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‘Peter Pan & Wendy’ review: So grounded, it doesn’t fly

By May 8, 2023No Comments5 min read
Ever Anderson as Wendy in Disney's live-action PETER PAN & WENDY, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by David Lowery, Peter Pan & Wendy is a more serious take on the 1953 animated classic. But it’s not seriously necessary.

For the first forty minutes or so, Peter Pan & Wendy feels like yet another stale, obligatory, artificially resuscitated live-action remake of a classic Disney animated film. Director David Lowery does his best from the first shot to give the proceedings a sense of style. But his first act has such a huge number of checklist items to hit that he can’t help but become lost and bogged down, just in getting through them all.

This is a disappointment from the director of such unusual fare as A Ghost Story and The Green Knight. But it’s no worse than many of us have started to expect from these routine reiterations of already-ubiquitous IP. As the film goes through the initial motions of getting our protagonists to Neverland, everything on display is a bit dull. And Peter Pan himself (played in his debut by Alexander Molony) comes off as a curiously low-energy afterthought, reciting his famous lines with little conviction.

(L-R): Alexander Molony as Peter Pan, Ever Anderson as Wendy, Joshua Pickering as John Darling and Jacobi Jupe as Michael Darling in Disney's live-action PETER PAN & WENDY, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“No rules, no schools, no bedtimes.”

Once the first act gets out of the way, the film does eventually find a way to fly. Lowery, by the way, has been claiming this as a personal project for years. And his angle on the material becomes clear as the story finally starts to take some original turns. His aesthetic sensibility is readily apparent, and even in the film’s more tired and generic moments, it’s always obvious that the movie was crafted by a cinematic artist. Rather than someone happy to just work for a corporate-approved paycheck. Distinctive wide-angle cinematography, a pleasant helping of practical effects and real sets in addition to CGI and green-screen, and a few dynamic set-pieces set Peter Pan & Wendy apart from the dull imagery present in prior live-action outings from Disney’s recent catalogue.

If the first section of the film has any spark, it comes from Ever Anderson’s confident performance as Wendy. As well as the occasional sun-dappled montages Lowery creates to inform us of her nostalgia for earlier childhood and a genuine lack of desire to grow up. It’s rare for a preteen movie protagonist to get that kind of interiority in a mainstream movie, even if it’s brief. And eventually this convention pays off in one of the film’s most satisfying scenes. As we’re introduced to an adorable gaggle of “Lost Boys,” more consciously diverse here than in prior adaptations, Wendy makes a more credible and entertaining leader for them than Peter does. Which led me to wonder if Wendy & Peter Pan may not have been a more appropriate title.

Too much Peter Pan & Hook.

Of course, that satisfying payoff for Wendy’s character occurs with a lot of movie left to go. And if the first half is Wendy & Peter Pan, the second half is just as emphatically a Peter Pan & Hook story. Happily, this is a more original interpretation, and Molony’s moody performance better matches the more intense scenes. Not to mention Jude Law’s ornate intensity as an emotionally damaged Captain Hook. These are the sequences where Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks are able to explore the Peter Pan mythos in more depth. And they try to wring some emotions out of it beyond just hitting the usual beats. 

Yara Shahidi as Tinkerbell in Disney's live-action PETER PAN & WENDY, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Not all of the strange aspects really work.

Ultimately, there are enough strange things about this take on the story that it’s able to stay afloat. Even though it sometimes strains under the weight of all the Peter Pans before it, going all the way back to J.M. Barrie’s original, 1904 play. And to be clear, not all of the strange aspects really work. The idea of a more grounded Neverland that is just “a different kind of real” may be a bit underwhelming from an entertainment perspective. But it fits Lowery’s comfort zone well and results in some beautiful scenery, as well as the color-contrast between a bright and sunny Neverland and the dull and drab London.

The treatment of some supporting characters fares worse, with Smee (Jim Gaffigan) and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) being the biggest offenders. But the writing clearly attempts to make them at least a little different in some key ways. Even if the result isn’t always successful. The performances are uneven, with Shahidi especially struggling not to mug and overact as a mostly silent Tinkerbell. But the dedication from other performers such as Anderson and Law pretty much makes up for it. 

The bottom line.

David Lowery’s distinctive direction and a few creative ideas keep Peter Pan & Wendy from being as much of a slog as Disney’s usual live-action-remake product. Particularly the ones sent straight to Disney+. It only stumbles into generic zombiehood some of the time, mostly early on. And some of the action sequences, montages, and dramatic moments have real personality. Not enough for the film to soar, but enough to keep it from plummeting into total obscurity. And maybe enough to be worth the time of at least some viewers. The film does make me look forward to Lowery’s next non-Disney project. Hopefully one where his distinct vision can have free reign, unhampered by the Mouse House’s commercial obligations.

Peter Pan & Wendy is now available to stream on Disney+. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

  • PETER PAN & WENDY - 6.5/10
Leonora Waite

Leonora is a writer and filmmaker currently residing in the Pacific Northwest.

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