Peter Pan & Wendy Is Another Lifeless Disney Remake

Even a respected auteur like director David Lowery can’t save Peter Pan & Wendy, yet another bland live-action adaptation of a Disney classic — this time with a dash of 2020s pop feminism.

Ever Anderson as Wendy in Peter Pan & Wendy. (Disney+)

These insipid Disney live-action remakes of their own animated films are now a blight on civilization. Especially considering that Walt Disney himself built his empire by taking bloody-minded old European fairy tales and making them blander and more sanitized for a wimpier generation. People used to complain about how defanged they all were — imagine that! Now old Disney animated classics like PinocchioBambi, Dumbo, and Sleeping Beauty seem daring, almost ferocious. Such tragic sorrows! Such scary villains! So much death and evildoing!

But with the new live-action retreads of recent years, where does that put us on the bland-wimp scale? Off the charts, I’d say.

I thought the latest one turning up on Disney+, Peter Pan & Wendy, might be better than the usual run — after all, the much-respected auteur David Lowery (The Green Knight, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) cowrote and directed this one. And, with Lowery’s touch, it features perhaps a slightly richer color scheme and prettier images overall.

But I should’ve known nobody could take on Disney. (Look out, Ron DeSantis!) Building a monstrous capitalist conglomerate doesn’t make you nice and respectful of individual filmmakers. You work for Disney, so you’ll do it the Disney way.

So Peter Pan & Wendy is a big toothless bore, with gestures toward contemporary mores in the forms of a highly diverse cast plus girls playing Lost Boys. Wendy (Ever Anderson) protests upon meeting them, “But you’re not all boys!” and gets the stroppy answer, “So what?”

And since this is the 2020s, Wendy herself has to be imbued with action-packed girl power and do sword-fighting and rescue the others instead of waiting to be rescued. Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk, a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation) is now treated with what is presumably greater respect as a vaguely Native American character who appears to be a member of some unnamed American Plains tribe, which makes no sense — there’s no dodging the way Scottish-born writer J. M. Barrie treated “Indians” as fantasy figures for British children on a continuum with pirates and mermaids and fairies. Why not cut out Barrie’s Tiger Lily and her tribe altogether, but keep the mermaids, instead of the other way around in this mermaid-free adaptation? Who knows?

Yara Shahidi as Tinkerbell. (Disney+)

Anyway, Tiger Lilly also has to be portrayed as assertive and independent, rescuing Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) instead of the other way around. As for the other major female characters of the triumvirate surrounding Peter, Tinkerbell is played by a black actor (Yara Shahidi of Black-ish and Grown-ish), but more importantly, she’s entirely reconceived as a character. The miniature minx of the Barrie original as well as Disney’s first adaptation, who adores Peter and hates Wendy for usurping Peter’s attentions — even doing her best to murder Wendy as soon as she arrives — is now a sweet, helpful, pathetic little simp who befriends Wendy. Why? Because Wendy realizes that Tinkerbell has been denied her voice. Her voice is so tiny no one can hear it, actually. But Peter asserts that he knows what she’s saying and speaks for her, inaccurately. Only Wendy learns to hear Tinkerbell speak.

Okay, so can we now drop forevermore the whole exhausted she’s-been-denied-her-voice narrative trope in films seeking feminist cred?

It would be nice, too, if this were the last ever attempt to revive old material by doing Psych 101 backstories explaining how well-known characters got to be the way they are. Peter Pan and Captain Hook (Jude Law) are given the most lugubrious intertwined histories possible, because how could we possibly understand why they fight all the time, if we don’t know about their past traumas?

Easy. By imagining vivid characters in all their details and contradictions, and not coming up with pat, reductive explanations for everything they do.

Law, the only name actor in the cast, is talented but too contained to play the flamboyant, slashing Captain Hook, who’s also comically self-pitying, needy, and reliant on his motherly first mate, Smee (Jim Gaffigan). If you recall, Smee’s first duty is to protect the terrified Captain from the endless pursuit of the enormous crocodile that hungers for the Captain after eating Hook’s hand (cut off by Peter Pan in one of their many fights). Luckily the crocodile also swallowed an alarm clock, and the ticking sound always announces his approach. Lowery does almost nothing with that lovely plot detail.

But you know how these kinds of movies go. Endless lesson learning, like the worst of Victorian kids’ literature. Peter has to learn he needs his friends to help him and to apologize when he’s hurt someone. Wendy has to learn that she’s actually ready to grow up and go to boarding school or whatever horrible thing her upper-class Brit parents (played by Molly Parker and Alan Tudyk) have in store for her. Hook has to learn why he hates Peter Pan, even if he can’t ever get past it. Everybody’s learning and affirming and casting loving looks at everyone else all over the Neverland map.

It’s dreary as hell.

Too bad, because there were real possibilities in imagining a new Peter Pan film. In the versions I’ve seen, nobody’s ever really gone for the weirder, creepier, colder-hearted Pan envisioned by Barrie. Here’s a description from his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, which was based on his hit 1904 play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up:

He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees but the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When he saw she was a grownup, he gnashed the little pearls at her.

The famed “androgyny” of the character we know, from the tradition of having slight, diminutive adult female actors such as Maude Adams, Jean Arthur, and Mary Martin play Peter Pan on the stage. But the feral qualities Barrie described, in combination with the physical beauty — the pearly-teeth snarl — never seem to get portrayed. Generally, since the squeaky-clean Disney animated Peter Pan (1953), live-action versions feature an ordinary boy, perhaps with slightly elfin facial features, stuck into a green tunic and green hat with a scarlet feather. The same thing happens in Peter Pan & Wendy.

In these adaptations, Peter is shown to be, at worst, a bit of a jerk. But his real strangeness, the result of his perpetual childhood, living outside of time, is his amnesia and his cold selfishness. Once Wendy leaves Neverland, he forgets her, and of course he repudiates her entirely once she’s a grown-up. When he returns to her house, it’s to take her daughter Jane to Neverland to live with him and the Lost Boys as their temporary “mother.” And then a generation later, he comes to take Jane’s daughter Margaret.

But then, Barrie’s whole attitude toward children was not like ours, and obviously his attitudes toward gender roles are bizarre as hell to us. He wrote, in the final line of the original Peter and Wendy novel describing this cycle:

When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.

Heartless is a word that really stops you, as one that’s never applied to children now. But portraying it in Peter Pan’s case, as part of the essence of childhood, would at least have made for a bold and interesting change. Instead, we get another pointless remake so Disney can grub up a few more bucks repurposing its vast holdings.