Director David Lowery Plays It Too Safe newsusface

Just as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan remains perpetually youthful, so too does the procession of stage and screen adaptations of his tale never end—case in point being, most recently, Joe Wright’s Pan (2015) and Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy (2020). Now add to that ceaseless parade Peter Pan & Wendy, director David Lowery’s second live-action Disney re-do following 2016’s Pete’s Dragon, which by and large hews closely to its source material. Infused with bounding energy but little meaningful invention, it climbs to only modest heights, weighed down by its inability to add much to the iconic legend.

Based on both Barrie’s novel and the animated 1953 film, Peter Pan & Wendy (streaming April 28 on Disney+) is, in many respects, not very different from Disney’s other do-overs, tracing the lines of its ancestors in ways that are faithful, if not particularly interesting. It begins in London in the home of George (Alan Tudyk) and Mary Darling (Molly Parker), whose hallways and rooms resound with the sound of children—in particular, John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe), who are pretending to be Peter Pan and Captain Hook engaged in a titanic sword fight.

Lowery’s camera sprints and glides alongside them, up steep staircases and onto beds where they leap and laugh with uninhibited excitement. From the get-go, the action’s spirit is adolescent and dynamic, and it’s only offset by the unhappiness of the boys’ older sister Wendy (Ever Anderson), who’s presently lamenting her impending departure to boarding school, where she’ll follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Faced with this momentous turning point, Wendy pouts, “Perhaps I don’t want to grow up,” and those words prove to be magic, summoning spritely Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi)—whose voice is so soft that it can only be heard by those who listen very closely—and her right-hand man, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony). Peter’s arrival is a shock to the Darling children, since they believed him to be a bedtime story rather than a real boy. “Why can’t I be both?” he smartly remarks, and Peter & Wendy thus sets itself a challenge to make the indefatigably immature hero both the stuff of myth and an easily relatable flesh-and-blood individual.

It’s a trick tried many times before, and courtesy of newcomer Molony, it’s one that the film proficiently pulls off, depicting its protagonist in his trademark high-flying, mischievous form and yet also trying to dig deep—or, at least, a teeny bit deeper than usual—into the wounds that compelled him to eschew adulthood at all costs.

Courtesy of happy thoughts and some Tinker Bell fairy dust, Wendy, John and Michael are soon airborne with Peter on their way to Neverland, where Peter is engaged in an everlasting battle against the dastardly Captain Hook (Jude Law) and his band of colorful pirates.

Peter Pan & Wendy differentiates its villain from his predecessors by giving him long slicked-back hair and a scruffy beard to go with his giant mustache, as well as a somewhat tattered costume that looks like it’s been through a few wars without being properly cleaned. Law snarls and bellows with panache, all while imbuing Hook with an aggrieved heart due to the fact that—as the film eventually reveals—he was once Peter’s best mate, only to be rejected by his friend when he began to miss his mom and went in search of her, returning a despondent (and, to Peter’s mind, “evil”) adult.

Lowery and Toby Halbrooks’ script weaves Peter and Hook closely together as kindred souls trapped in an eternal struggle by their longing and fear for home, for mother, and for companionship. That twist gives Peter & Wendy a dash of distinctive personality, as do a couple of faint feminist flourishes designed to empower Wendy.

Yet for the most part, the film doesn’t fiddle too much with its beloved tale. Wendy, John, and Michael meet the Lost Boys. Peter spars with Hook. Hook rails at his goofy sidekick Mr. Smee (a pitch-perfect Jim Gaffigan) and screams about his hatred of clocks. Kids are kidnapped. Ships take flight. And Peter quips away with a playful arrogance that’s meant to delight young audiences as much as it infuriates his one-handed adversary.

Save for Daniel Hart’s score temporarily aping John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme, Peter & Wendy doesn’t make a major misstep along its journey. Nor, however, does it do much to profoundly justify its own existence. During its climax, a few self-conscious touches creep into the proceedings: Peter’s announcement that he and Hook are fighting “one last time” is delivered with a wink; one pirate goes to take a nap, telling others to wake him if one of the two finally defeats the other. Like its prior nods to the role of storytelling in Peter’s saga, though, the film only flirts with grander ideas; in most crucial respects, it’s content to be the same old thing in newer, fancier CGI threads.

If more of a rehash than a reinvention, Peter Pan & Wendy benefits from Lowery’s expert stewardship. There’s are traces of his prior work in various aspects of his sophomore Disney outing: his low-angled compositions, and Neverland’s natural splendor, recall the Malickian beauty of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; images of light shining through the forest evoke Pete’s Dragon; and the mossy, ancient ruins in which Peter and the Lost Boys dwell boast a fabled The Green Knight-esque splendor.

Even better, Lowery and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli’s camerawork is electric, soaring, twirling, swooping, tilting, and rotating with fitting rambunctiousness. From POV shots of cannonballs and arrows sailing through the air, to an amusing chase between Peter and his disobedient shadow, Lowery captures the madcap temperament of this time-honored adventure.

All the aesthetic wondrousness in the world, however, can’t elevate Peter Pan & Wendy above being an accomplished pantomime. Disney’s desire to endlessly mine its popular properties for profit is wedded to a belief that remakes are most likely to succeed if they’re safe and comforting replicas. There’s no arguing that the results indicate as much, at least in terms of bottom-line evaluations. Still, such an approach often renders them creatively pointless endeavors destined to be also-rans to their illustrious forefathers. Despite its charm and polish, Lowery’s latest appears headed for that same fate.

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