Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriters: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Jim Gaffigan, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Yara Shahidi, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk
70 years ago, Walt Disney Productions released their animated musical Peter Pan (based upon J.M. Barrie’s iconic children’s stage play) and guided an entire generation of young viewers to magical Neverland where they would never have to grow up. With his first project for Disney in seven years – having previously directed the surprisingly good Pete’s Dragon – singular writer-director David Lowery returns for the studio’s latest reimagining of one of their animated classics and gratifyingly brings some new-ish ideas in addition to everything you might expect.
Wendy Moira Angela Darling (Ever Anderson) is an imaginative Edwardian pre-teen deeply apprehensive at the prospect of having to grow up on the eve of going to boarding school, leaving her games with her younger brothers John and Michael (Joshua Pickering and Jacobi Jupe) far behind. That same night, the boy from their bedtime stories, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), appears at the Darlings’ nursery window and flies them to Neverland where he and his gang of Lost Boys are pursued by Captain Hook (Jude Law) and his pirate crew.
David Lowery’s films return time and time again to themes of captivity and freedom, whether literal or figurative. Imagination and whether we have to lose it as we mature is the main idea explored here, clear from the opening scene in which Mrs Darling (Molly Parker) gives her daughter a gentle reality check about having to grow up sooner or later and encourages her to be a responsible older sister to her brothers: “You barely fit in your bed” / “They will follow your lead so you must be a good leader”.
It’s a neat visual to have everything Peter touches in the nursery float alongside him, like pixie dust exerts some kind of otherworldly gravity field, and Molony’s Peter manages to look like he’s not on a restrictive wire rig either, moving like someone very comfortable with defying physics, changing his inversion at a moment’s notice to run along walls and spring to the ceiling. The flying does feel appropriately wondrous despite some imperfect VFX, the sheer exhilaration and utter freedom the Darlings feel the first time they take to the air present in the young actors’ performances and the staging of the scenes.
This Captain Hook is not a gentleman pirate but a neurotic and paranoid man-child who overcompensates massively for ageing and for his sad history with Peter by vainly dying his greying hair and attaching a particularly mean-looking butcher’s meat hook at the end of his arm.
Lowery’s film stands out as one of the few adaptations to establish a very different connection between Peter and Hook, rather than the usual trouble-making child vs stern housemaster dynamic. Hook is a tragic figure who has lost who he was and has become jaded and cruel with age (“This is what growing up looks like”), so they definitely could have done more with the paternal side of Mr Smee (Jim Gaffigan) in turn. Bob Hoskins remains the best Smee of them all (for his part in Steven Spielberg’s Hook) due to his unique bickering gay lover take on Captain Hook’s second in command. There was definitely scope to mine a little more emotional resonance from character relationships in general here, but there’s no getting around the fact that Hook’s main purpose in life is to kill a child he hates, and because of that the central rivalry really works.
Jude Law’s enjoyment in his every scene as a flamboyant pantomime baddie is evident, and Ever Anderson and Alexander Molony (particularly the former) are both a welcome modern update and embody the youthful curiosity and wonder of Barrie’s central characters pretty well. Elsewhere it’s difficult to gain any real traction on any of the pirates, Neverland natives or Lost Boys, which is particularly disappointing for Wendy’s brothers who probably have only half a dozen lines each.
Crocodile fans will be pleased to hear that despite its appearance being brief, the creature looks great in its truly massive scaly glory, and the filmmakers do a spectacular big-budget live-action version of the slapstick runaround from the animation in which it chases Hook around a cave.
While several of its songs are now deeply problematic, fans of the 1953 film might be a little disappointed there are so few nods to it in the new score from Lowery regular Daniel Hart. We don’t even hear the iconic refrain from “You Can Fly!” properly until the end credits. A couple of times it feels like they’re about to break properly into song but they never quite do.
Kids will likely have a lot of fun with all the younger-skewing Pirates of the Caribbean-esque swashbuckling action, but whether there is actually enough going on to keep the most restless little ones interested is debatable. You could also wish for a bit more polish in the fight choreography which is often obscured in the edit or the wider cinematography, the latter of which is favoured to take in the entirety of the busy and often chaotic brawls.
Peter Pan & Wendy evokes the timeless themes of childhood imagination and sweeps parents and kids up in a pretty memorable fantasy adventure. Aspects of Barrie’s enduring bedtime fantasy have been done better elsewhere over numerous adaptations, but new angles on certain characters and concepts keep things fresh even if this doesn’t come close to the level of originality David Lowery has shown in his original works.