Peter Pan & Wendy Review: The Green Knight Rises

Peter Pan, being one of the best known public-domain fantasy stories out there alongside Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, rarely seems absent from movie screens for long. Everyone has a new take, or a different spin, on the flying boy who never grows up, in most cases simply because the name recognition is too tempting to pass up. P.J. Hogan’s 2003 live-action version is probably the best, largely because it takes the radical step of being faithful to the source novel/play. Disney’s animated version isn’t one of their best, mainly because Peter himself, while portrayed as a hero, comes off as pretty obnoxious. When Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers made him the villain, it didn’t seem too out-of-place.

David Lowery’s new Peter Pan & Wendy is ostensibly a live-action remake of said animated version. And while it eliminates most of the songs, it begins the same, with teenage Wendy (Ever Anderson, daughter of Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson) and her brothers Michael (Jacobi Jupe) and John (Joshua Pickering) whisked away to the immortality-giving, fantasy realm called Neverland, by surprise visitor Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and his fairy companion Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi). Somewhere along the way, though, the story takes a big swerve and starts examining its own story tropes. Young kids may not find this as interesting as their parents might, but Lowery’s definitely not playing it safe. Not that his filmography (A Ghost Story, The Green Knight) would ever suggest that he might.

Some changes seem unavoidable. Jude Law doesn’t play a literal version of the animated Captain Hook, nor dress like him. Probably because Dustin Hoffman already did that to perfect pomposity in Steven Spielberg’s Hook. However, this incarnation isn’t one that’s safe for hamming it up a theme park. Law’s version appears a genuinely nasty man who hates children, but mainly because his own inner child has been savaged. Law plays the role like it’s Shakespeare, and Lowery (with cowriter Toby Halbrooks) even gives him a simplified version of Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech to blur the lines between hero and villain even further.

Stage productions of Peter Pan, and P.J. Hogan’s film, typically double-cast the same actor as Wendy’s father and Captain Hook. It’s a way of making obvious the subtext – her father is what she fears to become, and in the fantasy realm he’s represented by a destructive bogeyman. Here, Alan Tudyk plays the dad, because Hook isn’t Wendy’s bogeyman so much as he is Peter’s this time. More than simply eternal adversaries, they now have deeper connections which must be reckoned with. And doing so answers a longstanding question we’ve always had about Neverland. If you can’t grow up while you’re in Neverland, why are the pirates adults?

The case could be made that this Captain Hook is a gently critical caricature of so-called “Disney adults,” who hang on to their carefully curated collections and childhood interests rather than developing toward more traditional adulthood. Yet it isn’t much kinder to Peter, who comes off as the spoiled kid who has everything and takes all of his friendships for granted. Hook is just the natural evolution of what Peter would become if he grew older without maturing inside. Caught in the middle is Wendy, who fears leaving her happy childhood behind, but already feels herself becoming more responsible than the boys and man-boys all around her.

Unsurprisingly, Lowery, who turned Pete’s Dragon into something more fairytale-ish and made The Green Knight an epic legend for adult viewers, films this more like a classical fantasy than a live-action cartoon. Neverland, shot in the Faroe Islands, resembles the way a kid might imagine a wide-open park or backyard to be in their imagination. It has a few fantasy touches, like a ringed planet in the sky, but otherwise its ruins, tepees, and caves look like settings that can be found in the wild, and augmented with the power of the mind. The crocodile is one helluva monstrous beast, and it actually kills and eats pirates. The ticking clock inside it doesn’t get explained here – at this point, who doesn’t know? – making it more evidently a metaphor for life’s time limit.

The imagery’s not bereft of Disney references by any means. In addition to some callbacks to the previous movie, Peter Pan & Wendy contains visual nods to The Jungle Book (either version), Pocahontas, and Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride more than the movies). They’re references that make sense to the material – J.M. Barrie’s original story was a mash-up of multiple adventure story tropes, whether or not they made sense together in theory. It’s logical for a modern version to draw on elements as familiar to us now as pulp tales of pirates and cowboys did in 1904.

Yet it all still feels like a risk. The Disney adults are the ones who will appreciate this the most if their feelings aren’t too hurt. Kid appeal feels like a big question mark. Does a five year-old care why Captain Hook and Peter Pan are fighting? Or do they identify with a teenage girl’s anxiety about boarding school? There’s no guarantee, which is probably why this film went direct-to-streaming.

P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan remains the champ, but Lowery has made a solid contender that actually improves upon the animated version. At least in the opinion of this Disney adult.

Peter Pan & Wendy debuts on Disney+ today, April 28.

Grade: 3.5/5

Recommended Purchase: Peter Pan (Feature)

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