambitions and one whose immortality justifies the casual derring-do with which he's written. You can almost – almost! – see him as the villain, and it's fun to think what "Peter Pan & Wendy" might look like if Lowery brought a more wicked sensibility (or if Disney were less insecure about its IP). 

A scene between Hook and this movie’s Wendy (Ever Anderson, slightly overplaying her turn with eyes so wide you’re worried they’ll burst out of her head), however, only further foregrounds the movie’s newfound dimension, affirming that as surprising as it might be that Lowery returned to stricter Disney confines after the psychedelic magnificence of “The Green Knight,” this follow-up is decidedly a thematic fit with his prior works: Robert Redford’s old man with a gun would be envious of Peter’s ability to stay in his youthful prime, Dev Patel’s green knight surely sees himself in Peter’s obsession with legacy and the story’s sparks of existentialism are a grade-school version of the time-warped reckoning that propels “A Ghost Story.” For as much as “Peter Pan & Wendy” is restrained by the sheer predictability of how the plot develops, the story needed someone like Lowery to sink his storytelling hook into why it’s endured at all. 

In the process, and despite some suspicion that Lowery provided Disney with a radical first draft that was ultimately reigned in, “Peter Pan & Wendy” becomes a sterling testament to how a selection of quieter scenes can rehabilitate a frequently adapted story’s identity. This isn’t to say the louder ones should go ignored; Lowery can direct his way around a set piece, such as a pirate ship taking to the sky that’s been sprinkled with fairy dust aplenty where a similar sequence in last year’s “Uncharted” lacked the same wonder. It comes down not just to artistic smarts, which Lowery has in spades. It’s also a matter of knowing what a story was, has been and can still be. 

"Peter Pan & Wendy" is rated PG for violence, peril and thematic elements. It's now streaming on Disney+. Runtime: 1 hour, 46 minutes. 

Starring: Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Alyssa Wapanatahk. 

Directed by David Lowery; written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, adapting the novel by J.M. Barrie




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