One of the most recognizable films of Disney’s golden age, Peter Pan (1953) is a beloved classic. Its aesthetics and characters are immediately recognizable and have had a long-standing place in pop culture. Tinker Bell is an iconic behemoth of merchandising, “You Can Fly” is a well-known earworm, and the Peter Pan dark ride at Disneyland and Walt Disney World always has a lengthy line. In 2023’s Peter Pan & Wendy, director David Lowery (The Green Knight, Pete’s Dragon) attempts to repurpose those aesthetics and that specific adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s book into his own exploration of what it means to grow up and what it means to grow up “wrong.” Caught in an uncanny valley between paying homage and trying to carve out something new for itself, Peter Pan & Wendy finds itself straddled with the very worst outcome for a live-action remake – it’s offputting and boring.
J.M. Barrie’s original novel is so simple that it makes it the perfect candidate for various adaptations. Wendy Darling is reluctant to grow up, but one night the hero of her childhood stories, Peter Pan, whisks her off to Neverland, a place where no one ever grows up. Wendy joins Peter for a few adventures battling his arch-enemy, the evil pirate Captain Hook. Ultimately, though, she chooses to return home and accept her fate while Peter remains in Neverland. Peter Pan & Wendy attempts to be subversive while also ball and chained to the source material of the Disney film. In Peter Pan (1953), when arriving in Neverland, Peter, Wendy, and her brothers are shot at by pirates. Peter diverts the attention away from the Darling siblings by focusing it on himself, saving them from being shot at. In this adaptation, he gets cocky and Wendy’s brothers are captured.
Wendy (Ever Anderson) next meets up with the Lost Boys and attempts to rescue her brothers, but they all do very little and don’t really seem like they want to even be there. They all resent Hook, and mostly just sit back while Peter decides to show off and almost pays for it. Wendy immediately becomes upset with Peter’s irresponsibility, calling him out for being so careless of other people and ungrateful for their help. And at that point, Peter Pan & Wendy could have ended. Wendy has already become disenchanted with Neverland, as are all the Lost Boys, and everyone sort of wants to go home (except for Peter). Yet, there’s still an hour left of the film.
One of the ways Peter Pan & Wendy attempts to expand upon the themes of the original story is through its interrogation of Captain Hook (Jude Law). Like many remakes, it attempts to flesh out his motivations and give him more of a backstory. This could be an interesting idea if it weren’t such a silly concept. Captain Hook, quite literally, is a grown man who has perpetual beef with a child. Sword to throat, he wants to kill a little kid. There is no realistic way to peel back his motivations and make him a more sympathetic villain because the basis of who he is will always be inherently cartoonish. The film becomes very concerned with the idea that he “grew up wrong” and that he’s the personification of growing up without a positive presence, but he is just as childish as Peter and never really grew up either.
In many ways, realism hinders this adaptation. David Lowery himself described the film as a cross between Peter Pan and The Revenant, and the final product certainly reflects such a grounded take. Neverland is painfully unimaginative. There’s a brief glimpse of some of its more magical portions, though Wendy never gets to explore them. Instead of an island filled with adventure, it feels empty. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli highlights the greens of the grass and the blue of the sea while the infrequent glimpses of sunlight filtering through overcast clouds are meant to entice us. Other than that, the cliffs and fields are empty. Skull Rock is just a cave with some skeletons inside. Wendy never meets any mermaids. The Lost Boy’s hideout is void of any personality reflecting its inhabitants, overwrought with nature through negligence. It’s difficult to imagine that this is a place of wonder from countless bedtime stories.
Furthermore, the CGI is atrocious in general, especially during flying sequences where the kids are lit differently than the backgrounds. David Lowery plays around with some interesting shot compositions, yet it does little to make Peter Pan & Wendy engaging. Beyond its stark visual differences from the Disney classic, the next largest difference is the race and gender-bent casting. The Lost Boys now include girls, Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) and Peter Pan (Alexander Molony ) are now played by actors of color, and there is a more sensitive portrayal of Tiger Lily’s Native American tribe. If you’re someone who is upset with any of these decisions, grow up. However, it’s always fascinating when white men try to helm a diverse project because there are always huge blind spots in their execution. In this case, it’s particularly noticeable when it comes to the changes to Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily.
Instead of taking the opportunity to create a fresh identity for Tinker Bell by casting a rising new talent in Yara Shahidi (Black-ish), she becomes a non-entity. In a scene where Wendy tries to make sense of the fairy, Tinker Bell becomes disheartened that she can’t understand her, but then motions for Wendy to follow her. Rather than Tinker Bell showing Wendy something about herself or some genuine bonding, she leads her to Peter’s room. Tinker Bell, when speaking, is only ever trying to communicate something about Peter. She’s his accessory, with no whims or desires of her own. In an attempt to stray away from the jealousy between Wendy and Tinker Bell from the original tale, their bond is still defined by a man.
Tiger Lily is in a similar boat. Alyssa Wapanatâhk gives the best performance out of the cast of children, and even then, she’s given painfully little to work with. Given how many Indigenous languages are endangered, it’s a nice addition to the movie that she speaks Cree and is the coolest out of Peter’s posse, yet she’s given very little motivation or afforded any insight. When she speaks, it’s only to aid others, especially Peter, whom she calls her little brother. But, why? We get no real sense of the relationship between Peter and Tiger Lily, other than the fact that she cares for him and she babysits the Lost Boys. By playing it safe, the writers are so concerned with stripping away what could offend from the character that they forget to give her something in place of it.
The writers are also mostly unconcerned with Peter as a character. His screen presence is on par, if not less, than Captain Hook’s, and even then, he speaks as if he’s representing an idea rather than embodying a fully formed character. So, the main emotional focuses of the story are Captain Hook and Wendy, the two white characters of the central cast. The scene they share is the most impactful of the film, the most central to the idea that Lowery and Halbrooks toy with. Peter is not without fault, but other than being careless, the audience does not see his mistakes on screen. In fact, most characters are reacting to the situations find themselves in rather than making decisions leading to those compromising situations, leading to weak writing all around.
It’s hard to guess who Peter Pan & Wendy was made for. Peter Pan (1953) fans probably won’t find the same intrigue in it. Children would find it dower. Adults would find it childish. David Lowery fans will probably have a good time. At the very least, it’s clear that he attempted to imbue his adaptation with heart, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Like many “realistic” adaptations, Lowery created a hole by divorcing his creation from so much of the charm of the source material without putting something in its place. He certainly accomplished his goal of creating a grounded Peter Pan story, though it certainly is miserable. Retaining much of the dialogue from the You Can Fly sequence but then cutting the actual song should be considered a federal offense.