A film review by Craig J. Koban May 9, 2023


2023, PG, 106 mins.

Alexander Molony as Peter Pan  /  Ever Anderson as Wendy Darling  /  Jude Law as Captain Hook  /  Alyssa Wapanatâhk as Tiger Lily  /  Jim Gaffigan as Mr. Smee  /  Joshua Blue Pickering as John Darling  /  Jacobi Jupe as Michael Darling  /  Molly Parker as Mrs. Darling  /  Alan Tudyk as Mr. Darling  /  Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell  /  Florence Bensberg as Curly  /  Sebastian Billingsley-Rodriguez as Nibs  /  Noah Matthews Matofsky as Slightly  /  Caelan Edie as Tootles

Directed by David Lowery  /  Written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, based on the work by J.M. Barrie


The thought of watching yet another live action adaptation of Walt Disney's 1953 animated film PETER PAN had very little appeal to me.  

Firstly, there have been so many relative kicks to the can, so to speak, in terms of redos of the property, whether it be in Steven Spielberg's HOOK or - more recently and horrendously - Joe Wright's completely wrongheaded PAN.  Secondly, I could devote an entire article about how little I care for the House of Mouse's continual milking their animated film catalogue in order to rebrand them in "new" live action properties (creativity be damned, in this respect, let's just regurgitate what we had before wholesale and try to sell it to a new generation as something, well, new).  For these reasons, having to endure another take on this ageless story of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up felt like it was going to be more of an endurance test of will versus a purely enjoyable experience.   

This brings me to PETER PAN & WENDY, a new live action iteration of J.M. Barrie's iconic source material and Disney's aforementioned animated film.  What peaked my interest in it, though, was that it comes from director David Lowery, whom previously made one of the best of the live action Disney remakes with PETE'S DRAGON (hell, it's one of the best remakes...period...ever made), not to mention that his career resume is littered with rich variety, like the period crime drama THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, the hypnotic horror thriller A GHOST STORY, and the mesmerizing re-telling of Camelot in THE GREEN KNIGHT (those last two made my lists of the TEN BEST FILMS of their respective years).  PETER PAN & WENDY's main selling card for me was its filmmaker behind the camera, and to be fair, Lowery's take on this mythology does a few interesting things in terms of subverting audience expectations (it shakes up elements of Peter Pan's world to compelling degrees and offers up a more thoughtful and psychologically rich take versus pummeling viewers with mindless action and VFX).  That, and Lowery is incapable of making an ugly looking film, and PETER PAN & WENDY is reliably striking in this respect.  The main problem, though, with the film is that it simply doesn't do enough to make this version of Pan proudly and uniquely stand apart from all other versions, leaving it in a weird position of trying to forge its own identity and personality while also feeling slavish to what's come before.

Lowery's film is well cast, to be fair, especially when it comes to Wendy herself (a wonderful Ever Anderson), who's introduced early in the film as she's about to take a stressful step into attending boarding school.  She's in a position that most kids that are approaching young adulthood face: maturing while still wanting to hang on to what makes childhood so fun.  Her younger brothers, John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe), are wild-eyed and adventurous, sometimes so much that it frustrates Wendy, who seems driven by a desire to become more independent of her siblings and parents (if there is one smart departure that Lowery takes with this world and story it would be that this version of Wendy is a more driven and headstrong character that grapples with the responsibilities that are about to befall her as she takes her next pivotal step in life).  Of course, this wouldn't be a PETER PAN & WENDY film without the former, and in swoops Pan himself one night (played by Alexander Molony), who's joined by an uncharacteristically mute Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi).  They reveal themselves in the kids' home with an invite for adventure (here's the other noticeable difference with the Pan canon: the pint sized flying pixie is rendered mute and can only be heard by Pan himself).     



What happens next should be awfully familiar to fans of Peter Pan lore. He whisks them all through the skies above London and into the magical realm of Neverland, and waiting for Peter is the revenge-seeking Captain Hook (Jude Law), who wants to find and destroy his nemesis as well as his clan of Lost Boys.  Actually, referring to this tribe as "boys" is a misnomer here, seeing as they have been refreshingly retconned as a wonderfully inclusive bunch that has both girls and boys.  One of the best new departures from past incarnations is in the form of Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk), a character that was dealt with in a problematic manner in the Disney animated film from several decades ago, but here she's given much more of a presence as an action hero first and a damsel in distress a very, very distant second.  Wendy's first taste of Neverland gets off to a rocky start when she becomes segregated from her brothers, who are both taken hostage by Hook's pirate goon squad.  Peter, in the meantime, has to process his dicey and very personal past with Hook in order to find a way of dealing with him once and for all.

Let's talk about the Captain for a minute.  I would say that some may find Law's casting and performance here to be a bit of a disappointment.  That's not to say that he's a bad fit for the role or bad in it.  If anything, and I would argue in a more interesting manner, Law plays Hook as less of a menacing, mustache-swirling baddie and more as a haunted figure that may have justifiable reasons for being bad in the first place.  This is not the broadly comic take that Dustin Hoffman wonderfully brought in HOOK, nor is it whatever Hugh Jackman was trying to do in PAN.  Law's Hook is more troubled and damned than he is purely and despicably malevolent, and as the film progresses we start to gain an insight into why he's really so fanatical about killing Pan (it's not just about losing his hand to him in battle).  One thing that makes PETER PAN & WENDY notably different in the pantheon of so many PAN films is that Hook and Wendy are afforded more nuance and complexity.  Both are deepened as contrasting characters, with Hook battling his inner demons and tragic past, while Wendy is determined to find her own identity and voice while losing her childlike innocence.  These are solid additions to such well-worn material.  Themes of loss on multiple levels feel more sensitively pronounced in this PETER PAN, and Lowery deserves some credit for delving into these divergent personalities and trying to understand what makes them tick while simultaneously finding a way to have them intertwine together as the narrative unfolds.  I liked this more cerebral and emotionally reflective approach, which comes off as more ambitious than what we usually get with these interchangeably similar, cash-cow live action remakes.     

PETER PAN & WENDY also looks splendid in terms of its dreamlike imagery throughout, which is not just reserved for the fantastical extremes of Neverland itself (take, for instance, one virtuoso one-take tracking shot that manages to introduce Wendy's family through photos in the home while the kids can be heard frivolously playing in the background).  When Lowery and company do get to Neverland, we're greeted by some spectacular scenery (everyone that was transfixed by what Lowery brought to THE GREEN KNIGHT will understand why he's a solid choice to helm this film).  We do get obligatory stand-offs, sword fights, floating ships, and swashbuckling action, but if you're looking for a spectacle-heavy PETER PAN film then you may come out of this feeling somewhat cheated.  And speaking of the titular character himself, it depresses me to say that young Molony is not a great Pan.  I tread carefully, because lambasting a child actor is something that gives me no pleasure as a critic, but something seems off about his stilted and sullen performance.  I could maybe chalk this up to Lowery's direction of him, but PETER PAN & WENDY doesn't make a strong case for this iconic character to be worthy of our rooting interest here. There's very little charisma and charm to this Pan.  Molony is a fine actor and is competent in the role, but his Pan is too cold and distancing.  

The other nagging issue with PETER PAN & WENDY is that - when one compares it with the countless other takes on Barrie's creation over the last hundred years - Lowery is in a terribly unenviable position to make his version inimitable while not aggressively turning off fans of what Disney gave us before. Just look at what he did with PETE'S DRAGON, which took a property (that, yeah, isn't held in as high esteem as 1953's PETER PAN) and charted some remarkable deviations from it and made it stand triumphantly on its own two feet.  It's pretty clear that Lowery wasn't given nearly as much creative freedom from the studio brass in adapting PETER PAN, which ultimately holds it back. As I finished my stream-screening (it's playing exclusively on Disney-Plus) I was left wondering if Lowery was simply not allowed to truly rethink this property from the ground up and deliver something wholly special.  His redo has its share of commendable alterations, yes, but they are few and far between. There's not as much of an annoying rinse-and-repeat aura that has obnoxiously tainted many of the other Disney live action properties of their cherished animated films (this is several times better than last year's hopelessly disastrous PINOCCHIO), but if you've seen PETER PAN films before - whether it be animated or live action, good or bad - there's just not enough newfangled innovation here to warrant a strong recommend. And considering Lowery's tremendously malleable skills as a visionary director, his PETER PAN simply should have been more magical and awe-inspiring than what we got in the final product.

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