Lowery’s Earthy Peter Pan & Wendy Shines

Photo courtesy of Disney

Thanks to its period setting, David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy taps into a lost art of childhood that has diminished in the last few decades. The film opens with an extended scene of make-believe play. John and Michael Darling, the younger brothers of our heroine Wendy, have wooden sword props and wear makeshift costumes as they pretend to act out the battles of Peter Pan and Captain Hook across their well-to-do house. By the end of their frolicking melee playing out the movie’s story-within-the-story framework setup, a mirror is broken and a father admonishes the eldest daughter from still continuing in such childish pursuits.

That’s a quick moment of disappointment for Wendy facing a coming-of-age. Long before video games, devices, and other entertainment sources, make-believe play continued after the toddler years, only with more sophistication. Not only were social skills developed during make-believe play but one’s rich imagination and capacity for creative thinking. That’s the splendid key. A boundless imagination could turn the simplest surroundings into something grand and meaningful, no matter your age.

Peter Pan stands at a window with a sword.
Photo courtesy of Disney

In 2023, we’ve reached a generation where most tweens and teens have forgotten how a wardrobe closet or a swinging rope can take someone to Narnia or Terabithia. A random stick or empty wrapping paper tube used to vanquish pirates, soldiers, or dark figures from a galaxy far, far away. The one semi-underground crowd still tapping into a version of make-believe play far into adulthood are the friends who bring together a few manuals, scripted modules, dice, and character creation steps for Dungeons & Dragons. How often are they called weirdos while the rest are picking up their phones or a game controller to find adventure someplace else?

Bless his heart, David Lowery has not forgotten the sensation and formative power found in the analog brands of fantasy. Constructed with earthy textures, Peter Pan & Wendy is a glorious realization and extension of make-believe play that welcomes an old-fashioned conscience. Lowery, in his second foray with Disney after his phenomenal Pete Dragon from 2015, brandishes his own creative streak with a divergent freedom and zero shame for doing so.

A fairy blows pixie dust in Peter Pan & Wendy
Photo courtesy of Disney

Stay on that notion of make-believe play and Lowery’s earthy textures and ask yourself what a Peter Pan would look like in this creator’s headspace and hands. After all, this is the man who twisted cinephile minds with A Ghost Story and The Green Knight. If you pictured tangible rawness blended with idyllic sumptuousness made for a wider demographic, you guessed correctly. Lowery surrounded himself with equally naturalistic talents to build this fully realized bedtime story. The result is a fairy tale that could not only live and breathe in one’s exotic imagination but in our own conceivable backyards.

The Green Knight production designer Jade Healy, Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy costume designer, and first-time set decoration head Zoe Jirik chose an array of greenery and forestry in their craft work that scuff and smudge the usual Disney palette of chromatic polish. Shot on the expansive and rugged coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador secured by The Art of Racing in the Rain location manager Dan Kuzmenko, Pete’s Dragon director of photography Bojan Bazelli dives amid the pristine Canadian sunshine to light his subjects and surfaces with genuine vibrancy instead of the studio’s artificially bedazzled sparkle.

A girl sets her hands to steer a ship.
Photo courtesy of Disney

Well-rooted in J.M. Barrie original work, the theme of facing maturity is front and center in Peter Pan & Wendy. Right after Wendy is lightly scolded by her father George (Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) for her part in the bedtime chicanery, her mother Mary (Molly Parker of Lost in Space and Deadwood) pulls her aside to assure Wendy (Ever Anderson from Black Widow) that a new adventure awaits in growing up. Wendy doesn’t want to hear it, but Mary beautifully says, “Imagine the things you would miss out on if you didn’t see where it took you and what the world would miss if you didn’t do them.” That’s terrific parental support and an anchor planted before the movie ever takes off for the second star to the right.

As we all know through the many incarnations of Barrie’s story over the century, Lesson #2 goes against the spunky vitality of Peter Pan, played here by Alexander Molony in his film debut. He has found a magical place where he doesn’t have to age. In Neverland, Peter rules the roost with the loyal fairy Tinker Bell (Black-ish cast member Yara Shahidi), a territorial kinship with Tiger Lily (striking newcomer Alyssa Wapanatahk), and a band of Lost Boys at his side. For all that, he remains locked in conflict with his mortal enemy Captain James Hook, played by the top-lining Jude Law, flanked by his first-mate stooge Smee (comedian Jim Gaffigan) and a bevy of rough-and-tumble blokes.

A boat captain with a hook for a hand stares and scowls.
Photo courtesy of Disney

Where David Lowery and his co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks bend the old Peter Pan yarn is through a deepened connection between the “proud, insolent youth” and the “sad, sinister man” pitted against him. Far beyond the animated classic from 1953, this new film enlivens a backstory of destiny and strain between James and Peter, staging them as former friends where one left Neverland after missing his mother and returned jaded and bitter for the youth he gave up. Jude Law adds excellent heft conveying painful regret to the central villain’s role that is normally played as a gaudy, raving lunatic.

The second narrative boost woven by Halbrooks and Lowery is one of welcome female empowerment. More true to Barrie, the Wendy character in Peter Pan & Wendy is recruited to be a mother-figure but eschews it after a while to be the hero of her own story. Both she and the improved depiction of Tiger Lily present two sources of female leadership never attempted on this scale with the classic fairy tale. They coexist to make Peter Pan himself better rather than the other way around, and the actors express themselves well. Together, Ever Anderson, Alexander Molony, and Alyssa Wapanatahk deserve their springboards to greater opportunities.

A Native American woman smiles and stands next to her horse.
Photo courtesy of Disney

That said, Lowery and Halbrooks wrote on their own whim to condense the original Barrie story and morph the Disney animated edition. Equal to Lesson #3, some modernizing choices are made to change some stakes and whole plot tangents are diverted to other conclusions. Those looking for a ticking crocodile to steal the show will be disappointed. Shahidi’s Tinker Bell takes a bit of a backseat to the enhanced Wendy and Tiger Lily, and the posse of Lost Boys—like a missing Tootles, an important traditional linchpin—could have used some additional identity. This could have easily been two movies or a mini-series on Disney+.

In its own way, Peter Pan & Wendy leans on morose gravitas and skips a little bit of the zip that launches this quest from London to the fantastical beyond. A dose of next-level heart (something from Pete’s Dragon that was equal to the “Pixar Punch”), for better or worse, is missing with its devil-may-care energy. However, what’s here in Lowery’s film is an engaging and mature advancement. For the second time, Lowery seems to be the one hired auteur from Disney that takes the prospect of “re-imagining” seriously to deconstruct and reconstruct big mythos. Frankly, please hire him to be the steward for any and all of these the Mouse House is willing to do.

A pirate ship is flying out of the sea.
Photo courtesy of Disney

Rebounding from the criticism of missing zip, let’s conclude on the reverence of Peter Pan & Wendy that still has the ability to stir the mind and heart of the viewer. As generations have seen for a long time, when doused with pixie dust and focused on happy thoughts, a companion of our swashbuckling boy can leave their feet and fly. In those moments, those stirred in the audience will close their eyes and consider what personal memories, motivations, and feelings would lift them off the ground.

With mere seconds of flashed images and events, Lowery sweeps us away and gives us glimpses at what those happy thoughts are for Wendy. Closing her eyes and concentrating at a crucial moment at the climax, her happy thoughts go a different direction of time than one would expect, creating a full circle moment to Mary Darling’s words to her daughter. Watchers of Peter Pan & Wendy might just be feeling the same flash-forward beyond their own bounds of adulthood or youth. It’s gentle touches like that which make what Lowery is doing special.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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