THE STORY – Wendy Darling, a young girl looking to avoid boarding school, meets Peter Pan, a boy who refuses to grow up. Wendy, her brothers, and Tinker Bell travel with Peter to the magical world of Neverland, where she encounters an evil pirate captain.
THE CAST – Jude Law, Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, Yara Shahidi, Alyssa Wapanatâhk, Joshua Pickering, Jacobi Jupe, Molly Parker, Alan Tudyk & Jim Gaffigan
THE TEAM – David Lowery (Director/Writer) & Toby Halbrooks (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
It’s hardly a new phenomenon to be given the opportunity to retell a familiar story. Even as the strong sentiment to bemoan the onslaught of remakes puts further strain on the artistic integrity of corporatized filmmaking, the practice itself has been well-established. Tales that may have been delivered in one iteration have many chances to evolve and transform over time, revealing new possibilities and greater thematic depths to mine. That particular ethos may seem a bit elusive, especially with the bombardment of recent films from Disney, as they look back on their old catalog of animated titles and transform them into stale live-action features. It would only make sense that “Peter Pan & Wendy” would do the same for other beloved — or, at least, well-known — characters from the past. Despite glimpses of a more intriguing endeavor, the final results are a banal effort that hardly makes an impact.
Anyone with even the faintest of familiarity with the source material of “Peter Pan and Wendy” will recognize the introduction to this story. Wendy (Ever Anderson) is the eldest sibling to younger brothers John (Joshua Pickering) and Michael (Jacobi Jupe). All are driven by their buoyant imaginations, but Wendy laments the adulthood that is quickly approaching. However, the trio crosses paths with Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), the adventurous boy from their bedtime stories who has never grown up. He whisks them away to the magical realm of Neverland. Awaiting them is the nefarious Captain Hook (Jude Law) and his vendetta against Peter, the child who maimed him. Lost boys, pirate underlings, and a giant crocodile are all present as Peter and his crew must once again fight off treacherous foes.
Despite the lackluster products that this recent trove of films has produced, there was a sense of potential with this film being helmed by David Lowery. While his filmography does not suggest a broadly appealing palette, he is still one of the most interesting and thoughtful filmmakers working today. Not only that, but his previous collaboration with Disney, the massively underrated “Pete’s Dragon,” is a surprisingly endearing and charming venture. Unfortunately, lightning does not strike twice. Lowery may be a massive talent, but his sensibilities feel wasted in a muted landscape with such little personality.
There are occasions in “Peter Pan & Wendy” when a more imaginative style is brought to the surface, but these are rare occurrences in a sluggish enterprise. Even in Lowery’s most somber films, there’s always a sense of whimsy that is so beguiling. Yet, in spite of its setting, the fantasy is perfunctory, weighed down even more by the lifeless action spectacle in mostly cramped quarters. The finale is the closest it comes to ever feeling more entertaining, with a floating ship turning itself upside down midair that is the basis for some inventive staging. However, these are fleeting periods of joy that not even Lowery’s frequent collaborator Daniel Hart can elevate with his score. One desperately wishes Hart indulged less in a generic soundscape and more in bellowing sea shanties.
Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks attempt to include some kind of resonant emotional journey for these characters. It is indeed an unenviable task to find some innovation with arcs that have been portrayed multiple times throughout the many decades. Still, what they ultimately showcase is profoundly mundane, providing only the bare minimum in characterization that hardly forges its own voice. There are a handful of moments in which the tone goes slightly darker; had this been sustained, it would have made for a far more alluring film with a meditative commentary. But, the lessons of grappling with maturity are just as shallow as those of valuing friendship. The fact that it is aimed at a younger audience does not excuse the lackluster storytelling at hand.
Even with an uninspired narrative, the performances don’t do much to rise above such wooden material. Molony may have an effective youthful energy, but his screen presence is rather flat, and the performance just isn’t that captivating. Anderson fares slightly better, but she also inhabits a role that is weakly defined beyond the predictable depictions that came before her. The same goes for Pickering and Jupe to an even greater degree. Law is the only one whose work is actually somewhat impactful, as he is able to capture both the villainous glee as well as and authentic pathos. It’s not a career highlight by any stretch, but the mixture of sadness and menace is finely calibrated. In fact, it’s rather amusing that all the adults in the pirate crew seem to be having more fun reveling in their caricatures than the younger cast members, and they ironically offer the more joyous points of the film.
It’s difficult to say if anyone can ever really be disappointed in something like “Peter Pan & Wendy.” The past films that Disney has churned out have set the bar incredibly low for movies of this ilk. Yet, one could become ever-so-hopeful thanks to a few talented people who have been assembled here. Unfortunately, such talent is completely wasted by individuals who feel bored by their own creations. Very little of what makes Lowery such an inspiring storyteller is felt, with very few exceptions, and the story he crafts is hollow and tedious. The ensemble is not that impressive either, save for Law doing his best to create a somewhat compelling portrait of Captain James Hook. While “Peter Pan & Wendy” may not reach the lowest of depths that these remakes have sunk to recently, it’s a thoroughly monotonous and dreary work that, worst of all, is quite forgettable. If only its predecessors could strive for such achievements.