‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ review: David Lowery adds his own magic mix of pixie dust to J.M. Barrie’s beloved novel
Do we really need another adaptation of the beloved J.M. Barrie book, Peter Pan? Has the magic of pixie dust overstayed its welcome? All good questions that David Lowery’s Peter Pan and Wendy answer with a resounding yes and no full stop. The film is the latest entry in the long list of previous adaptations and is directed and co-written by Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) and his long-time producing partner Toby Halbrooks.
Lowery is no stranger to Disney adaptations having reimagined the beloved 1977 Pete’s Dragon in 2016. He brings the same thoroughness of detail and thoughtfulness he is known for to Peter Pan and Wendy. Whether you’ve seen some Peter Pan’s previous iterations from Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Joe Wright’s Pan and of course the 1953 animated Disney classic it’s not a prerequisite for Peter Pan and Wendy. So, how does one not fall into previous adaptation fatigue, pitfalls or imitations?
Let’s start with the story. The film introduces Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson), a young girl afraid to leave her childhood home and grow up. She meets Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), a boy who refuses to grow up with his trusty tiny fairy Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi). Wendy and her younger brothers head to Neverland with Pan where adventure and peril await with the pirate Captain Hook (Jude Law). Lowery and Halbrooks craft a story that both caters to those who are familiar with Peter Pan and those who are not.
Often, the best representation of diversity on screen is the one you don’t notice. It just exists and is normal. No character needs to comment on it and it does not always have to be a plot device. Peter Pan and Wendy not only has a diverse cast but stereotyped gendered norms are also challenged through subtle script dialogue. Since Wendy is one of the older children in Neverland it’s easy for her to fall into the ‘mother’ role for the Lost Boys of Neverland. When one child mentions that they’d wish she was their mother, she simply replies “I don’t know if I want to be a mother.” That line is part of the subtle modernization of the story and characters to not fall into their previous iteration of tropes and challenge gender stereotypes.
Speaking of tropes, the problematic depiction of Tiger Lily in Barrie’s novel and casting of Rooney Mara in Wright’s adaptation called for a change. In this film, you can see the care and thought taken into consideration from the casting of Alyssa Wapanatâhksa, the Cree language and how the character is depicted from a supporting role to being an integral part of the story.
The decision to not go over-the-top in costume and hair and make-up was a smart choice for Law’s Captain Hook. It makes Law inhabit Hook from a deeper place than a superficial one and the script gives him plenty to work with. It’s irksome when ‘villains’ are one-dimensional. They never start off that way and when a story gets to show the audience why someone has turned into a baddie, it’s much more compelling because of the nuance to the complicated situations. There’s several moments that Law is able to go deep with conversations into his past with Neverland that offer more into his journey from a young boy James to Captain Hook. It’s messy and Pan is at fault too. While this does not negate any of the bad things he chooses to do, it challenges the viewers to empathize and look at it from another angle. Friendship is not black and white. It’s messy and so is growing up. And that’s okay.
From someone who’s seen various iterations of Peter Pan at different points in my life, it was striking to see it as a thirty-something-year-old. This is both credit to J.M. Barrie’s layered story of growing up and the film’s attention to the complexity of not only the children but to Captain Hook. Hook’s words hit hard when he mentions growing up and his dashed dreams, creaking bones and the now realization of being able to sense death. Is Captain Hook a millennial?
While you’d expect Law to be carrying the film from the acting standpoint, the children are the star of Peter Pan and Wendy. Anderson is charming, heartfelt and magnetic in the role. Moloney is commanding as Pan. It’s the most pivotal relationship in the story and without strong chemistry between Moloney and Law, it’d fall apart. Luckily, their relationship is divulged through the interactions where we see the vulnerability from both Pan and Hook that builds the anticipation of the final clash. Moloney and Law do their part separately and by the time they meet, it’s explosive. All of the Lost Boys (and girls) are equally as dashing and it all comes from the script. It was nice to not have forced one liners from Law or anyone else. Even Jim Gaffigan as Mr. Smee is subdued, funny but not overbearing like some supporting characters in other films. (Cough, James Corden.)
Previous iterations have leaned and gotten lost in bringing the fantasy and magic of Neverland to the big screen but the magic is the story and Lowery understands that. The cinematography (Bojan Bazelli) is grounded in natural hues, even a bit gritty which feels right for children without parents and pirates…they both should be ragged and dirty. Recent Disney live-action films have been heavy handed in the CGI department but Peter Pan and Wendy strike a good balance. There’s CGI in wide shots but then feels grounded with Jade Healy’s stunning production design that oozes texture and lived-in-ness. The use of nature is felt in the Neverland Lost Boys lair. You understand why it would be intoxicating for these young lost children to want to stay there.
There are beautiful melodies when Wendy and her brothers are discovering Neverland that enhance the uniqueness and magic thanks to the score of Daniel Hart and original music by Oliver Wallace. With an unexpected musical pirate number you’ll be reminded of another swashbuckling Disney adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean, that makes for some great fun and catchy lyrics that will linger in your head.
The updates to the cast and story are very much welcome without feeling forced or overbearing. Lowery adds his own sprinkle of magic pixie dust to a dusty old tale that will have you relating to your own journey of growing up as you watch it for years to come.
Peter Pan and Wendy will be released April 28 exclusively on Disney+.
Photo courtesy of Disney