There is something fitting about the fact that a charming adventure story about a boy that never grows up who leads a cadre of children wishing to remain similarly youthful and carefree forever gets remade in one form or another every decade or so. It speaks to the fact that the desire to avoid adulthood and remain unmoored and childlike forever remains as strong as ever, if not stronger. At the same time, it reveals our seeming inability to understand fully why the story is so resonant. Every time the story is told, you can feel the creator struggling with the material, wrestling with its meaning, imparting in the story their own beliefs and fears. 

Director David Lowery, who has spent the last decade building an aesthetically and thematically similar but tonally diverse oeuvre, is a perfect modern match for this material. His works have explored heartache and loneliness and guilt at the same time that he has explored adventure and discovery and the desire to defeat the stultifying effects of growing old. One can imagine Peter Pan soaring in the sky with Peter and Elliot from Pete’s Dragon. Forrest Tucker, Robert Redford’s elderly stick-up artist in The Old Man & the Gun, harbors some of Peter Pan’s impish delight at tweaking authority and refusing to age into boredom. Yet the ghost in A Ghost Story was equally ageless and untethered to time, knowing the pain and remove that such a power might hold. Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain and Peter could probably sit moodily among a verdant ruin and speak solemnly about the burden of being the hero in widely known stories. And among all these stories you could find Wendy, too, wondering along with Pete whether to stay wild or settle down, or with Forrest when was too old to grow up, or with Gawain whether you could really throw off your supposed fate. 

As such, it’s not at all surprising that Peter Pan & Wendy, which Lowery co-wrote with Toby Halbrooks, feels effortless and joyful. The filmmaker clearly has an affinity for the material, and seeks to bring some of the depth of understanding that adulthood affords to the story. While the results are a little uneven narratively, the breathless action, stellar performances, and beautiful compositions carry the story to rousing heights. 

Anyone familiar with the classic cartoon telling of Peter Pan will be well aware of the bones of the story. Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) and her brothers John Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe) are swept along on a grand adventure by Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi), who show them the way to Neverland, where Lost Boys do daring battle with pirates while mermaids swim the seas and a native tribe lends their occassional aid. The story here doesn’t stray from this struggle between child and pirate, though Lowery and Halbrooks focus more pointedly on Wendy’s ambivalence about what it means to age out of childhood and into responsibilities and expectations. The script also adds a few twists and turns to the history of Pan and the nefarious Captain Hook—played with charismatic vigor by Jude Law, balancing between menace and mourning. 

This fleshing out of the backstory between these two powerful leaders of Neverland serves to both distinguish this version of the story, while also leading to some sogginess and unevenness in the emotional story. Without spoiling anything, the telling of the history between Hook and Pan suffers from a particular form of endless narrative addition. Each time Wendy is able to pry another bit of information loose from one of the two swashbucklers it reframes the story and the characters as we know them. While this does add an element of mystery on top of maturing the storyline, it also robs us of ever feeling as though we’ve finally settled into the story. If the characters and their relationships are changing constantly, it becomes hard to know when the final emotional blow has landed because we have been trained to expect another paradigm shift. Had the final reveal happened earlier in the movie, the climactic action and emotions might have played stronger. The ending delivers a beautiful coda, but one that might have meant more had we lived in the final reality longer. 

That quibble aside, there’s much to praise here. Bojan Bazelli’s floating camera taking in the natural lighting perfectly captures the wonder and the tactility of Neverland that gives it both its mythic power and mortal terror. Pan and Wendy are both played with just the right amount of period-appropriate rigidity and more modern spunk. Wendy is always the fulcrum of the Peter Pan story, and Anderson holds this whole movie on her shoulders without breaking a sweat. Whether it be in scenes of breathless wonderment, harrowing loss, or Errol Flynn-like action, she makes herself a completely honest and compelling presence. Jupe and Pickering, meanwhile, support her and carry their own scenes with pluck and bravery in the face of all manner of threat. The child acting in this movie is universally great, theatrical without tipping into camp or playing twee. All of the Lost Boys (and yes, some are girls. So?) are well-drawn and specific enough that any child watching will probably attach to a different one as their favorite. 

Law, meanwhile, is an inspired choice for Hook. Always a welcome presence as a character actor or leading man, here he straddles both worlds in a way that ends up serving the narrative more than one might expect. He plays well both threatening children and pirate alike and allowing for moments of raw vulnerability. He and Moloney make what should be an absurd dynamic—this full-grown adult really wants to murder this carefree child—into something elemental and real. It of course helps that Molony can flip between boyish wonder and innocence and smirking, devil-may-care bravado like he was raised with a saber in his hand. Yara Shahidi and Alyssa Wapanatâhk take well-known characters in Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily and do justice to the original characters while adding just enough spin to make them their own. 

It is in these two performances that Lowery exhibits his greatest strength in remaking a Disney animated classic, one that so many other artists who attempt the same seem to lack. Lowery is clearly not afraid of or ashamed of his source material. Instead, he seems to love it and has identified what makes it so special. He has not slavishly replicated the 1953 classic but has also not moved so far away as to drain it of all joy. Every time a new Disney remake is released there is an inherent push-pull between telling the same story and making the audience ask, “Why bother?” and completely remaking it in a new way and making the audience say, “How dare you?” Lowery, through applying a naturalistic aesthetic while examining the universal ambivalence of growing old, has found a way to tell a familiar and beloved story in a new key, rather than soullessly imitating or heartlessly altering it. It’s such a shame this movie cannot be seen on the big screen. I can only imagine that, aided by the scope and size of a theater, perhaps the muted emotional payoff I noted above might actually have soared as high as these children do.

Peter Pan & Wendy is now on Disney+.

Grade: B

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