Film Review – Peter Pan & Wendy
Peter Pan & Wendy
Writer/director David Lowery is establishing himself as one of the premiere fantasy filmmakers. Whether his work is centered around family-oriented tales (such as Pete’s Dragon (2016)) or adult centered fables (The Green Knight (2021)/A Ghost Story (2017)), Lowery has the ability to craft fantastical elements with sincerity and intelligence. He takes dreamlike imagery and grounds them in real and understandable themes. Even Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), which is categorized as a crime drama, has the mood and rhythms of fantasy. Maybe that’s why – in interviews to promote Peter Pan & Wendy (2023) – he calls it the personal and adult film he has made.
At first, we suspect that this latest effort is yet another money grab from Disney, and maybe it still is. But under the steady hand of Lowery as both director and co-writer (with Toby Halbrooks), the result is more than just a shallow reimagining. The material fits right into Lowery’s sentimentality, perhaps more so than any other project he has tackled thus far. The main components of the 1953 animated film are there, while the problematic bits have been reworked or abandoned completely. The result feels both classical and progressive simultaneously. It takes well known characters and plotlines and breathes new life into them. This belongs in the same category with Cinderella (2015) as one of Disney’s better live-action remakes. It’s a story of friendship, family, and the meaning of growing up.
I’m pretty sure you’re aware of the premise. Wendy (Ever Anderson) and her brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe) are whisked away to the magical realm known as Neverland. They are guided by The Boy Who Never Grows Up, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and his luminescent fairy friend, Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi). Once they arrive, they meet Peter’s merry band of Lost Boys. “Boys” is a bit of a misnomer, as their group includes twin girls (Kelsey Yates, Skyler Yates). In a move that reflects modern sensibilities, Wendy notes that it doesn’t really matter if they are boys or girls in the long run.
Of course, we cannot talk about Peter Pan without mentioning his archrival, Captain Hook. Jude Law is the main attraction as the pirate leader. He brings a surprising level of depth to the performance. The writing rounds out Hook’s background, making him a dynamic and empathetic character. Law isn’t just a mustache-twirling bad guy – he provides heart and humanity that makes Hook a tragic figure. He has fallen to the dark side and has been unable to return to the light. The connections between Pan and Hook are further developed – they share a connection filled with regret, jealousy, anger, and pride. This fuels their battles with substantial drama. Often, we hear the two of them talking about how things “Should Be.” Peter is the hero; Hook is the villain. Hook tries to kill Peter; Peter survives and saves the day. As we learn more about their history, we better understand the resentment between them. They don’t simply act out their roles accordingly – they’re motivated by legitimate emotion.
I always associated Peter Pan with the notion of eternal youth. No matter how old one gets, the sense of innocence and wonder can always be maintained somewhere inside. Here, Lowery and company take a unique spin with this idea. They argue that getting older and taking responsibility isn’t something to be feared but embraced. This version of Wendy starts out not wanting to grow up, but through her adventure realizes that staying young and naïve has its own faults as well. Peter Pan, in all his bravado and childlike antics, isn’t someone we strive to be – he is someone we once were. Gaining experience, maturity and wisdom is an adventure all its own. This is why Lowery describes the film as his most adult undertaking. The transition between being a kid and being fully grown is not an easy one.
Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography paints the visuals with a heavy green tinge. Once we get to Neverland, the action is centralized to two locations – high atop a cliffside looking over the ocean, or onboard Captain Hook’s ship. The camera pulls way back to take in the expansiveness of the mountain ranges. We get several scenes of characters walking along grassy plains with the background looming over them like an active character. For a story filled with mystical beings and magical happenings, the setting has an organic sensibility. Just as he did in The Green Knight, Lowery fills his narrative with a consideration toward mother nature – how life is both preserved and threatened by its surroundings. Scenes appear to have been photographed during the “Golden Hour,” where the position of the sun gives everything a warm, earthy hue.
If there’s anything to be disappointed about, it’s that we don’t get enough time to really soak in all the textures. Wendy and her brothers are thrust into the conflict between the Lost Boys and the pirates before they even catch their bearings. We aren’t allowed enough time to explore Neverland and all it has to offer. What we do see feels like an appetizer, enticing us for a minute before jumping back into the plot. Would it really be too much of a hassle to sit back and let things exist in this universe? One of the great joys of Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) was that James Cameron gave us the opportunity to see the ins and outs of his alien world, to bask in the ebb and flow of life so we get a better understanding of how it all balances together. In Peter Pan & Wendy, we see Neverland merely from the outside. We recognize where we are but have no understanding of what makes this place special.
With that said, there’s a lot to admire here. David Lowery doesn’t fall into a trap of watering down his narrative or settling on simple messaging. He presents complicated issues, and some of the choices will encourage discussion and debate. Peter Pan is a protagonist who doesn’t always have the right answers and Captain Hook isn’t just a villain we should despise. Some of the best family films exist in the middle ground, where morality isn’t painted in black and white but in shades of gray. David Lowery has taken a beloved fairy tale and reconfigured it with charm, artistry, and compassion.