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Director David Lowery's movie has splendid visuals but lacks charm
Hollywood is on a mission to discover how many Peter Pan revivals are too many Peter Pan revivals. The question answers itself. The CGI-drowned Pan, an origin story from 2015 starring Levi Miller and Hugh Jackman, sank at the domestic box office. So did a pair of reimaginings released in 2020, the insufferably artsy Wendy and the lackluster Come Away. Naturally, Disney wants in on the experiment. Peter Pan & Wendy, the studio's latest live-action update (now streaming on Disney+), is more faithful to J.M. Barrie's original story than the others, but fidelity can be its own burden.
The new movie offers an inadvertent comment on Disney's nearly decade-long quest to cash in on its famous properties using three-dimensional humans and photorealistic animals. Back in 2016, when that gambit still seemed promising, Ain't Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery made Pete's Dragon, a folksy regeneration that remains the best of Disney's live-action offerings. Lowery then returned to his indie-wunderkind roots, making A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun, and The Green Knight, all excellent. Now he's behind Peter Pan & Wendy. But something about the film isn't right. Lowery's signature visual splendor is intact, but the movie feels more manufactured and perfunctory than anything else Lowery has done.
Even at a healthy 106 minutes, the plot is rushed. Maybe that's because the outline is so familiar, or maybe because Lowery's idiosyncrasies are deprioritized in favor of getting the whole thing over with. As expected, Peter (Alexander Molony) swoops in to take the restless Darling siblings, especially Wendy (Black Widow's Ever Anderson), soaring through "the second star to the right," where Neverland awaits. There, Peter's operatic enemy Captain Hook (Jude Law) and his dopey gofer Mr. Smee (an underused Jim Gaffigan) wage war. Our arrested-development hero carouses with the Lost Boys, except some of them are girls, and eventually Wendy realizes she prefers her life at home, where no one is frozen in time.
With each of his films, particularly A Ghost Story and The Green Knight, Lowery has proven to be a masterful stylist. His nature vistas are especially lush, which comes in handy as the Darlings first arrive in Neverland, where sparkling shades of green and gold provide wonder. I'd take that over the overcrowded production design in Guy Ritchie's Aladdin or the uncanny faux-reality of Jon Favreau's The Lion King any day. So it's a shame, what with all the flying that Peter Pan does, for the story to come off so flatfooted. Lowery co-wrote the script with his longtime producer Toby Halbrooks, but it lacks the charm that made Pete's Dragon such a surprise.
The crux of the problem is Peter himself. Instead of a winsome trickster, he's a bore taxed with a soggy backstory. Pan also ventured a guess as to what Captain Hook and Peter Pan's lives looked like before the former became a murderous pirate, and it wasn't particularly useful there either. (At least no one sings "Smells Like Teen Spirit" this time.) The reason Peter Pan — Barrie's novels, the 1953 animated classic, and the stage musical that was revived for TV in 2014 — works is because its thesis is strong on its own merit. The push-and-pull of not wanting to grow up, of mistaking childhood as some ideal state, resonates across generations. Embellishing those ideas risks overextending them, in turn minimizing the plot's fantastical simplicity.
Lowery's Wendy sees the flaws in Peter's paradigm almost immediately. In a sense, Peter is the true villain, content to punish anyone who seeks independence if it means leaving his beloved Neverland. The movie is aware of these complexities, but it's caught between the mature treatment Lowery likely had in mind and the Disney-friendly imperatives that make Peter Pan & Wendy watery. A long-haired, weathered-looking Law seems like he's having fun chewing the scenery, but even Hook comes off like a lesser reproduction.
Then there's the Tinker Bell of it all. Played by a near-silent Yara Shahidi, Tink can't be heard because people tend not to listen to her. That's a compelling narrative choice on paper, but for such a supreme fan favorite, she comes off as a nonentity. The same goes for Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk), refreshed to avoid the Native American stereotypes that have dogged the character for years. Here, she is a warrior indigenous to Neverland. But she mostly flits through the movie's periphery, an idea rather than a fully formed character.
By the film's final showdown, something feels off. The momentum just isn't there. It's unfair to review a movie based on possible studio intervention, but something Lowery said in 2021 makes me wonder what happened behind the scenes during postproduction. "It is, ironically, the most adult movie I've ever made," he told Collider. That's nonsense coming from the guy who made A Ghost Story, but I wonder if there wasn't a version of Peter Pan & Wendy that was meant to be more meditative, more enrapturing. This one is stuck in limbo, not thoughtful enough to win over grown-ups and probably not fun enough to captivate their kids. Chalk it up as another disappointment in Disney's live-action craze.
Premieres: Friday, April 28 on Disney+
Who's in it: Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Jim Gaffigan, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk
Who's behind it: David Lowery, director and co-writer
For fans of: Disney's live-action remakes