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"Peter Pan & Wendy" is pretty much what you'd expect from a live-action version of one of Walt Disney's animated classics, of which there are many now. A good chunk of this film's audience will put it on expecting to see live-action re-creations of situations they know and love from the 1950 Disney cartoon feature, which was simply called "Peter Pan." Co-writer and director David Lowery doesn't disappoint in nostalgic familiarity, though some viewers (such as this one) may wish that he pushed more forcefully against it. There have been many Peter Pan remakes, reboots, and rethinks, but none that turns the story inside out or picks it apart—not even Steven Spielberg's "Hook," which eventually circles back to "Never lose touch with your inner child."
The story begins with Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) leading her younger brother John (Joshua Pickering) and kid brother Michael (Jacobi June) in a play session that includes swashbuckling sword fights, followed by a couple of nice moments between the children and their parents (Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk). Soon enough, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) makes his entrance from another realm, along with the pint-sized fairy Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi, of "Black-ish" and "Grown-ish"). They're whisked off to Neverland through a wormhole near the fabled Second Star on the Right. On the other side, they meet and befriend the Lost Boys (seemingly modeled on the Benneton catalog urchins in "Hook") as well as the Native American princess Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk, a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation), who was a pawn-prize-stereotype in the Disney cartoon but gets an action-heroine makeover here, literally riding to the rescue on more than one occasion.
Jude Law, who is settling into his "I'm just here to have a good time!" character-acting phase, anchors the movie as Pan's nemesis Captain Hook. Law plays the character as more of a neurotic comic figure with Personal Issues than a frightening villain (although wee viewers will still want to hide behind furniture when he orders the Darling children put to death). Lowery has given Hook a bit of the Magua or Killmonger villain-as-anti-hero treatment, i.e., making the character's Bad Guy Origin Story so relatable that he seems more pitiable than loathsome. Jim Gaffigan, who's shaping up as a John Goodman-level supporting actor, plays Hook's sidekick Smee as an emotionally bruised, exasperated underling, a schlump who definitely has his faults but is frazzled mainly because he's overwhelmed by having to satisfy a boss who thinks the solution to bad morale is to throw more people overboard. The Peter-Tinkerbell pairing has also been partially re-thought: it's clear that she's the duo's boss, at times seeming to command him psychically, or at least implant suggestions or tasks in his mind in a way that makes him believe he's acting on his own.
Every performance in this movie is good, sometimes more than good, and little can be said against the filmmaking, which ranges from calendar-art handsome to genuinely inspired (although there's a major problem with one aspect of the lighting/color grading; see below). The action-packed climax, which doubles as a therapy session for major characters, has images of dreamlike eeriness and gives Law a satisfying exit that suits this incarnation of Hook. But the entire thing has a whiff of missed opportunity, and sometimes you might wonder if Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks wanted to dive deeper than they knew Disney's copyright-tending, merchandise-selling executives would have allowed. There's a truly subversive "Peter Pan" satire to be made from the Peter-Tinkerbell relationship in this one: she's a tiny, mute woman who basically can't get anything done unless she uses a charismatic boy who refuses to grow up as her instrument.
Like Disney's recent CGI-heavy "live-action" remakes of their traditional animation back-catalog faves—"The Jungle Book," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and so on—Lowery's Peter Pan movie replicates familiar moments and bits of scenery and costuming, in ways that scratch the audience's "just give me what I already know I wanted" itch. But it doesn't subvert or reinvent its immediate corporate predecessor, as his "Pete's Dragon" did. And it's miles removed from something like "The Green Knight," which was radical by commercial cinema standards, affecting a bit of art-house druggy mysticism and encouraging viewers to argue about what key moments and images meant.
Little kids will probably enjoy this one, with its bedtime-story morals and conclusions. But it should also be said that they and their parents might be frustrated by nighttime scenes that were so dim and murky on my consumer-grade (but professionally calibrated) TV set that were it not for the dialogue track (and subtitles), it would have been hard to tell what was even going on. The initial glimpse of Neverland at night is a snow globe filled with coffee. This has been a problem with a lot of special effects-driven blockbuster projects in the streaming era, including the final season of "Game of Thrones," and after a certain point, I don't think "You need a more expensive television" or "the problem is low bandwidth" is an acceptable rejoinder. But I digress.
Lowery started as a feature director with independent dramas about plausibly real people, including "St. Nick" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," and has released more films in that vein (including the delightful "The Old Man and the Gun"). But he has also staked out a niche as a re-interpreter of fairy tales and myths. Some are based on pre-existing corporate IP (Intellectual Property) with a built-in multigenerational audience, such as this movie and "Pete's Dragon," and he made another that draws on actual mythology, "The Green Knight." His version of "Peter Pan" is the least of this triptych, teasing with intimations that it's going to turn the Peter Pan story upside down and shake it until every last nugget of unexplored subtext falls out, but never going that far. "Peter Pan & Wendy" ultimately settles for "everybody misses their mother," a sentiment that's true for most people, but is a slim reed to hang such a big film on, especially one with other problems.
On Disney Plus now.
Alexander Molony as Peter Pan
Ever Anderson as Wendy Darling
Jude Law as Captain Hook
Alyssa Wapanatâhk as Tiger Lily
Jim Gaffigan as Mr. Smee
Joshua Blue Pickering as John Darling
Jacobi Jupe as Michael Darling
Molly Parker as Mrs. Darling
Alan Tudyk as Mr. Darling
Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell
Florence Bensberg as Curly
Sebastian Billingsley-Rodriguez as Nibs
Noah Matthews Matofsky as Slightly
Caelan Edie as Tootles