To say the track record of Disney live-action remakes is spotty, is putting things lightly, especially considering the few that have gone straight to Disney+. While it grossed astronomical amounts of money Jon Favreau’s The Lion King remake was a misguided and creatively bankrupt film that has no legacy of its own. Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Pinocchio, itself a Disney+ exclusive, was a visually chaotic and charmless film, among the acclaimed director’s very worst efforts. Even fairly entertaining remakes like Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast and Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin have proven themselves utterly disposable. Not to mention, the recently announced live-action update of Moana, a barely-six year old animated film. One of the only truly successful live-action remakes has been David Lowery’s Pete Dragon. As cruel of an existence as we live in, the film underperformed at the box office, grossing a tenth of most other remakes. Lowery, also known for his masterful, mature films A Ghost Story and The Green Knight, is at the helm of another remake, this time a more beloved property in J.M. Barrie’s classic novel, adapted countless times, of course by Walt Disney in 1953. It’s a shame David Lowery’s live-action retelling is headed straight to streaming instead of theatrical because this is undoubtedly one of the very best remakes from Disney.
For what is largely a faithful retelling of the classic J.M. Barrie novel, Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy is one of the more radical retellings of a classic story under the Mouse House. A film that marches to the sound of its own stylistic drum, Lowery’s film is more of another adaptation of the Barrie novel than a remake of the Disney animated film. Lowery avoids recreating classic images of the 1953 film and is, instead, a creatively distinct new adventure.
Given the recent state of Disney live-action remakes, Peter Pan & Wendy is radical in that it emphasizes practical locations and sets over wall-to-wall green screen. A sad reality that we’re only now seeing be widely addressed, Lowery film joins his other fresh remake Pete’s Dragon as the few recent updates that have real soul and personality. Lowery’s more imaginative, personable style allows the classic Barrie story to feel vibrant in ways most conveyor belt Disney remakes simply don’t. Lowery’s distinct shot compositions and earthy, naturalistic photography make Neverland feel as real as it ever has. While the visual aesthetics are within Lowery’s comfort zone, there’s more deviation from Lowery’s usual playbook. A shot of Peter and Hook sword fighting alongside their dueling shadows is one of many striking images composed by Lowery and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (Pete’s Dragon, A Cure for Wellness). The scene of the kids flying to Neverland evokes a sense of wonder, not dissimilar to the first flight sequence in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.
There’s a weight and depth to the writing, along with a wisdom for how to effectively carry on the underlying themes of Barrie’s novel. Lowery, and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, takes the fear of growing up and uses it to further explore the characters. At one point, Wendy yells at Hook, “this is what it looks like when you grow up wrong”, only for Law to snarl back, “you find me a child that truly knows the difference between right and wrong, and I’ll show you a man who can’t remember why it mattered in the first place”.
Lowery largely gets strong performances out of his cast, which primarily consist of children. Ever Anderson, a dead ringer of her mother Milla Jovovich, gives one of the film’s best performances, making for a compelling and anxious Wendy. Jude Law’s snarling Captain Hook is a perhaps the film’s biggest highlight. There’s a quiet, but ever-present melancholy lingering behind Law’s eyes. Law’s Hook, played with the hammy menace you would expect, embodies the conflicted nature of the character, an added emphasis in this new telling. This Hook wears his tragedy on his sleeve and fully commits to making this new Hook, likely the first iteration for a new generation of young audiences, both intimidating and deeply human. Jim Gaffigan is inspired casting as Smee. Peter Pan is actually the least interesting character here, saddled by an unfortunately stiff performance from Alexander Molony, who certainly fits the characters youthfulness, but is surrounded by more compelling performances.
For the added depth and new ideas brought forward — the sea shanties, sung by Hook’s crew are far more effectively achieved than the misguided music numbers from Joe Wright’s notorious flop, Pan, there’s others that fall flat. Tigerlily, played by Alyssa Wapanatâhk, is given little personality, let only much to do, other than serving as a pointed correction for the character, portrayed throughout the years with little care beyond being a stereotype. Yara Shahidi’s Tinkerbell often feels like an afterthought, and is hindered by the film’s roughest bouts of vfx. There is also a tacked-on, unnecessary coda that reeks of a studio mandate, after a fairly powerful conclusion.
Peter Pan & Wendy is unquestionably one of Disney’s best live-action remakes. While not quite as magnetic as Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, or even Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, this is a creatively distinct and entertaining retelling that should be fondly embraced by a new generation of audiences.
I’m not huge on the Peter Pan story, but I am huge on David Lowry, whom I have been following very closely since his masterpiece of a second film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. So I will be seeing this.
I may check it out at a later date.