I sincerely hope that this will be my last year covering the Disney live-action remakes. To date, this whole long-running experiment has only yielded two remakes that genuinely earned the right to exist: Pete’s Dragon in 2016, and Cinderella of 2015. (And no, I’m not counting the serviceable Christopher Robin, for hopefully obvious reasons.) Seven years and ten movies later, all we’ve got are films ranging from mediocre to godawful, crowned by the unholy abomination of Pinocchio (2022).

But I still had a few reasons for giving Peter Pan & Wendy a shot. To start with, it was directed by David Lowery, who helmed the aforementioned Pete’s Dragon remake that — and I can’t possibly stress this enough, because the film is so criminally underrated — is easily the best remake Disney has released in this whole asinine rehashing phase of theirs. More importantly, this film is not a live-action adaptation of the 1953 animated film.

One more time for those in the back: This is not a live-action remake of the Disney animated film. Which is probably for the best, given how Disney recently dug up Bobby Driscoll’s corpse just to sodomize his remains in full public view, but I digress.

The first clue was the title. As brand-conscious as Disney is, they would’ve made damn sure to give the remake an identical title if that’s what they were going for. Second, the songs are all original this time. Aside from a few musical quotations in the score, none of the songs from the 1953 animated film are used here, and all the music numbers are original compositions from Daniel Hart (who’s also scored all of Lowery’s feature films to date).

But the major giveaway was the hook.

In the original text, J.M. Barrie clearly states that Captain Hook has his hook on the right hand. But the animated film stated clearly and immediately that the hook is on the left hand. (So the theme park performers would have their right hands free to sign autographs, from what I’ve heard.) This has been a crucial legal point in subsequent adaptations of the work, most notably with Fox’s “Peter Pan and the Pirates” Saturday morning cartoon show in 1990. If the hook is on the left hand, that’s Disney’s influence and the famously litigious company has an excuse to sue. But if the hook is on the right hand, the filmmakers are pulling from the public domain source text, free and clear.

(Side note: You know how MGM is famously litigious about Dorothy’s ruby slippers, but they can’t do shit if the slippers are silver? Same basic principle.)

Then the trailer for Disney’s Peter Pan & Wendy came out, and where’s the hook? On the goddamn right hand.

Can Disney use this an an excuse to file copyright suit against all future Captain Hook portrayals, regardless of hook orientation? If they can’t, will they attempt anyway? That remains to be seen, but I imagine Disney’s legal team will have significantly bigger fish to fry for the immediate future. But again, I digress.

The point being that Lowery is going directly to the source material and putting his own spin on it, rather than simply remaking the 1953 film. And if the guy who made Pete’s Dragon (2016) and The Green Knight (2021) wants to film his own take on the classic story of Peter Pan, I’m 100 percent here for it.

Such a damn shame everything about this film was so much better in theory than in execution.

Let’s start with the setting. The film barely spends any time in London, the better to make sure we get to Neverland as quickly as possible and wrap things up immediately afterwards. In theory, I get how this makes sense. In practice, this is like a “Christmas Carol” rendition that spends 90 minutes on the haunting and a collective ten minutes before and after: Yes, that middle part is what we all came to see, but there’s a lot of important character-driven stuff in the before and after. Gloss over too much of the beginning and ending, and we lose too much of why the middle part matters. In point of fact, a great many iconic story points throughout are either glossed over or omitted completely in the mad dash to get this picture under 100 minutes.

As for Neverland itself, it’s a pristine island that looks perfectly untouched by human hands. Again, the logic makes perfect sense on paper. But then we actually see the pristine island and it just looks like a giant mossy rock. Precisely because it’s so perfectly untouched, it looks lifeless and unremarkable, not the least bit like a fairy tale fantasyland.

What about Peter himself? Well, he’s played by Alexander Molony, a young debut actor. I can’t get a clear answer on Molony’s ethnicity, but he’s apparently a BIPOC actor in the role, which is cool. He does a solid job playing the free-wheeling arrogance and grudging pathos of the character, all well and good. Oh, and Peter uses his independently functioning shadow for distractions and communication and other such functions? Genius.

But then the filmmakers had to go and give Peter a development arc about learning when to accept help and how to apologize when he’s done something wrong. Believe me, I know it sounds counter-intuitive to say that the main character shouldn’t get a development arc, but this is Peter Pan we’re talking about. And this is a movie that goes into great detail about how learning and changing and developing into someone smarter and wiser is an integral part of growing up. So when Peter Pan goes through this massive character growth and then goes right back to insisting that he’ll never grow up, it flat-out doesn’t work. Sure, the filmmakers try to massage it by saying that Peter just “isn’t ready” to grow up, but who the hell are they kidding?

Moving on, let’s talk about Captain Hook. Here we’ve got Jude Law playing one of history’s greatest archvillains with all the requisite camp and menace. It certainly helps that his costume looks grimy and worn, with a genuinely terrifying hook that might’ve been pulled off the set of a slasher flick. Even better, Hook is clearly and explicitly portrayed as a product of trauma and cruelty — in other words, he’s explicitly portrayed as the worst-case scenario of growing up. Which implicitly means that there’s a “right way” of growing up, and the younger characters are thus challenged to find it. All great stuff.

But then we get to the backstory, in which Peter and Hook are said to be former allies. To be entirely fair, this is hardly the first Peter Pan adaptation to suggest that Peter and Hook might have known each other and/or been on friendly terms before they became fatal enemies. And this film uses the conceit as a device to teach Peter about the aforementioned themes of friendship and atonement.

But then the film goes a step further and states that Hook used to be a Lost Boy. Which would be a fascinating twist except for the tiny little detail that Hook would know exactly where the Lost Boys’ hideout is. That’s kind of a big problem, considering that Hook trying to find the hideout used to be half the freaking plot. And it has to be, or we’re left with the question of why Hook never attacked Pan and the Lost Boys directly when he knew exactly where they were the whole godforsaken time! Like Hook remembers every detail of why he and Peter fell out, but he doesn’t remember where they spent so much time together? Get the fuck outta here.

Moving on to the female characters. Wendy is here played by Ever Anderson, who does indeed look and act unnervingly like her mother at a quarter the age and four times the talent. (I know we’re talking about the demonstrated acting range of Milla Jovovich, but still.) The filmmakers went to great effort in augmenting Wendy’s coming-of-age development, making Wendy a far more proactive and dynamic character in ways that nicely augment the source material. Wendy’s the one aspect of this movie that works just as well in concept as in execution. But it does so at the expense of the other female characters.

Take Tinker Bell, for instance. The Tink of the source material was very much a one-dimensional character. And that’s not me saying that — it’s right there in the source text that “fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.” Thusly, Tinker Bell was defined by her overwhelming jealousy, clashing with Wendy for Peter’s affection.

So, what we’ve got in the source text are two female leads defined primarily by their romantic rivalry over the male lead. I get how that’s a sexist trope nobody wants to see anymore, and I can appreciate the intent in scrapping it. That doesn’t make it any less bizarre to see Wendy and Tinker Bell getting along, or even helping each other out! More importantly, as Tinker Bell no longer has her prideful jealousy, her one defining character trait has been shot to hell and nothing is there to replace it. It’s a damn shame, because Yara Shahidi is demonstrably capable of delivering a charismatic and expressive performance with no dialogue at all, and she’s spinning her wheels for lack of anything to work with.

Then there’s Tiger Lilly. As portrayed by Alyssa Wapanatâhk, we’ve got a genuine Cree actor playing the character as authentically Cree, which is fantastic. Even better, she’s a character with genuine agency and multiple opportunities to be a badass. Oh, and we’ve switched things around so it’s John and Michael (respectively played by Joshua Pickering and Jacobi Jupe) chained to drown at Skull Rock so Tiger Lilly isn’t a damsel in distress anymore. That’s amazing, I’m all about that.

I love the idea that Tiger Lilly could be a vital part of the crew, every bit as empowered and central to the plot as Wendy herself. Just one question: If Tiger Lilly is Wendy’s equal in every way that matters, why did Peter and the Lost Boys need Wendy at all?!

For that matter, the Lost Boys themselves are much more diverse in this go-round, a veritable hodgepodge of ages and races. We’ve even got a few girls among the Lost Boys, and Slightly is capably played by Noah Matthews Matofsky — an actor with Down Syndrome. Much as I love the concept of greater diversity in the cast, we’re back to the question of why the Lost Boys needed Wendy to be their mother figure when they’ve already got all these girls running around who are at least as qualified.

The filmmakers try to gloss all this over in numerous ways, and none of them hold water. Early on, Mrs. Darling (Molly Parker) gets a throwaway line about how Wendy’s brothers need her to be a big sister and Mrs. Darling to be a mother because they both play different yet equally necessary roles. If that’s supposed to be a justification for making Wendy the mother figure for the Lost Boys, that doesn’t explain why Wendy has to be the mother figure or why she’s any more qualified than Tiger Lilly. Except that Tiger Lilly apparently can’t be the boys’ mother because she can’t go into their hideout for defiantly unclear reasons. Speaking of which, we clearly see numerous storybooks and magazines in the Lost Boys’ hideout, so it’s not like they needed her to tell any stories.

All we’re left with is that Peter came to whisk Wendy and her brothers away to Neverland because she was on the verge of growing up. Do we really want to go pulling on that particular thread?

For miscellaneous notes, I was disappointed that the mermaids were reduced to a brief cameo, ditto for all the natives who weren’t Tiger Lilly. I get the complaint that the film isn’t colorful enough, but damned if the dark colors don’t make the fairy dust pop off the screen. Otherwise, the camerawork, editing, and CGI are all serviceable, with some gravity-defying set pieces that are great fun to watch. The fight choreography could be better in spots, though.

Peter Pan & Wendy is a fascinating and worthwhile experiment that sadly didn’t work. The casting is all aces, and I love the logic that went into adapting the film for modern sensibilities without losing the fantastic sense of adventure. Alas, the source material can only bend so far, and it’s painfully obvious when the characters are being made to act in a manner they were never designed for.

The filmmakers tried to add to the source material, but ended up subtracting far more. Considering the talent and effort that clearly went into this movie, that’s a damn shame. I never could’ve recommended it for a full-price ticket, and that breaks my heart, but at least you have the option to check it out on streaming for no additional cost.

Oh, and of course this is nowhere near the worst Peter Pan adaptation I’ve ever seen. One more time, fuck Joe Wright, to hell with Jason Fuchs, and above all, FUCK PAN.

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5 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Peter Pan & Wendy

  1. Watched this last Friday and just found it rather dull and grey. It honestly felt lifeless to me and that’s not a feeling I want with a Peter Pan story. And also if I want Peter with a back story, I’ll go watch the Never Land arc of Once Upon a Time.

  2. I’ve been wondering about this film myself. Yes, Peter Pan has some tropes and story elements that haven’t aged well, and that anyone attempting a new adaptation these days should be mindful of. So of course I was curious to know how this film handles them.
    I’m with you on Captain Hook. Captain Hook is a character I thought to be in some ways more interesting than Peter Pan, with his obsession with what is and what isn’t good form, as well as the vagueness of his backstory. (Barrie even said that Hook was not his true name, and implied that to reveal who he truly was would be scandalous). But yes, I’m inclined to agree that yes, the idea that Hook and Pan might have once gotten along before a vicious falling out is an interesting one, but him being a former Lost Boy doesn’t really work unless the Lost Boys changed the location of their home base a few times since then.
    And yes, if you’re going to eliminate or downplay Tinkerbell’s jealousy of Wendy, you still need to give Tinkerbell more to do than just be a supplier of fairy dust.
    I’ve yet to see the movie, but it seems like there are a number of things the makers didn’t quite think about enough when trying to make the film more palatable for modern sensibilities, resulting in questions raised that they just didn’t have answers for (or if they did, they never made it into the finished product).

    1. I still haven’t seen the film, but the more I think about it and re-read your review of it, the more it sounds like this film could have used at least an additional twenty minutes to help make certain things work. I agree that the beginning and ending are just as important as the middle we came to see, and shouldn’t be rushed. But also, some extra time could have been used to fill in plot holes and answer certain questions raised.
      The ‘Hook used to be a Lost Boy’ idea COULD work, with just a few lines of dialogue establishing that the Lost Boys have had to change the location of their hideout a few times. Say, Peter or the Lost Boys mentioning it (“Hook! We’ve had to move our hideout at least three times because of him!”), or Hook himself mentioning it in a conversation with Smee (who in nearly every version is the closest that Hook has to a friend and confidant that Hook has among his pirate crew).
      Also, if you’re going to remove or at the very least downplay Tinkerbell’s jealousy toward Wendy, you need something substantial to replace it with. And it sounds to me like this movie doesn’t succeed in doing that.
      And yes, I can see why you might be disappointed that aside from Tiger Lilly, the natives don’t get much screentime, but as you yourself noted in the review of Pan, the natives are certainly problematic due to racial stereotypes, and (quoting from said review)

      “There’s absolutely no denying that Barrie’s portrayal of Native Americans was terribly racist to begin with, and that portrayal will only get more awkward with time. There’s no way around that, though there are ways to soften the blow. On one extreme, the filmmakers could try to cast actual Native American actors and be as rigidly respectful as possible (see: The 2003 Peter Pan), which sacrifices a bit of the gorgeous imagery and pioneering spirit that made the story a classic to begin with. On the other extreme, the filmmakers could remove the Indians altogether (see: Hook) and sacrifice a huge part of Neverland. Or maybe the filmmakers could go full steam ahead and embrace the content as it is, cultural sensitivity be damned (see: The Disney animated film).”

      It sounds like here, they do something in between the 2003 Peter Pan‘s extreme and Hook‘s extreme, and maybe that’s for the best. Though Barrie’s book did give some of the other natives names, Tiger Lilly is largely the only one of the natives most people remember (aside from the racist caricature chief of the 1953 animated Disney film), so of course she’s likely going to get more screentime regardless.
      Anyway, this seems to be one of those films that had some interesting ideas, but the execution is lacking. An item for your year end Stupid Disappointments lists. (As opposed to Malicious Disappointments, which Pan was). One of those films which makes you think “There was genuine effort here but it could have been a LOT better”.

      1. Honestly, I might be tempted to bump this up to a Benign Disappointment. It didn’t work for me, but if anyone else out there is willing to call it a good movie and look past its numerous flaws, I could see the appeal. But no, this is absolutely not a Malicious Disappointment. There was genuine effort and talent here.

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