28th April 2023

Peter Pan & Wendy review: needs a lot more pixie dust

Another instantly-forgettable Disney live-action remake—I never want to revisit this Neverland.

Akhil Arora, a member of the Film Critics Guild and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic

Jude Law as Captain Hook in Peter Pan & Wendy
Jude Law as Captain Hook in Peter Pan & Wendy // Photo: Eric Zachanowich/Disney

I am all for a new spin on an old tale, but Disney’s cash-grab live-action remakes have soured me in the last few years. Aladdin was extravagant but empty, The Lion King made all the wrong decisions, the cowardly Mulan felt like Chinese pop nationalism, and Cruella was full of style but little substance. It has gotten so bad that I began avoiding them altogether. But when I saw writer-director David Lowery’s name against Peter Pan & Wendy, my ears perked up. Lowery’s previous effort, the Dev Patel-led The Green Knight, was after all in my top three films of 2021. If he transferred that exquisite style and his willingness to re-examine myths, as he likes to do, I could get behind Disney’s latest cash grab.

A poor Pirates of the Caribbean

Alas, there is none of that here. Nothing in this 93-minute fantasy adventure ever suggests Lowery’s hand—the man who gave us The Green Knight—is on the helm. Sure, Peter Pan & Wendy is a children’s movie through and through. We’ve got disguises, fake beards, cartoonish acting, pirates fighting over teddy bears, and the over-the-top nature of how everyone behaves. That necessitates a different approach—but neither the script (which Lowery co-wrote with frequent producer collaborator Toby Halbrooks) nor the direction seem to know what that ought to be.

It’s a musical when it wants to be (there are two songs), a stack of very similar-looking sword fights (that do not awe or thrill), and a drab action adventure with zero inventiveness (for the most part). Missing the flair of Lowery’s other work, Peter Pan & Wendy reminded me of one of the poor Pirates of the Caribbean films, except toned down further to suit the target audience of a Disney movie. There’s very little meat on the bone here—I always had this feeling that not a lot was happening, at any given point—and the film tends to go in circles, hitting the same beats. And predictably, it leaves room for a sequel at the end, should Disney want it, with a series of non-endings.

Alexander Molony as Peter Pan and Ever Anderson as Wendy Darling in Peter Pan & Wendy

Peter Pan & Wendy has almost zero world-building

The new Disney movie opens in the latter’s household, as the London teenager (Ever Anderson, from Black Widow) conveys to her mother her intense desire to not grow up. She’s being sent off to boarding school, but Wendy Darling just wants things to stay the same. As if seemingly drawn to her thoughts, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony, in his film debut) and tiny hyperactive fairy Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi, from Black-ish) barge into the Darling home one night. Tinker Bell sprinkles pixie dust on Wendy and her two younger brothers, John and Michael (Joshua Pickering and Jacobi Jupe, respectively), before Peter whisks them all away to Neverland.

The magical world is weirdly barren—save for some rocks and water, a bunch of lost kids and warrior princess Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk, from Rehab), and a cartoonish long-haired Captain Hook (Jude Law) and his posse of pirates. There’s almost zero world-building in Peter Pan & Wendy, to the point that it feels like Neverland is just… empty. Like were it not for the kids and the pirates, it would just be Tiger Lily and her tiny village.

The primary cast isn’t served much better. Tinker Bell is less a character and more a plot mechanic—she assists those in need and that’s it. And she doesn’t even get a thanks. It doesn’t help that she can’t (audibly) talk, because reasons. The only job for the younger Darling kids is to get kidnapped over and over. Peter’s shadow is almost an afterthought. There are obvious parallels between him and Wendy, but the new Disney film doesn’t know how to deepen those. Its best idea is to get one character to repeatedly push the other to unearth his backstory. A literal tell-over-show—no thanks.

Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell in Peter Pan & Wendy
Yara Shahidi as Tinker Bell in Peter Pan & Wendy // Photo: Disney

Peter Pan & Wendy was crying out for more

At the heart of it, the story of Peter and Wendy has always been about growing up. I mean, it’s literally in the title of the original 1904 play: “the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”. Peter, who can’t remember his parents, is stuck in a way. “Nothing changes in Neverland, least of all me,” he says in Peter Pan & Wendy. He’s content with how things are and has no desire for evolution, let alone change. And through Peter’s story, Wendy—who begins the film not wanting to grow up and go to boarding school—discovers why it’s important to grow up. But there isn’t much characterisation going on in Lowery’s take on the story.

Incidentally, the villain is the one who’s developed the most—the one who gets the deepest arc of all. Law does his best to lean into it, but the script can only take him so far. For a tale that’s been adapted into film half a dozen times (and scores more on stage), Peter Pan & Wendy was crying out for an infusion of Lowery’s Green Knight magic. Unfortunately, he’s delivered a less-than-serviceable remake that’s both undercooked and repetitive at the same time. As the Jolly Roger—Hook’s ship—flies into the distance at the end, we’re left with a hint at a sequel, as Tiger Lily says: “Goodbye, I’ll see you again someday.” I really hope not.

Peter Pan & Wendy is out April 28 on Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar wherever available.

Akhil Arora

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