Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan, an animated adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play, was one of the films in my rotation growing up. My parents had taped a televised syndication on VHS for me (yes, I’m actually that old), one of many Disney cartoons that they cataloged into tapes in our cabinet for my viewing pleasure. It wasn’t actually one of my favorite Disney classics–I always preferred Alice in Wonderland–but I loved cartoons, and I nevertheless watched it eagerly and frequently enough that when I revisited the film a few months ago, it was, perhaps very clichély, like fully being transported through time.
On the contrary, Peter Pan & Wendy–director David Lowery’s newest iteration of Barrie’s original story, one out of a seemingly endless supply of middling and questionable Peter Pan films—made me feel like I was being transported further into the future. It’s a future where gorgeous and kinetic, hand-drawn animated classics are brought to grim life through a muddy mix of disquieting CGI, lifeless performances and cinematography that would make even the most checked-out cinemagoer desperately yearn for the vibrancy of Disney’s past, all as a means to get paying customers through the con of nostalgia. Oh wait! That’s not the future. That’s right now, in the present. We’re already there, and we’re barreling boldly forward into a gray soup of despair.
Peter Pan & Wendy’s first 20 minutes are nearly identical to that of the animated film. We’re introduced to the lively and imaginative Darling children of Edwardian-era London: eldest Wendy (Ever Anderson), middle child John (Joshua Pickering) and youngest Michael (Jacobi Jupe). The three delight in the tall tales of Peter Pan, the boy who can never grow up, and his adventures in the fantastical world of Neverland. This is much to the dismay of Wendy’s parents, Mary (Molly Parker) and George (Alan Tudyk), who believe their daughter to be much too old now for frivolous children’s stories, especially as she’s to be sent to boarding school the following day. DP Bojan Bazelli veers a hovering camera around the Darling’s home in long takes that attempt to add a sense of animated chaos. Instead, it feels distractingly as if we’re navigating the Darling’s home via drone.
Later that night, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) arrives with his fairy sidekick Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi). They’ve come to heed Wendy’s wish to never grow up and bring her and her brothers to Neverland, where they can be children forever. Shahidi’s Tinkerbell is an immediate blight; the uncanny fusion of CGI and live-action that morphs her into a tiny fairy deadens the poor actor. It leaves her appearance and mannerisms not unlike the creepy mo-cap children of Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express. Long gone is Tinkerbell’s trademark mixture of sass, spite and body-image issues; now, Tinkerbell is faultless, wholesome and kind, immediately taking to her new friend Wendy instead of fighting her for Peter’s attention. I always liked that Tinkerbell was a vindictive little bitch annoyed that her ass was too big–this spoke to me, personally.
The magical world of Neverland is not very magical, and interestingly looks very much like Canada. Though lush and expansive, this Neverland feels ironically colorless. Here, girls are Lost Boys too, Tiger Lily speaks a dialect of Cree (in Neverland?) and Wendy is a girlboss who might not necessarily want to be a mother someday. Yet, as it always goes, these attempts at painting outdated stories with progressiveness ring hollow, because the film itself treats them as nothing more than a series of points to score–especially since Tiger Lily’s character still acts as a stereotypical spiritual guide and healer. Hot Captain Hook (Jude Law) is not nearly arch enough for the character, nor is Jim Gaffigan as first mate Smee. One suspects though, given the dull nature of the surroundings, tone of the film and the tacked-on villain origin story, that “arch” is not what the filmmakers were looking for. This is nothing to say of the sauceless child actors–no offense to them. The kids are doing their best, but it’s the kind of thing that bears no complication when the children are cartoons. Here, it’s different.
Admittedly, I have not seen a single Disney “live-action remake” since Jon Favreau’s disposable The Jungle Book back in 2016. I’m now of the sound mind that I’m an adult, I do not have children and am never around children, and so there’s no reason for me to watch films made for children. Yet after deciding to dip my toes into the Mouse House’s newest live-action monster–spurred by my interest in The Green Knight’s Lowery, who received positive reactions for his first Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon–I can’t imagine any child actually enjoying this film, let alone a child who is familiar with and fond of the original animated adaptation.
As a kid, I delighted in the shades and expressions of animation, the fluidity of movement, the creativity unbound by real-world constraints. At a brunch screening of 1961’s 101 Dalmatians on gorgeous 35mm that I attended a few months ago, the children of the theater were glued to the screen. They laughed when Pongo dragged Roger and Anita into the pond at the park, and at the antics of halfwit conmen Horace and Jasper. And they were concerned for the well-being of the Dalmatian puppies, asking their parents in hushed tones whether the puppies would be alright. The magic of Disney’s animated classics still persists for the children (and adults!) who watch them. Conversely, there is so little artistry or anything to directly appeal to children in these live-action remakes that one questions who they’re even for. That’s an easy question to answer, actually: They’re for the Disney adults who want their nostalgia appealed to. If they have little ones to bring along, that’s merely incidental. These live-action remakes are for adult children, in our increasingly babyfied pop culture.
Lowery does attempt to add some impressions of visual flair, as the journey to Neverland includes Malickian-inspired flashback sequences and a touch of surrealism. And after the character introductions and arrival in Neverland, the story begins its course through admirably unfamiliar territory. Lowery is clearly interested in toying with more mature notions of childhood and adulthood, but there’s more charm and wonder to be found in his adaptation of The Green Knight than in this children’s fantasy film. It’s all bogged down by a slog of unimagination that spends too much time sucking the life and magic out of a story set in a magical world. Maybe that’s part of the point–something, something, growing up, something, something–but shouldn’t we also want to go to Neverland, even if only for a moment?
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Jude Law, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk, Jim Gaffigan
Release Date: April 28, 2023 (Disney+)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.