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All This Has Happened Before. . . Though Not Quite Like This
My Thoughts On Peter Pan & Wendy
The last few years have seen Disney Studios releasing a series of lavishly appointed live-action remakes of their classic animated features, most of them sticking for closely to the originals that you are left wondering why they even bothered to do so in the first place (outside of milking properties already in their control to the tune of a additional few hundred million). The only one that has actually been worth a damn—even vastly improving upon its predecessor (admittedly not the highest of artistic bars to clear—was Pete’s Dragon, director David Lowery’s surprisingly lyrical and moving take on the largely forgettable 1977 live-action/animation hybrid cranked out during arguably the studio’s lowest point. After making a subsequent string of striking adult-oriented films in the interim—including A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun and the spectacular adult fairy tale The Green Knight—he has returned to the Disney fold to helm the live-action version of one of the studio’s more iconic animated films, Peter Pan.
Over the years, people have attempted to do live-action takes on the famed J.M.Barrie children’s story with uneven results. Steven Spielberg’s Hook made money but was a film so shitty that it almost makes me think at times that I may have been too hard on The Terminal. On the other hand, P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan was an absolute delight that unfortunately went on to become one of the biggest flops in screen history and is now all but forgotten. Then there was Joe Wright’s 2015 film Pan, a work that bombed so completely that even I had pretty much forgotten that it even existed. Now comes Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy and while it may not quite be as startlingly impressive at first glance as his take on Pete’s Dragon, it shares a lot of that film’s qualities, particularly the way in which he has taken a project that appears on the surface to be little more than a naked cash grab and turned it into a stirring and soulful work that viewers both young and old can enjoy.
Unlike Pete’s Dragon, which announced itself right from the get-go to be very different from its predecessor, this film starts off more or less along the old familiar lines with the Darling children—eldest Wendy (Ever Anderson) and younger brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi June) noisily reenacting the stories of the fabled Peter Pan, much to the consternation of their practical-minded father (Alan Tudyk) and more understanding mother (Molly Parker). It is a bit of a tense time as it is the night before Wendy is to be shipped off to boarding school and she clearly does not want to give up her childhood fantasies quite yet. That night, on cue, the real Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), along with faithful fairy sidekick Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) arrive in their bedroom and whisk the kids away to the enchanted island of Neverland. They have only barely arrived when they have their first encounter with Captain Hook (Jude Law), a man who hates Peter Pan, really hates clocks and lives in mortal fear of the giant crocodile that caused the injury that gave him his nickname.
If you are at all familiar with the Peter Pan story, either from the book or the various adaptations, you may think that you know where the story goes from this point but you would be wrong. I would not dream of revealing exactly how things unfold any further but I will say that after luring viewers into a comfortable state, Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks have elected to change things up considerably. We learn more about the true nature of the relationship between Pan and Hook and what drives their antagonism towards each others. We also get some intriguing contemplations regarding the nature of both Neverland and the Lost Boys that are encountered along the way (which go a long way towards explaining why there are now some girls amongst them, even though internet nags have pointed out that in the story, there were no girls because they were too smart to get lost). Additionally, some adjustments have been made to eradicate some potentially troubling racial issues, though these changes have been made in intelligent and dramatically satisfying ways. (That said, it should only be a matter of time before some dopes begin griping about Peter Pan becoming “woke.”)
I hasten to add, however, that while these changes and additions bring additional levels of resonance to the material that the older viewers who enjoyed the similar treatment given to Pete’s Dragon will doubtlessly appreciate, Peter Pan & Wendy is still a high-spirited adventure that kids will love. It is sweet, funny and thrilling without becoming too intense for younger viewers (though the sight of the crocodile might be a little too much for more sensitive types) and the special effects are dazzling without completely overwhelming the proceedings—there is a tactility to the settings that keep you from feeling that you are merely watching a bunch of people capering in front of a green screen while struggling to imagine they are seeing things that the effects crew won’t be adding in until long after the completion of principal photography. In the title roles, Molony and Anderson are cheerful and high-spirited as can be but also do well when it comes time to negotiate some of the more emotionally tricky material. Meanwhile, as Hook, Law fully commits to the role throughout and gives us a Hook that is funny, fearsome and—I can’t believe I am writing these words—even a bit sympathetic at times.
Make no mistake, Peter Pan & Wendy is still a fantasy, and but that is still grounded in a certain degree of emotional reality that genuinely enhances the familiar story in intriguing ways and which leads to an impressive payoff in the concluding scenes. In fact, the only real downside to the film is the fact that, for reasons which I can’t begin to explain or understand, audiences for it are going to have to watch it at home on Disney+ instead of on the big screen where it belongs. Perhaps the less-than-spectacular box-office record regarding live-action versions of the story (even the shitfest that was Hook was a bit of an under-performer despite the enormous hype surrounding it) caused the studio to think twice and forgo theatrical distribution but whatever the reason, it is a disappointing move on their part. That said, the film is still a delight that is sure to charm viewers of all ages, the kind that younger viewers will hopefully take to their hearts and then pass on to their own children in due time.