Live Action ‘Peter Pan’ Doesn’t Fly

A boring hero, an emo Captain Hook, too much backstory

The boy who wouldn’t grow up gets a static, if handsome, do-over in Peter Pan and Wendy, David Lowery’s loving but muted adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s ageless tale. First immortalized in a 1904 play and then fleshed out in a 1911 novel, Peter Pan’s arrested development and Wendy’s adulting anxiety have clocked over a century’s worth of pop-culture adoration and psychoanalytic reverence. This latest interpretation—Disney’s sumptuously produced live-action retelling which the studio first made classic in its jaunty 1953 animated film—refreshingly dignifies the supporting Native American characters it originally stereotyped. But it also dilutes the narrative’s core potency by drifting a bit too far into contemporary notions of gender and succumbing to Hollywood’s fashionable thirst for novel backstories. You tweak the load-bearing plot points, you risk dramatic disfigurement.

PETER PAN AND WENDY ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: David Lowery
Written by: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk, Jim Gaffigan
Running time: 111 min

How strange, and how welcome, that only now is Lowery’s version restoring Wendy Darling’s name to the title for the first time since Barrie originally published his book. Despite the puckish charms inherently built into Peter (Alexander Molony), the more arresting character has always been Wendy (Ever Anderson). She’s the pubescent oldest sister with two rambunctious younger brothers, and the one whose budding sexuality, fear of maturity, and wistful memories of childhood deepen her conflict between running away with Peter or becoming the woman she was meant to be. Peter has no affecting arc—he literally does not grow, let alone grow up. If he’s memorable, it’s because he’s too familiar an archetype as the lad who refuses the challenges and responsibilities of manhood. Maybe it’s not a surprise that his atavistic recusal from the real world equally delighted and haunted so much of the male-dominated twentieth century.

Lowery’s twenty-first century iteration overcorrects to a fault. Anderson is a swashbuckling Wendy, full of verve, determination, regrets, longing, and desire—she earns that equal billing. As for Molony, let’s just say his Peter Pan doesn’t really fly. Peter has always been oblivious to Wendy’s overtures, but here Molony doesn’t even seem to register her in any significant way. He seems strangely disconnected to everything—a genial presence, but hardly commanding.

Even more bizarre is Jude Law’s Captain Hook. Who thought it was a good idea to make this cherubic-faced movie star play one of the great modern villains? Law is a fantastic actor, and has occasionally brought menace to his roles, but as Hook he’s stymied by makeup decisions that forgo go-to sinister black hair in favor of a sandy-dandy ’stache and long strands of stringy, thinning locks. He looks a like a wet cat with big saucer-shaped eyes. He conjures not so much fear as pity.

Adding insult to injury is the odd interjection of a new origin story for Hook: he and Peter, once upon a time, were actually best friends. Orphan BFFs! But stupid Hook wanted to grow up, and in doing so betrayed their bond. His greatest enemy used to be his closest comrade! Huh? Someone call the ticking crocodile and have him bite some sense into the screenwriters.

Even more disappointing: Neverland’s Lost Boys now have a few girl members. “But you’re not all boys!” cries Wendy. “So?” one of them sneers. “But I guess it doesn’t really matter,” Wendy replies. Actually, Wendy, it kind of does. She famously feels conflicted because of what being an adult specifically means to her: to become a wife and a mother. In Neverland, Peter is her unrequited love and the Lost Boys are his reflection, a masculine echo of his childishness. Wendy parents them all, and learns not only how to say goodbye to her girlish youth but say hello to womanhood—and, more crucially, to be wary of men who refuse to grow up. If Barrie meant otherwise, he wouldn’t have called them the Lost Boys. To so blithely disregard the author’s clear intent takes away some of his magical fable’s pixie dust. Besides, if this Peter Pan retelling is supposed to be so woke, why is Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) still a leggy mute woman in a short dress?

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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