“Peter Pan & Wendy” is a Bit Too Grown Up


Though it seems the same on the surface beyond its live-action status, “Peter Pan & Wendy” is largely lacking in the Disney magic that made the original film so great.

A bold young heroine. A dastardly pirate. A boy who refuses to grow up. All the makings of a classic adventure story tied up with a magical bow– Disney had their work cut out for them with the new live-action remake of their 1953 adaptation of “Peter Pan.”

The original was a smashing success, soaring into the company’s classics catalog with ease and establishing an infamous spunky fairy as the conglomerate’s secondary calling card. With all the building blocks of a family hit—not to mention a handy grasp of modern sensitivities—Disney+’s “Peter Pan & Wendy” should have been a shoo-in for success. But in the way of most live-action remakes, it misses the mark.

The film takes its name from J.M. Barrie’s novelization of his initial play, and perhaps fittingly has more in common plot-wise with this source material than the Disney film it is supposedly based on. This in and of itself didn’t drag the adaptation down, but it does speak to a larger problem: “Peter Pan & Wendy” is largely lacking in Disney magic.

Director David Lowery received well-earned praise for his 2016 remake of Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” but has carried over too little of its ingenuity and too much of its washed-out color scheme (dramatic and lovely for a film set in the Pacific Northwest, but underwhelming for one set on a magical island bursting at the seams with imagination). With that said, there are seeds of a good story here—Lowery, who also co-wrote the screenplay, chose to center his remake on the titular Wendy and her reluctance to leave childhood. He crafts an origin story for Peter and Hook (one that would have served the film better had it actually been explored in any real depth) and puts in more work toward turning his youthful protagonist into an actual character with an arc. But every direction the story turns, it comes up short.

The film runs at a mere hour and a half, a rarity for live-action flicks today, and has an established beginning and (very long) ending but comparatively little middle. It could have benefited from a bit more screen time to explore the characters Lowery started fleshing out, but ended up leaving rather limp. Tiger Lily, for example, is thankfully played by Cree actor Alyssa Wapanatâhk, who reportedly worked with the creative team to bring her own culture to the film and speaks Cree many times onscreen. In this new story, she acts as an older (and far wiser) sister to Peter and company, a welcome change from the character’s uncomfortably subservient nature in Disney’s original. I gladly would have watched this story unfold from her perspective, or at least a few more precious minutes of her onscreen.

Other changes from the source material include iconic lines being given to different characters, the combination of plot points and a good bit of action is skipped altogether. Like many Disney remakes, this seems to be “Peter Pan” from a feminist’s perspective, but the company has yet to figure out what that actually means– I dearly hope removing Tinker Bell’s spunk (and with it, any hope of real characterization) was not a misguided attempt to avoid portraying female characters at odds. Even Wendy has suffered and seems to have merely traded her purity for petulance.

“Peter Pan & Wendy” is beautifully shot and surprisingly artistic at times—if we are willing to overlook its strangely lackluster color palette—and has a few nice nods to Disney’s original. The score is a standout as well, including a couple of surprisingly catchy sea shanties. But in the end, the film is just not very fun. 

This lack might make sense if Disney was aiming for a more sophisticated, high-brow adaptation targeted at adults who like to think philosophically about their childhood nostalgia, but that’s just not how the film was marketed. This is one of the most iconic children’s stories of all time, and it’s incredibly hard to tell whether the film is actually meant for that age bracket.

At its core, “Peter Pan” is about the wild joy of childhood and, yes, its inevitable end, but what a gloriously carefree adventure it is to see the world through a child’s eyes. In “Peter Pan & Wendy,” however, there are very few happy thoughts to be found.