Disney aims to bring the boy who wouldn’t grow up into the 21st century with Peter Pan and Wendy though not literally, unlike those demanding live-action/cartoon hybrids where computer-generated Smurfs run amok in Manhattan or Tom and Jerry cause mayhem in a posh hotel.
The most recent adaptation from the studio is still set in Edwardian England, just as J.M. Barrie’s play and the animated film it served as inspiration for. But as director David Lowery (who did a fantastic job updating “Pete’s Dragon” for Disney) updates the 1953 classic, the sensibility is very much of the moment.
A diverse and strong ensemble is included in the new film, both in conceptualization and casting. The offensive Native American stereotypes from the old cartoon have been changed. Now a wider range of children can look up to the beloved Tinker Bell character.
Wendy gets to make the heroic declaration, “This magic belongs to no boy!” It is shown that even Captain Hook, who was once thought of as useless crocodile food, is a misunderstood character from Peter’s past who has lost touch with his bright ideas.
These thoughtful additions to the constantly-evolving Disney formula are praiseworthy to a degree. Still, they will undoubtedly be scrutinized as the studio prepares to release the big “The Little Mermaid” revival next month.
One of Lowery’s many competing motivations in this situation is to adapt a beloved Disney animated film into a live-action film. Still, the outcome is far safer than it is rewarding. This straight-to-streaming adaptation of “Peter Pan” is only a ghost of the phenomenon that was “Peter Pan,” scampering off and trying to have fun.
Beyond a few obvious costuming choices, Lowery, whose script was co-written with longtime producing partner Toby Halbrooks, doesn’t seem overly concerned about recreating the earlier cartoon: Peter (Alexander Molony) makes an appearance wearing his signature Alpine hat and a ragged green outfit, John Darling (Joshua Pickering) dons a top hat and specs, and Michael, John Darling’s younger brother, travels with a stuffed animal.
The movie begins as it should in the Darling residence, where Wendy (Ever Anderson) and her brothers pretend to be pirates while using wooden swords. The older sister is a full-fledged participant in the mischief, which Anderson convincingly represents.
The young cast’s breakout performer is Milla Jovovich’s daughter, Paul W.S. Anderson, who at times is so assertive and compelling that the film could have easily been titled “Wendy” if Benh Zeitlin hadn’t already done so with his post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild” take on the legend.
Lowery emphasizes Jude Law’s salty, long-haired Captain Hook, suggesting what might have been a “Maleficent”-esque reframing around the villain. However, “Hook” beats Lowery to that notion, leaving this most recent interpretation struggling to make its point. It is not Wendy’s, Hook’s, or a straightforward retelling of the first.
Peter Pan is the weak link in this situation. With an oddly serious gaze, Molony portrays the always-young rogue. Although Peter adamantly rejects adulthood, he often presents as a lifeless grown-up with a stern expression and lips pursed in a cynical expression of having seen it all.
Hook’s humanization somehow has the unintended consequence of making Peter appear to be a bit of a jerk. This must be how elementary school children feel about so many of their parents’ role models. Upon closer examination, many of them are less ideal than earlier generations were led to believe.
But are viewers expecting that from Disney remakes? With a 200-watt smile and sparkling Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi), “Peter Pan and Wendy” walks a fine line between paying homage to the original film and going its own way. To the human ear, her fairy speech sounds like tiny chimes.
Only Wendy attempts to comprehend her. In contrast to previous Disney movies, this one doesn’t feel very didactic, giving parents some leeway in how they wish to discuss the movie with their children. Peter doesn’t want to grow up, and the stuffy parents of the Darling family (Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk) are live proof of that.
However, there is a wonderful scene when Mrs. Darling gives the impression that she has known Peter Pan for a long time. Surely most adults can relate. Lowery has the tricky task of satisfying them while trying to give younger audiences a formative viewing experience.
On the other side, Neverland is represented by the Faroe Islands: brilliant emerald turf shining atop sharp, dark rocks, so far removed from any continent that this could be a dream or another dimension altogether.
With its dismal, greenish-black atmosphere and dark visual effects, the film resembles later installments of the “Harry Potter” series more closely than it does classic Disney animation. Our eyes have gotten accustomed to artificial lens flares and digitally produced magic hour effects by this point.
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After all these years, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is still shaping the style of young-adult fantasy films, as seen in the scene where Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) pushes Peter Pan from a cliff. At the same time, the camera follows her from behind on horseback in a dramatic wide shot.
One scene feels as novel as anything in Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” in which Peter and Wendy can rotate Hook’s ship 360 degrees in midair thanks to pixie dust. Sometimes, the video begs to be viewed on the largest displays possible rather than crammed onto whatever Disney+-enabled gadgets viewers use.
But the story never quite reaches that level. Disney has sublimated another classic into simple “content” to be swept downstream and forgotten in its drive to adapt more of its priceless intellectual property.