Review: David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy Is Darker, More Realistic—and Also Far Less Magical

Despite having what I consider to be a solid track record as far as his film output goes (including another live-action take on the partially animated Disney classic Pete’s Dragon) writer/director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Green Knight) may have hit his first bump in the cinematic road with his retelling of the Peter Pan story, Peter Pan & Wendy (which is the original title of author J.M. Barrie’s novel). In the film, we get the usual bits in which the Darling children—older brother John (Joshua Pickering), younger brother Michale (Jacobi Jupe), and the eldest, sister Wendy (Ever Anderson, daughter of actress Milla Jovovich and director Paul W.S. Anderson)—decide to leave home just as their family (led by parents played by Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk) are about to send Wendy to boarding school. Wishing for nothing to change, they end up being located by Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), who offers them eternal youth and constant adventures in the far-away world of Neverland.

Using the usual combination of fairly dust supplied by Peter’s loyal sidekick Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) and positive thinking, Peter and the Darlings head off to Neverland where they encounter Peter’s charges, the Lost Boys; his ardent supporter, the Native character Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk); and the evil pirate Capt. Hook (Jude Law) and his band of followers, including sidekick Smee (Jim Gaffigan). Hook has it out for Peter and will take out anyone who stands in his way, including the Darling children.

The first half of Peter Pan & Wendy (co-adapted from the novel and the 1953 Disney animated feature by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks) is fairly faithful to the published work. But in the second half, the writers begin to take liberties by making the connection between Peter and Hook a little deeper, to the point where we discover that the two used to be great friends (and close to the same age), but one left Neverland to visit his family that he missed, so Peter banished him, causing a rift between the two that has become an all-out war. And yes, there’s also a ticking crocodile in the mix who torments Hook and his men at the most inopportune times.

Lowery and company also seem to take very seriously the ideas of never growing up and what it means to never have to answer to any adult at a time when adults are shaping young minds. Much of the film lingers on these heavy, more mature subject and has darker lighting schemes to illustrate the story’s more serious turn. Peter Pan & Wendy actually spends very little time with the Lost Boys unless they are in mortal danger from Hook. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the filmmakers make Peter’s goal to never grow up looks like the least desirable choice a child could make, and it appears as if Peter was something of an emotionally vacant host who cared little for the well-being these kids who worship him. Peter is not a nice guy, thinks more about himself at every turn, but paints himself as the guy you want to be near when the battle (or fun) begins.

Peter Pan & Wendy also fills in backstory and motivation beyond Hook being somewhat envious of Peter’s freedom, friendships, and youth. At points, the film strays not just from the Peter Pan story but also from its spirit, making Peter seem like a massive enabler and manipulative to those who trust him. (Actually, I’ve always thought those things about Peter regardless of what version of the story I’m watching. This film just happens to do a better job than most of proving it.) 

Less an action-adventure story and more of a bummer, Lowery’s telling also makes it clear that the Pan legend is familiar to everyone in advance of this particular story. The Darling children know a great deal about Pan, the Lost Boys, and Neverland before they are taken away, and I’m not sure what the point of that might be. Maybe it’s to make the disappearance of the Darlings less a kidnapping and more of a willing endangerment? Whatever the case, I never found this version of the Peter Pan story in any way magical or enchanting. It’s going for a realistic approach, which it achieves, but in doing so, it erases the wonder of the original. It’s a good thing Lowery & Co. eliminated the sequence where Tinker Bell almost dies, saved only by the audience’s belief her, because she would have croaked under my watch of this version. It’s an expertly made movie, but one in which the lifeblood has been mostly drained.

The film begins streaming Friday on Disney+.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.