2 out of 5 stars

J.M Barrie’s original 1904 play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grown Up has been repeatedly adapted for film and television, but only Disney’s 1953 animation can be considered an enduring success. Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) has been reappraised by the generation who saw it as children, but at the time it was a critical failure and box office disappointment. P.J Hogan’s 2003 version starring Jason Isaacs was also a financial flop, as was Joe Wright’s 2015 adaptation with Hugh Jackman, and various smaller attempts also haven’t set the world on fire. And yet there’s always a Peter Pan in development somewhere, as it’s considered an evergreen intellectual property. This is fantastic news for Great Ormond Hospital Charity, of course.

David Lowery (The Green Knight) announcing another retelling of Barrie’s story caught my attention because the filmmaker claimed it’s always been a passion project for him. More importantly, despite still being best-known for his arthouse projects, like A Ghost Story (2017), Lowery made the surprisingly good Pete’s Dragon (2016) update for Disney, so it felt like Peter Pan & Wendy could be another of the studio’s attempts to translate their animated classics to live-action. In some ways that’s true because some shots directly reference the 1953 Disney cartoon, but Lowery’s screenplay (co-written with Toby Halbrooks) puts a few spins on conventions and adds a fresh origin story for Captain Hook.

In Edwardian England, a group of London siblings—Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) and her younger brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe)—are transported to Neverland after their bedroom’s visited by a mute fairy called Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) and her floating friend Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). The kids soon find themselves flying around a beautiful island pursued by pirates led by Captain James Hook (Jude Law), where they meet the leader of Neverland’s indigenous tribe, Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk), and Peter’s own gang The Lost Boys (and girls).

Peter & Wendy is a relatively straightforward take on the material that doesn’t do much different than other versions have attempted and been more successful with. Hook remains the only version that did something radical in having Peter grow up to forget his past adventures, only returning to Neverland as a grouchy middle-aged man with kids of his own. Everything since has only doodled around the edges of Barrie’s core idea.

Lowery’s one major tweak is in deciding that the dastardly Hook was once Peter’s best friend and an original Lost Boy, but the breaking of their friendship led to James holding a grudge and thus ageing into a bitter and twisted man. It’s a great wrinkle to add to an ordinarily straightforward hero/villain relationship, but the film doesn’t do much with the idea once it’s been presented, perhaps because Peter & Wendy comes undone with the unbalanced nature of its casting…

Jude Law (Gattaca) does an admirable job as Cap’n Hook, but he’s not as memorable as any of the performances that have come before him unless you include Garrett Hedlund from the 2015 prequel. While certainly not terrible, there isn’t anything magical or fascinating about Jude’s take on the character. He’s not interested in a larger-than-life performance that suits the role well, so Law ends up feeling competent but forgettable as archenemies go.

He’s at his best when the story focuses on the past tragedy of his split from Peter as a boy, but young Alexander Molony isn’t strong enough to balance out this core dynamic. And given the title of the film, even the seemingly crucial relationship between Peter and Wendy doesn’t work here. Ever Anderson (daughter of Milla Jovovich) is a perfect Wendy and thus one of the highlights of the film, but she’s similarly lost without a stronger Peter Pan to bounce off. Molony looks suitably elvish and it’s interesting they cast a non-white actor as Peter, but his lack of experience works against him in scenes with more seasoned pros like Law and Anderson (Black Widow). Failing to cast an incredibly charismatic child actor as Pan is often the downfall of adaptations and this one is sadly no exception. Why is it so hard?

Despite being shunted to Disney+ rather than be given a theatrical release (a wise move), Peter Pan & Wendy doesn’t look like cost-cutting streaming content. The colours may be oddly muted even in the fantastical Neverland, but Lowery and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (A Cure for Wellness) wisely shot on beautiful island locations to create a sense of reality to everything. In an era of abundant greenscreen because shooting on sound stages is logistically easier, I appreciated seeing people in real environments most of the time. And if there was digital manipulation here and there, it fooled me.

The VFX are good throughout, with shots of a flying pirate ship looking particularly impressive. I also enjoyed the CGI crocodile Tick Tock and the sequences of kids flying or hovering often looked more plausible than usual. It’s just a shame there’s little in the way of truly memorable and exciting action set-pieces (outside of the occasional artistic shot) or any kind of serious cinematic spectacle. For that reason, more than anything, Peter Pan & Wendy feels best suited to streaming because those crowd-pleasing shortcomings would feel more glaring if you’d spent money on cinema tickets.

USA | 2023 | 106 MINUTES | 2.20:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: David Lowery.
writers: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks (based on J.M Barrie’s Peter & Wendy and Walt Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan).
starring: Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatahk, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk & Jim Gaffigan.