New live-action Peter Pan & Wendy charms with just the right amount of fairy dust
The tale of Peter Pan has been told and retold so many times in multiple forms, whether it’s in books, theater, TV, or movies, that it is one of the most familiar in all of storytelling. In addition to the classic 1953 Disney animated film, there have been numerous live action adaptations, although – until now – not one done by Disney itself.
That changes with Peter Pan & Wendy, making its debut on Disney+, a film that uses the familiar to expand the story in a host of ways. As the film begins, Wendy (Ever Anderson) is getting ready to go off to boarding school, pretend playing what she and her brothers, John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe), believe is the fictional story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Their minds are blown when not only do Tinker Bell (Yara Shahadi) and Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) actually show up, but then also whisk them away to Neverland.
Once there, they encounter Captain Hook (Jude Law), Smee (Jim Gaffigan), and their crew of pirates; a diverse group of Lost Boys (and girls); and Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk), an indigenous girl who often comes to the aid of Peter and the Lost Boys. All involved go through a series of adventures in Neverland, with more than a few surprises along the way.
Written and directed by David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon), with help from co-writer Toby Halbrooks, the film touches on many of the recognizable elements of the original animated film, but does so in a way where the reverence is not the point. Lowery and his team insert details like John’s ever-present top hat, a hint of the music from “You Can Fly…” when Wendy flies for the first time, and the gigantic crocodile that torments Captain Hook, but each of these and more serve only as reminders what’s been seen before instead of being the focus of the film.
What truly makes the film sing is letting Wendy take the lead. No shrinking violet who’s merely in awe of Peter Pan and everything in Neverland, this Wendy challenges the cocky Peter and has a maturity that allows her to be both in control at almost all times and empathetic to everyone around her. In a similar vein, Tiger Lily goes from a non-speaking role to a strong character who speaks in Wapanatâhk’s native Cree language and plays the hero more than once. Giving Wendy and Tiger Lily more to do makes the story even more adventurous than it already was.
The film as a whole is remarkably inclusive, but done in such a way that feels completely natural. As mentioned, the Lost Boys also includes a few girls, as well as a boy with Down syndrome, but each of them is highlighted without making a big deal of their presence, making them simply part of the group. The pirate crew, while mostly anonymous, also has a nice multicultural blend to it.
Lowery also makes a point to go beyond the “good/bad” dynamic between Peter and Hook. They are antagonistic toward each other, to be sure, but their relationship is given a backstory that not only explains their enmity, but also gives it an unexpectedly emotional bent. Lowery plays both sides of the fence well, delivering the fun of Peter and Hook facing off while also allowing both characters to be three-dimensional characters.
The way Anderson commands the film, they probably should have named it Wendy & Peter Pan. The young actor announces herself in a big way here, and should she want it, you’re likely to see much more of her in the coming years. Molony is a serviceable Pan, although he’s not quite as dynamic as previous actors in the role. Law makes for an outstanding Hook, especially given the new demands on the performance. And Wapanatâhk does a lot with a relatively small amount of screen time.
Given the proliferation of Peter Pan adaptations through the years, you may not think you need to see another version. However, Peter Pan & Wendy bucks the trend of bad live action updates of Disney’s animated films, sprinkling just the right amount of fairy dust on the story to make it feel new again.
Peter Pan & Wendy is now streaming on Disney+.