Review: ‘Peter Pan & Wendy’ stays faithful to its roots, for better or worse
Judging by the themes explored and the direction taken in Peter Pan & Wendy, co-writer and director David Lowery seems to have been at least somewhat immersed in the long academic and theoretical history of the iconic source material. Whether or not he read the academic Michael Egan’s essay “The Neveland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud” is up for debate, but the complexities of the story shine through this film thanks to its somewhat feminist focus, even if the actual content of the movie is lacking in parts.
Peter Pan & Wendy follows a relatively similar path to Disney’s beloved 1953 animated classic, although as the title suggests, there is a bit more of a focus on Wendy. The night before she’s due to leave for boarding school, Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) is playing “Peter Pan” with her brothers, which leads to a broken mirror. After being told to grow up by her strict father, Wendy wishes for the opposite.
Later that night, Peter (Alexander Molony) and Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) enter the bedroom the three Darling children share, before taking them off (or kidnapping them, depending on your interpretation) to Neverland. Here, they gallivant around, battle with Hook (Jude Law) and his pirates, and get into plenty of other dangerous situations, before eventually being returned to their parents back in the real world, where Wendy learns that we all have to grow up sometime (except Peter, of course).
As a piece of entertainment, the film is more than adequate. Kids will enjoy it, and there’s enough in there for adults to get a kick out of too (mostly Law’s performance, which is genuinely awards-worthy). The emotional arcs of Peter and Wendy are handled with care, and there’s enough at stake in emotional terms to make viewers really care about the characters. Like all live-action Disney remakes, it doesn’t really have the charm of its animated predecessor, but compared to some of the recent abominations, the use of real actors and CGI isn’t handled too badly. With that said, the overarching theme – that growing up is scary but also an adventure – is hammered into the viewer’s consciousness with some very instructive, occasionally wooden dialogue.
The film slathers on the nostalgia from the off, which will undoubtedly help older viewers get into the Neverland spirit. It’s also fast-paced, with Pan showing up within the first 10 minutes, and the Darlings all in Neverland by the 20th. The musical score is utilized excellently, heightening emotion both subtly yet powerfully. And, while the animated Pan surpasses this one in terms of aesthetics, Peter Pan & Wendy offers us some truly delicious shots of Neverland (filmed across various locations in Canada) as well as the classic, slightly trippy visuals a lot of the old Disney films had.
There are a few issues with the film, though. While it’s a little harsh to comment too much on children’s acting abilities, the leads are unconvincing at times. Wendy’s over-the-top received pronunciation accent might not jar too much with American and international audiences, but as a Brit it brought back memories of Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
Anderson isn’t helped by the script, which for a lot of the film has the subtlety of a giant pirate ship floating through the London sky. This is also a problem for Molony, who has the added misfortune of being let down by whoever choreographed his moves. Pan is lithe, playful; Molony can look awkward in fight scenes, but that’s not his fault. With that said, both put in decent enough performances to earn the resolution, and at times their talent is clear. But, whether or not they’ll grow up to be a Radcliffe (good at acting) or a Watson (a wonderful activist, at least) is yet to be confirmed.
A lot of critics (or angry people online, to be more precise) have been complaining about this refocus on Wendy, as well as the Lost Boys suddenly becoming a lot more diverse (both in terms of race, and the addition of a lost girl, too). As anyone who’s delved into Barrie’s original Pan works in an academic setting knows, the racial and gender make up of the Lost Boys isn’t vital to what they mean to the stories, and Wendy is actually the focus of a lot of his work. In that sense, this is an even truer adaptation of Barrie’s work than the 1953 film.
The dark undertones Barrie intended to shine through are also there. He famously dedicated the original work to the children he knew who’d made up the world of Peter Pan in their games, and by the time the play was finished at least one (and possibly two) of the kids mentioned were dead. While in this adaptation nobody really dies (although Peter gets close, before being saved by Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk) there is a sense of peril at times, especially for children watching.
This is exacerbated by the looming threat of adulthood, which casts a shadow over the entire film (in the original play, Barrie intended Hook and Mr. Darling to be played by the same actor, hammering home this message). The idea of trauma and how it seeds a life is also explored deftly through Hook’s character. The slight shift to focusing on mothers is another intriguing exploration of Barrie’s work – maybe Lowery did read that Freudian essay after all.
There’s plenty to be applauded about Peter Pan & Wendy, but when it comes down to it, it’s simply a decent film that seems to know its source material well. And, the fact it’s only a shade over 90 minutes long (excluding credits) and has plenty of pockets of humor makes it well worth a watch for those with kids.
However, if you’re an adult looking for something in the vein of Up or Inside Out – as in a well told kid’s story that resonates deeply with adults too – then you’re better off with the original. Or, you can play Pan for the day, and try and watch it through the eyes of a child. You might just end up in Neverland after all.
'Peter Pan & Wendy' is a decent live-action remake stays faithful to the source material as well as its animated predecessor, but that's about it.