Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
I’m not a big fan of the Peter Pan story. I think it has some meaty themes but the world of Neverland was never that interesting and I always found the characters to be more annoying and flimsy than enchanting and diverting. It also doesn’t help that there have been dozens and dozens of Pan adaptations; by existing in the public domain, one is guaranteed every few years, like 2015’s disastrous Pan by director Joe Wright (Cyrano) and 2020’s Wendy, the long-awaited follow-up from director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). The only aspect that had me even remotely intrigued in Disney’s new live-action version was the creative team behind it. Director/co-writer David Lowery is better known for sumptuous and deeply humanist indies like The Green Knight and Ain’t Them Body Saints, plus having Rooney Mara eat an entire pie for ten minutes of A Ghost Story (thus fulfilling my requirement to mention this baffling moment whenever the opportunity arises). He also happened to make the 2016 live-action remake for Pete’s Dragon, which was soulful and heartwarming and excellent. It’s in fact my favorite of all the recent Disney remakes and proof of what great artists can do when given enough creative latitude, from the parent studio as well as general audiences and their expectations. I think the overriding Disney demands won out, as Peter Pan & Wendy is a rather bland update that every so often gives a glimpse of a more introspective, thoughtful, and possibly better Pan.
You probably know the story already, as we follow the Darling children from their home in London all the way to the magical fantasy island of Neverland thanks to immortal child and would-be lovable scamp, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). The kids can forever be kids on adventures with the fellow Lost Boys, battling against pirates led by Captain Hook (Jude Law). Except Wendy (Ever Anderson) starts to wonder whether growing up might be a necessity.
Considering the original Disney animated movie was released in the 1950s, there have been more than a few updates to modernize this tale, which have predictably riled the easily triggered culture warriors always looking for their next outrage. The offensive minority representation has obviously been altered, with actual indigenous actors portraying indigenous roles (no Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in this go-round), and we have a brown-skinned Peter and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi), and the Lost Boys includes girls too in a throwaway explanation that’s entirely credible. Wendy also gets more empowered and has much more influence in the end events. I cannot understand the mentality of anyone that gets this upset over the skin color of fictional characters when it doesn’t alter the story. Who cares what the race of the actress playing Tinkerbell is, she’s a fairy. Why can’t there be darker-skinned fairies, hobbits, and mermaids? There are some exceptions; if Superman was played by a black actor, the world would view this overpowered alien in a completely different light, and that demands to be explored. However, most stories in a fantasy or sci-fi setting are not dependent on specific ethnicity, so why care? Of course, when the Tinkerbell character is such a waste, used solely for wordless reaction shots, it doesn’t matter what the race of the actress is when the character is this inconsequential.
One change I did like was bringing more of a personal fidelity between Peter and Captain Hook, beginning as close friends before falling out. The role of Hook has usually been modeled as an analogue for the Darling’s disapproving father and played by the same actor for the obvious parallels (in this iteration, Alan Tudyk). With Lowery’s version, Hook began as simply James, a Lost Boy who was Peter’s BFF until James started to miss his mother. This cherishing of the past rather than out-rightly rejecting it caused a wedge between the two friends, and James returned home only to eventually return back to Neverland as a grown man. I don’t know if the adult James was seeking out the comfort of his old friend and the familiar or if he was seeking out Peter for the sake of vengeance, blaming him for the years of time he lost and missing the death of his mother. Perhaps Peter’s harsh rejection of his grieving friend sent him into a tailspin. This painful past, when it starts to break through the cracks of family spectacle, can be captivating. Characters who are unable to articulate their loss but they feel it, as if there’s something just below the surface that they know isn’t right in all these redundant clashes. Can these characters even die? There are several that come back from certain demise. There are exchanges where Peter and Hook feel like they’re on auto-pilot, mechanically giving into the demands of a universe keeping its players in tidy and conforming roles. There’s a slight danger when the movie hits these little bumps, like characters becoming aware of more than what they’re used to. It’s like they’re breaking free of the Matrix to briefly realize how they’re being manipulated by fate before succumbing back to it.
These occasional philosophical glimpses are what kept me going, hoping that somehow the movie would rise above its familiarity into something different and more exciting. I don’t mean adult or darker, though there are clear horror routes one could take with the story of Peter Pan. Pete’s Dragon wasn’t a particularly complex story by any means but it channeled a clear and heartfelt tone and vision, and was executed at a high level to be appealing to all ages. I was hoping for something the same here, but the muck of the Peter Pan expectations ultimately gets the best of Lowery and his team. I liked the idea that Wendy may not be the first Wendy to be lured to Neverland to be the house mother for these wayward children. I liked the idea that Peter Pan could be the real villain of this realm, holding children hostage more or less through their rejection of growing up, and how resentful and remorseful that can make someone when they are cut out of their former life. I liked the idea of James/Hook possibly maybe even being a distant relative of the Darlings and what that could do for their relationship and perspectives meeting. I liked the idea of characters falling into patterns but not able to comprehend why they’re being manipulated. There’s a more penetrating movie here just on the peripheral and it pokes through but only occasionally. It’s frustrating to watch because it feels like uncovering artifacts of an older, more arresting screenplay that has, over the course of numerous rewrites and studio intervention, been diluted. The Peter Pan movie we get in 2023 is fine with some diverting visuals, but it’s a shadow of what could have been had Lowery been allowed to explore more of his creative impulses.
The movie is not without its charms and beauty, and for 106 minutes you can watch it without investing too much of your emotions. Law (Fantastic Beasts) is easily the best part of the movie, really enjoying the snarl of his over-the-top villain but finding opportunities for nuance to showcase his lingering vulnerabilities. Hook comes across like a bigger kid hurt and lashing out, and there’s tragedy to that that Law is able to tap while also playing into the foppish and slapstick comedy. I adored Jim Gaffigan (Linoleum) as Smee and was amused that he becomes the moral center for the pirates, speaking out when he fears they’re crossing a line. The natural scenery has a luscious storybook quality to it, and the mossy ruins made me think of Lowery’s Green Knight and its many visual pleasures. I enjoyed the presentation and physics of a below deck sword fight while the ship is rotating in the air. It made me think of Inception’s famous gravity-defying hallway fight, in a good way. I enjoyed how active the cinematography was, swooping and swirling with the energy of a child radically at play, and the montages of characters feeling the full power of happy memories had a downright ethereal quality of demonstrating a fuller life.
If you’re hungry for a live-action Peter Pan movie, then try the 2003 version with a deliciously maniacal Jason Isaacs (Mass) as Captain Hook. If you’re looking for a Peter Pan that goes beyond the bounds of the same old story, try Steven Spielberg’s Hook, a touchstone of many Millennial childhoods. Or check out the 1922 silent era Peter Pan. There is no shortage of Pan adaptations to choose from, so there’s a Pan for every occasion, and I’m sure there will be fans of this new live-action update as well. I found it a little too bland. It’s certainly better than the recent Pinocchio, but that itself is not reason enough to watch this. Peter Pan & Wendy offers too little to distinguish it from its predecessors, so it becomes yet another Pan adaptation that fails to fully take flight.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Posted on May 2, 2023, in 2023 Movies and tagged alan tudyk, book, david lowery, disney, drama, fantasy, jude law. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
Leave a comment