When I first heard that The House of Mouse was updating their timeless animated feature “Peter Pan” with a live-action offering called “Peter Pan & Wendy,” I was worried the film would be another in a long line of unnecessary remakes; another soulless, pointless cash grab in the vein of the updated versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King,” But ten minutes into the David Lowery film, I realized… that I was absolutely right. “Peter Pan and Wendy” is a colossal waste of time and money, and further proof that Disney, a studio that was once at the forefront of original family entertainment, has completely run out of… well, if not ideas, then certainly nerve.
Let me be clear: I personally have no particular sentimental attachment to the original J.M. Barrie play; nor to the 1953 Disney classic, nor to the countless Neverland (and Neverland-adjacent) cinematic and theatrical adaptations that have been released since, except perhaps for P.J. Hogan’s brilliant but underrated “Peter Pan” from 2003. So my objections to this current film are by no means based on a slavish devotion to what has gone before; rather, they are based on the fact that “Peter Pan and Wendy” is not particularly good.
Still, it’s not quite bad, either— certainly not as bad as Joe Wright’s misguided “Pan” from 2015, which is so unwatchable it seems almost like an elaborate cinematic prank. The universally beloved 1904 story is its strongest suit, and that remains more or less intact, at least in broad terms: Wendy (Ever Anderson), a young girl on the cusp of adulthood, meets Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), a boy who refuses to grow up. With her brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacob Jupe) in tow, Wendy travels with Peter and the mischievous fairy Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) to the magical world of Neverland. There, she encounters the ruthless one-handed pirate Captain Hook (Jude Law) and embarks on an adventure that she will never forget.
Where “Peter Pan and Wendy” falters is not in its story, but in its execution. For one thing, it takes too long to get going, starting as it does with a long scene in which Wendy’s father (Disney muse Alan Tudyk) tells her she needs to grow up, followed immediately after by another long scene in which her mother (Molly Parker) tells her exactly the same thing. Things do not improve when the action finally shifts to Neverland, a supposedly magical place that, aside from looking gorgeous, doesn’t seem magical at all. (Apropos of nothing, it looks pretty much exactly like the island where the elderly Luke Skywalker habitually milked giant space walruses.)
Would that there were something as interesting as giant space walruses in this film! Regrettably, though, even the stuff that’s supposed to be fun to watch… just isn’t. People fly through the air, but there’s no sense of wonder or awe because it all looks extremely fake. There are plenty of action scenes but— perhaps because they involve literal children swinging swords— they’re all very slow and unconvincing. A girl walks the plank… a cannonball pulverizes the top of a mountain… a pirate ship defies gravity… I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it.
To be fair, Lowery and co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks do make attempts, here and there, to make the well-worn story more compelling: There’s the fact, for example, that Wendy and her brothers actually know all about the Pan mythology— Neverland, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily, etc.— long before they ever meet Peter himself. There’s also the inclusion of girls in the Lost Boys, along with characters of varying ethnicities sprinkled throughout the film. Plus there’s the tragic backstory of Peter and Hook, who were once, it seems, the best of friends. Sadly, all of these enhancements turn out to be narrative dead ends. Sure, it’s interesting that Wendy knows all about Peter Pan, but what does that knowledge ultimately contribute to the story? And while adding diversity to the Lost Boys is an admirable thing in itself, doesn’t making some of them girls undercut the whole crucial subplot about them needing Wendy as a surrogate mother? And if Peter and Hook were indeed friends long ago, doesn’t Peter’s current behavior make him kind of … well, an irredeemable, unforgivable jerk? (You don’t agree? Try feeding your best friend’s hand to a crocodile and see if he’ll still answer your calls.)
And while it does have its bright spots— Jude Law, for one, is as compelling as ever, despite an unnecessary prosthetic nose, and Ever Anderson as Wendy has enough charisma to carry the film despite a lackluster Alexander Molony as Peter— “Peter Pan and Wendy,” just like most of the other live action Disney remakes, doesn’t have enough going for it to justify its own existence. And yet Disney, surprise surprise, will keep making these movies, because even the worst of them make boatloads of money. Case in point: “The Little Mermaid” comes out next month, followed by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” next year. Even “Moana,” a film that is not even 10 years old, is getting the live action treatment! How, you may ask, can we end this worrisome trend? Easy: Stop watching these goddamn movies.
(I know I watched this one; but my editor forced me to do it, so it doesn’t count.)
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs