Here are two things we’ve all had quite enough, thank you: screen adaptations of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, and live-action remakes of classic Disney animations. So as both, this flesh, blood and pixel reworking of the studio’s beloved 1953 hand-drawn original looks, on paper, surplus to requirements twice over. In fact, it might end up being the most beautiful, moving and all-around-loveliest children’s film of the year.
This is all down to the vision and nerve of its director and co-writer David Lowery, who gives his viewers (and employers) around 20 minutes of the painstakingly crafted homage they were expecting before plunging Barrie’s tale into far weirder, eerier waters than you might expect. And then just as you’re starting to panic, he hoists it back out again by its ankles for an old-fashioned swashbuckling finale that builds to one of the most inspiredly playful action sequences in an age.
Look, if a critic described Peter Pan & Wendy as a Hegelian dialectic for kids, they’d be frogmarched straight to Pseud’s Corner, with good reason. But, well… it isn’t not one – Lowery’s film hits us with everything we love about Barrie’s story before delving into its shadow side (isn’t there a wonder to growing up that an eternal childhood would deny us?), then reconciling the shade with the light. It’s all done crisply and simply enough for an eight-year-old to easily follow along with the film’s train of thought, and movingly enough to turn any adults on the sofa beside them to a sniffling heap.
For those of us whose teeth are still twingeing from the Super Mario Bros film, what joy and relief to see a film for younger viewers that is actually about something. Yes, it has fun with giant crocodiles, pirate ships and breakneck moonlit flights past Edwardian London’s steeples and chimney pots – and Lowery excels at all that. But he also cares about giving his pre-teen audience images that will stick in their souls. Lowery’s 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon was already the most worthwhile of these money-spinning do-overs by far – but with this one, he may have surpassed it.
Ever Anderson, the 15-year-old daughter of the Resident Evil star Milla Jovovich, plays Wendy Darling: she’s the hero of the piece, while Peter (Alexander Molony) is a more ambiguous, capricious figure, in line with the character’s pagan roots. (The film shares more DNA with Lowery’s surreal 2021 Arthurian riff The Green Knight than you might expect, which is to say: more than zero.)
Along with younger brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe), she’s whisked by Peter and his fairy helpmate Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) to a very Hebridean-looking Neverland – the film was shot on the Newfoundland coast – where awaits the fearsome Captain Hook (a terrifically scary, funny and affecting Jude Law) and his buccaneering flunkeys.
Lowery and Toby Halbrooks’s screenplay puts a revealing new spin on the age-old Pan-Hook rivalry without it feeling clever-clever or convoluted: it’s as if their script is digging down through Barrie’s original work, rather than piling extra material on top of it. Tiger Lily (superb newcomer Alyssa Wapanatâhk) has an expanded role, while her tribe are briefly present and correct – no peace pipe scene this time, though, understandably – while the Lost Boys, who now also include a few Lost Girls, return too.
The leader of this scrappy troupe is played by Noah Matthews Matofsky, a 15-year-old actor with Down’s syndrome: for all the hot air studios like to expend about representation, this sort of casting choice is unheard of in a Hollywood production, and the film correctly makes absolutely nothing of it.
For all its updates and adjustments, Peter Pan & Wendy doesn’t feel remotely modern, and I mean that as a compliment. Lowery’s approach has a timelessness to it that fits the story perfectly – and at points it reminded me of Return to Oz, the animated fantasies of Studio Ghibli, and even Terrence Malick’s The New World. That it is being released on Disney+ rather than in cinemas makes a bleak sort of business sense, given the recent commercial flounderings of two other recent Barrie adaptations, Joe Wright’s Pan and Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy. But its eye, its heart and its ambition are big-screen through and through.
6+ cert, 106 min. On Disney+ from today