Tinker Bell in Peter Pan & Wendy
Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell in Disney's live-action Peter Pan & Wendy, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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How does a grown man approach the story of Peter Pan? Steven Spielberg, accused of having a Peter Pan complex long before he made Hook in 1991, did so by tapping into his endless reserve of childlike wonder, with predictably schmaltzy results. David Lowery, the director and co-writer of Peter Pan & Wendy, hones in on the plight of Captain Hook. In this latest adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play, Hook (Jude Law) gets a poignant backstory and rich emotional arc, all brought to life in a gnarly performance by Law, snaking a thin line between vengeful anger and mournful regret. The film invests so heavily in its villain that he almost becomes the hero by accident.

Before that, however, there is some perfunctory business to get out of the way. We must meet the lonely young Wendy (Ever Anderson), who is whisked away from London and her well-meaning parents (Alan Tudyk and Molly Parker) by the young, green Peter (Alexander Molony) and his fairy friend (Yara Shahidi), whom Wendy has read about in books. She thinks her happy thoughts and flies straight on until morning, and soon she’s in Neverland, where a battle is raging between Hook and the Lost Boys, which also includes girls this time around. 

In keeping with other recent Disney remakes, Lowery finds a more inclusive pitch for his Peter Pan story. In addition to its women, the Lost Boys include Indigenous members and they’re led by Slightly, played by 15-year-old Noah Matthews Matofsky, an actor with Down syndrome (a first for Disney). Hook’s crew of pirates is equally diverse. A note to filmmakers: This is always a good idea, especially since Lowery otherwise avoids updating this classic tale with modern trappings. He is not concerned with adult viewers who may want a new spin on a story they know by heart. Instead, he has made a Peter Pan movie that refuses to grow up. Forget the winking jokes for parents. This is a story that simply invites adults to find the child within.

Its outsides are just as inviting. Peter Pan & Wendy looks great, although we can’t know just how great, since there is no opportunity to see it on the big screen. It will play only on Disney+, where its grand mise-en-scene feels a little more ordinary. Shot largely in the Faroe Islands off the coast of Denmark, this Neverland looks ripped from a BBC nature documentary. Lowery has always had a great feel for the natural world, from the forests of Pete’s Dragon to the haunting landscapes of The Green Knight. Here, he conjures a Neverland that feels grounded, anchoring the film’s fantasy in reality and making its magic feel ever more attainable. 

On the surface it’s a fairly straight telling of the Peter Pan story, replete with cute kids, sword fights, and a grudge-holding crocodile. It’s remarkable how Lowery still makes the material his own. He goes through the motions with Pan and Wendy, letting his young actors enliven their reliable material with chops and charisma. As Wendy, Anderson is particularly compelling; she has that quality that makes whatever she is doing on screen inherently interesting. Still, the only character with a full dramatic arc is Hook, who wrestles meaningfully with childhood trauma and a sense of regret over a life defined by anger. Adorned in a tattered British naval uniform and an 1980s metalhead hairdo, Law creates the film’s most human character. He’s vulnerable and menacing. The threat of violence is real, but it is undergirded by sadness and emotional desperation. The hook is just a symbol. He has an amputated soul.

The more the film leans toward Hook, however, the more off-balance it gets. Peter Pan & Wendy is ostensibly about, um, Peter Pan and Wendy, and the 42-year-old Lowery’s gravitational pull toward its middle-aged villain is simultaneously engaging and frustrating. One gets the sense he would have rather just made a Captain Hook movie—something like what Maleficent did to Sleeping Beauty—but he preferred to integrate his fascination with the villain into a more traditional hero’s tale. Maybe it’s because we know what grand artistry Lowery is capable of, but it feels like there’s a better, more interesting film trying to break through the Disneyfied surfaces. No matter, Peter Pan & Wendy is still a good film. It just wants to be a better one.

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Peter Pan & Wendy begins streaming April 28 on Disney+.