Now streaming–Disney’s new live-action Peter Pan neglects much of Barrie’s original

Review by C.J. Bunce

L. Frank Baum got Victor Fleming’s perfect and gigantic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, which was the first fantasy epic to take home Oscars.  More than six decades later, J.R.R. Tolkien got Peter Jackson’s six film cinema achievement with his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.  Lewis Carroll got two perfect adaptations from Tim Burton for his Alice in Wonderland characters.  And C.S. Lewis got three worthy adaptations from Michael Apted and Andrew Adamson of his books in his Chronicles of Narnia series.  All of these earned Academy Awards, and reflect the best of the fantasy genre by filmmakers.  J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Wendy, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, The Lost Boys, and Neverland have yet to see their definitive version, and that’s still the case after Peter Pan & Wendy, an uninspired, direct-to-streaming live-action movie that just arrived on Disney+.  Borrowing the title of Barrie’s 1911 novel, which was based on his own play, this Peter Pan & Wendy is actually an adaptation of Disney’s 1953 animated movie, which was only barely a retelling of Barrie’s novel and play.  With the exception of Disney’s solid live-action version of The Jungle Book, it seems like the only purpose of Disney’s live-action movies is to preserve and extend any remaining copyright status it has in these properties.  Peter Pan & Wendy has the production look of Chronicles of Narnia, but it’s lacking heart and joy, and the key theme of the original story has been extinguished altogether.

If you’re a fan of Disney’s animated Peter Pan, it’s probably in large part due to the fantastic musical score and lyrics, which are some of Disney’s best.  If there were new themes added to the 2023 movie, they were drowned out by the film’s action scenes, but the 1953 music can be heard sporadically throughout the new film–just not enough to save it.  Director David Lowery (The Old Man and the Gun) would have served his movie better by leaning into that music even more–it is melancholy but at least it offers some moments of joy.  The treatment is only partially like Disney’s live-action Mulan, but it lacks the energy and excitement of that production.

The 1953 animated movie left out Barrie’s original best scenes, best character moments, and themes.  But if that is all you’re after–you’re only looking for an adaptation of the animated movie–this one will likely do fine for you.  Peter Pan & Wendy stars young actor Alexander Molony as Peter, Ever Anderson (the young version of the title heroine in Black Widow) as Wendy Darling, Jude Law as Captain Hook, Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell, Alyssa Wapanatâhk as Tiger Lily, Joshua Pickering as John Darling, Jacobi Jupe as Michael Darling, Molly Parker as Mary Darling, Alan Tudyk as George Darling, and Jim Gaffigan as Mr. Smee.  Of these only Law’s Captain Hook and Gaffigan’s Smee stand out, Wapanatâhk’s Tiger Lily gets too little to do, and Yara Shahidi’s Tinker Bell is prevented from giving a full performance.

As re-written this Hook doesn’t work.  The problem with Law’s Hook is the director and writer made him into a sympathetic villain.  That’s not Barrie’s Hook.  It’s not Law’s fault.  You can almost see a look in Jim Gaffigan’s eyes throughout his scenes–like he can tell this story needs more humor and heart, like he’s digging in on the fun Smee from the animated series.  The story would have been served better with these two actors mirroring more of Hook and Smee’s antics from the cartoon.  The best you can say is it’s at least better than the 1991 movie Hook.  (Note: If you’re a fan of the Steven Spielberg movie, you probably won’t like the original stories, as that movie had only the character names in common with anything Barrie ever wrote).  But it’s worth saying Jude Law’s acting runs circles around Dustin Hoffman’s goofy performance in that movie.

I am a fan of Barrie’s work, but it seems like everyone who has ever adapted it isn’t.  What is the central theme of the original Peter Pan stories?  Motherhood and preparing for motherhood, it’s importance, it’s meaning–not just growing up.  The Lost Boys don’t have mothers and Peter Pan seeks out Wendy Darling to serve in this role.  Her brothers were only minor characters, but Disney constantly elevates their value to the story.  The original boys become almost addicted to the concept of escaping parents, actually forgetting they have parents at all, and even Wendy nearly forgets what her mother looked like.  This is the story, but it’s skipped over for this flimsy, easier to digest thread of not wanting to grow up.  But that’s not Peter Pan’s whole story.  Peter wants–needs–a mother.  He sees Wendy only in this role.  Wendy has some kind of teen romantic feelings for Peter that are unrequited–admittedly it’s odd and creepy in a Natalie Portman/Jake Lloyd/Phantom Menace love affair kind of way.  But that’s the story.  Lowery never settles in on his own version and walks away from the challenges in the original.

The best character of Barrie’s original work, and the one with the best dialogue, is Tinker Bell.  She is spiteful above all else.  She is amazing.  She is jealous of Wendy.  And she uses profanity like it is an art form.  She is hysterically funny.  Here, Disney takes away her voice, literally and figuratively.  It’s unthinkable.  The biggest scene is also gone, the “clap your hands if you believe in fairies” scene.  What person would cut such a scene from any adaptation of Peter Pan?  It would be like removing dinosaurs from Jurassic Park.  

The cast includes genre favorite Alan Tudyk as Wendy’s father.  You can see why Tudyk might have been eager for the role, if he thought  Lowery’s interpretation would be based on the animated movie.  The animation father was bumbling and funny, tying into Tudyk’s strengths.  He would be perfect for the part if that were the approach taken here.  Unfortunately he’s wasted on this role, which is not much more than a cameo.

The 1953 animated movie has a justifiable warning upfront on the Disney+ streaming platform.  This new movie tries to right some wrongs by casting more actors of color, and making some of the Lost Boys girls.  These are updates nobody should have an issue with.  But the character of Native American girl Tiger Lily as written is stripped bare here, to the point that she no longer has much of a function other than as a substitute for Tinker Bell’s fairy dust.  The other character that gets slighted is Nana the dog, which has a big role in the novel, as another mother substitute, as the nanny (she’s also more developed in the animated movie).  Lowery makes no effort to do anything with Nana, and it’s disappointing, especially with all the technology available today, as well as available acting dogs.  Lowery could have done more in many areas, and done more with substance.

This next issue has somehow become a thing.  First: tall ships are cool.  You don’t need to make them fly.  They are cool without needing to fly.  It’s part of their mystique.  Does that really need to be said?  But this is the third movie in as many years that has flying boats as part of its climax (not counting the one in Thor: Love and Thunder).  Why?  It adds nothing, and denies the intent of the original author with meaningless nonsense.  The director purports to have made a dark movie, but perhaps he couldn’t do it in the water?  Another thing:  Neverland is a land of make-believe.  Here it looks a lot like actual Great Britain.

So the challenge remains: Someone please make a faithful adaptation of Barrie’s original characters and story.  The work is now in the public domain, so it’s fair game for literally everyone.  Go to it!

If you haven’t read the story, you should.  Check out my review earlier this month here at borg.  If you’re looking for a visual adaption of the novel, there’s nothing worthy of Barrie out there.  But of all the options, the animated movie has the most fun, mainly because of the comedy and music, if you can get past the dated problematic matter.  And Peter Pan & Wendy even with its faults is a much better option than the dismal Hook.  It’s more Finding Ohana than The Goonies.  How about a live-action Aristocats next?  Peter Pan & Wendy is on Disney+ beginning this weekend for you to see for yourself.  Or not.

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