With “Peter Pan and Wendy,” Disney sets out to bring the boy who refused to grow up into the 21st century — not literally, like those taxing live-action/cartoon hybrids, where computer-generated Smurfs get loose in Manhattan or Tom and Jerry wreak havoc in a high-end hotel. The studio’s latest remake is still set in Edwardian England, the way both J.M. Barrie’s play and the animated feature it inspired were. But the sensibility is very much of the moment, as director David Lowery (who did an admirable job of updating “Pete’s Dragon” for Disney) refreshes the 1953 classic according to contemporary priorities.
In conception and casting both, the new movie presents a diverse and empowered ensemble. The vintage toon’s shameful Native American stereotypes have been corrected. The beloved Tinker Bell character can now serve as a role model for a wider range of children. Sharing hero duties, Wendy gets to announce, “This magic belongs to no boy!” Even Captain Hook, once treated as irredeemable crocodile fodder, is revealed to be a misunderstood figure from Peter’s past who’s fallen out of touch with his happy thoughts.
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These are thoughtful advances to the ever-evolving Disney formula, admirable to a point and sure to be scrutinized in the lead-up to the studio’s massive “The Little Mermaid” reboot next month. Lowery has a full plate of agendas to balance here, only one of which is taking an animated classic from the Disney canon and translating it into live action, and the result is far more safe than it is satisfying. Where “Peter Pan” was a phenomenon, this straight-to-streaming version is but a shadow, scampering off and trying to have fun on its own.
Lowery, whose script was co-written with longtime producing partner Toby Halbrooks (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), doesn’t seem particularly worried about re-creating the earlier cartoon, beyond a few obvious costuming choices: Peter (Alexander Molony) appears in his trademark Alpine hat and tattered green ensemble, John Darling (Joshua Pickering) sports a top hat and specs, while kid brother Michael (Jacobi Jupe) brings a teddy bear along for the ride.
As expected, the film opens in the Darling home, where Wendy (Ever Anderson) and her brothers play pirates with wooden swords. The older sister is an equal participant in the mischief, which Anderson embodies quite convincingly. The daughter of Milla Jovovich and director Paul W.S. Anderson, she’s the closest thing to a breakout among the young cast — so assertive and compelling at times that the movie could just as easily be called “Wendy,” had Benh Zeitlin not gotten there first with his post-“Beasts of the Southern Wild” spin on the legend.
Lowery puts greater emphasis on Jude Law’s salty, long-haired Captain Hook, suggesting what could have been a “Maleficent”-esque reframing around the villain — except he was beaten to that idea as well, by “Hook,” which leaves this latest take scrambling to assert what exactly it’s trying to do. It’s not Wendy’s story, it’s not Hook’s story, nor is it a straight redo of the original.
If anything, Peter Pan is the weak link here. Molony plays the forever-young rogue with a curiously serious focus. Peter adamantly resists adulthood, but comes across like a joyless grown-up most of the time, his face stern and lips pinched shut in an expression of seen-it-all cynicism. Somehow, humanizing Hook has the adverse effect of making Peter seem like kind of a jerk. This must be how grade-school kids feel about so many of their parents’ heroes: Closer inspection reveals many of them to be less perfect than previous generations were taught. But is that really what audiences want from Disney remakes?
“Peter Pan and Wendy” treads a line between honoring the earlier film and doing its own thing, introducing a sparkling Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) with a 200-watt smile whose fairy speech sounds like tiny chimes to human ears. Only Wendy makes an effort to understand her. Unlike some Disney movies, this one doesn’t feel especially didactic, leaving a certain flexibility to parents in how they want to discuss the film with their kids. The Darlings’ stuffy mom and dad (Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk) are living proof of why Peter doesn’t want to grow up — although there’s a nice moment in which Mrs. Darling gives a look that says she met Peter Pan a lifetime ago.
Surely most adults can relate. Lowery has the tricky task of satisfying them while trying to give younger audiences a formative viewing experience. And so we get certain paradoxes, as when the familiar flight plan — “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning” — takes an unexpected detour through a magic portal in Big Ben tower. On the other side, Neverland is represented by the Faroe Islands: brilliant emerald turf shining atop sharp, dark rocks, so far removed from any continent that this could be a dream, or another dimension altogether.
Visually, the movie owes more to the later entries in the “Harry Potter” series, with their dark, greenish-black atmosphere and gloomy visual effects, than it does vintage Disney cartoons. By now, our eyes have grown weary of fake lens flares and digitally generated magic-hour effects. All these years after “The Lord of the Rings,” that trilogy is still dictating the look of young-adult fantasy movies — as when the camera swoops alongside Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) on horseback, then cuts to a dramatic wide shot as she launches Peter Pan off a cliff.
One sequence, in which pixie dust allows Peter and Wendy to rotate Hook’s ship 360 degrees in midair, feels as original as anything in Lowery’s “The Green Knight.” At times like this, the footage begs to be seen on the biggest of screens, rather than squeezed onto whatever devices people use to watch Disney+. But the narrative never rises to the same level. In Disney’s haste to adapt more of its precious IP, the studio has sublimated another classic into mere “content,” to be swept downstream and forgotten.
“Peter Pan and Wendy” releases on Disney+ on April 28.
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