In 2010, Alice in Wonderland exceeded expectations away by earning over a billion at the box office. Since then, Disney has dutifully churned out several live-action remakes in an effort to stimulate reliable box office success. However, with continually less-than-stellar reviews, it seems even Disney’s most cherished intellectual properties aren’t bulletproof. The studio’s latest reimagining, Peter Pan & Wendy, isn’t even given the grace of a theatrical release. Instead, it is coming straight into consumers’ homes on Disney+. Unfortunately, Peter Pan & Wendy is a middling, predictable attempt at reworking the Peter Pan story with a lack of visual flare and definitive sense of self. Jude Law’s unexpectedly empathetic Captain Hook attempts to rescue this film, but he can only do so much.
Starring Alexander Molony and Ever Gabo Anderson, Peter Pan & Wendy follows Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson), a strong-willed young woman reluctantly preparing to leave her beloved brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe) behind. She’s heading off to boarding school at the behest of her parents (Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk). Wendy’s reluctance to grow up and embrace young adulthood is noticed by the mischievous Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). With the help of his pixie friend Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) he whisks Wendy and her brothers away for an adventure in his magical world of Neverland.
From character beats to set pieces, the first half hour of Peter Pan & Wendy is virtually identical to the opening of the 1953 film. It sets up the same plot and themes of the original, except with the now-customary update in aesthetic trappings for “modern” audiences. For example, Wendy gets bloomers instead of a nightgown. Peter Pan & Wendy follows Alice in Wonderland in terms of putting the sword in the hands of its demure heroine. While that idea was a novelty and interesting subversion of expectations in 2010, it now feels like a uninspired approach to every women-led live-action Disney remake. Seeing it here feels tiresome and borderline condescending.
As it stands, Wendy Darling is already one of Disney’s most interesting, unique young heroines, especially considering the time in which she was written. Wendy’s dilemma of duty to her family and limits of her gender role and station in contrast with her desire to savor the joy of youth is a complicated, insightful story that continues to ring true with young women today. (Just look at Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, a current film with similar themes.)
This film doesn’t double down on the internal conflict that made Wendy so easy to love in the first place. Instead, she’s made to fit the cookie cutter mold of ‘empowered’, weapon-wielding live-action Disney. This interpretation of the character feels underbaked because of the aforementioned coherence to the original in the crucial first act. Because it follows the original film’s formula so strictly, this significant changes feels particularly unearned.
Peter Pan & Wendy departs from the original once we get to Neverland; however, these measures to update the story and bring something different to a younger generation of viewers feels too conservative, timid, and formulaic. Tiger Lilly also gets the action heroine treatment. She goes from damsel in distress to horseback-riding axe-wielding leader of the Lost Boys. Tiger Lilly is essentially the “muscle” of Peter Pan’s fight against the pirates. It’s good to see the film steer clear of the harmful portrayal of Indigenous characters from the original Peter Pan. But this update of the character on a thematic and narrative level again feels shallow. She simply goes from one stereotype to a marginally less offensive one.
There is one meaningful change in Peter Pan & Wendy, though, that makes the film interesting: the increased screen time and character development of Captain Hook. It’s understandable that when making the jump to live-action, Disney would want to give the most emotional heavy lifting to a more experienced actor. And Jude Law is without question the film’s MVP. Taking some visual queues from Taika Waititi in Our Flag Means Death, Law’s Captain Hook is more of a long-haired sadboi than a flamboyant, maniacal caricature obsessed with a ticking crocodile.
Instead, Hook is a childhood friend of Peter Pan who left Neverland because he missed his mother. He returns as an adult and but his former best friend shuns him. This story development picks up on an interesting quirk of Peter Pan’s personality in the original film. He’s brash, self-centered, and not all that likable. The fact that Peter Pan & Wendy explores Peter as a morally gray character versus an infallible folk hero is worth celebrating.
Alexander Molony does an admirable job of holding his own when engaging in intense exchanges with Jude Law’s Hook. Together they deliver the film’s most affecting, emotional scenes. This is working despite some strange stylistic and directorial choices from David Lowery. His previous deft craft in films like The Green Knight is strangely absent.
The film feels choppily edited, especially in regards to music queues. Composer Daniel Hart’s sweeping, grandiose score full of Indigenous war cries behind Tiger Lilly and angelic chorals beneath Wendy is chopped and parsed among the sound design of Harry Potter-esque action sequences.
There are rare glimpses of brilliance in Peter Pan & Wendy that hint at a bold take on this beloved story. Lowery’s reimagining of the journey to Neverland with a disorienting, portal-esque sequence is particularly memorable. The same goes for Hook and Peter’s final emotional reconciliation. But those moments are far too infrequent. And the rest of the film is so stale and shallow that it’s hard to truly call this something new.
Peter Pan & Wendy is currently streaming on Disney+.