Peter Pan & Wendy
The new Disney+ iteration of the classic tale doesn't add much new to the Neverland mythology, but it's a rousing, action-filled caper that should please the kids.
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I’ll admit to scratching my head a bit when I heard Disney was planning a new adaptation of the Peter Pan mythology for its streaming service. Obviously it’s a rich piece of intellectual property based on the books by J. M. Barrie, which by my count has been adapted for the big screen more than a dozen times, not to mention television and stage.
But at what point is it content overload? We just had a big-budget film adaptation eight years ago with “Pan” starring Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund and Rooney Mara. I watched approximately 8 million episodes of “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” when my kids were wee. Did we really need another iteration?
But “Peter Pan & Wendy” is a colorful, vibrant and action-filled caper from director David Lowery, one of the more interesting filmmakers today. His sweet spot is esoteric, dreamy stories without a cohesive narrative throughline: “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “The Green Knight,” “A Ghost Story.” But he also made “Pete’s Dragon” and clearly has some affection for classic children’s stories.
As you might surmise from the title — Lowery co-wrote the screenplay with longtime writing partner Toby Halbrooks — the story is told through the eyes of Wendy, and Peter Pan is the amazing magical boy she beholds. In grammar form, she is the subject and he is the object.
Though, despite popular notions, girls have always been near the center of what is usually seen as a boy-driven tale. Barrie actually made the title of his original book “Peter Pan and Wendy,” thought it was generally shortened.
Here Wendy is played by Ever Anderson, who makes the biggest impression of the young cast. I spent the entire movie thinking she reminded me of Milla Jovovich, and afterward learned they are daughter and mother. She’s a striking beauty and also seems to have some solid acting chops, carrying the first half of the movie with her empathetic appeal.
Like many other Pan adaptations, there’s a self-reflexive dynamic going on in that Wendy and her younger brothers, John and Michael (Joshua Pickering and Jacobi Jupe), are aware of Peter Pan but consider him a legend. Then they find themselves snatched up by Pan himself and carted off to Neverland for familiar bouts with Captain Hook and his crew.
Peter is played by Alexander Molony, a Brit with Indian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Latin American heritage. He doesn’t make as singular an impression as Anderson does in hers, but is believable as a boy living in a self-made land of make-believe, whose dreams often verge into delusions.
In general the cast is much more multicultural than past versions, right down to Hook’s crew, Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) and the Lost Boys, some of whom are proudly girls. Alyssa Wapanatahk, who has Cree ancestors, plays a more authentic Tiger Lilly.
The story focuses more on the three-way conflict of Peter, Hook and Wendy, and many of the secondary characters get shunted to the background. John and Michael are little more than props, and I was disappointed comedian Jim Gaffigan, who’s turned into a really fine actor, doesn’t get more than a few spotlight moments as Hook’s lickspittle, Mr. Smee.
Jude Law plays Captain Hook, and does a nice job making him both scary and somewhat sad and pitiable. He represents the cautionary tale about growing up, losing all your dreams, becoming choked with ambition and logistics as an adult.
We learn that James Hook and Peter Pan have much more of a backstory together other than one lopping off the other’s hand in a sword fight. Indeed, it seems that their enmity toward each other has become not just their obsession but the animating focus of their existence. Hook wants to kill Pan, but part of him knows he would be miserable should he ever succeed.
The biggest reason to watch “Peter Pan & Wendy” are the many action scenes, kinetically well-staged and thrilling. There’s lots of flying — helped by Tink’s faerie dust — sword fights, booming cannons, horse riding, crocodile-fighting and other adventuresome antics. It’s largely blood-free, and with its PG rating should be suitable for all but the smallest and most impressionable children.
And that’s who I think the main audience for this film is intended to be — kids who weren’t around to experience all those other Peter Pan movies and shows. It’s the sort of simple, zippy entertainment that could introduce them to the Neverland legend and perhaps even start them off exploring the books… or even creating their own lands of magic.