Can the director be overqualified for the work? If David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon (2016) were a prove it proposition — prove that you can make original the old Disney chestnut — then what is David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy, the director’s acumen and ability at making this sort of thing already proven out and now, coming out at a time where the rag has been fully wrung out on this type of storytelling at the movies? Having already succeeded and gone on to make much better movies and now coming back to the same work, but now only for the streaming service, Peter Pan & Wendy is another strange feather in the cap of a director who takes just as seriously his commercial work as his original films. The total result is another Disney remake that feels crafted and directed, with humanity in its choices, in the casting, and movement in its camera. The truth isn’t that David Lowery is overqualified, but that he is uniquely qualified, and will do any work to the best of his ability.
What baggage does Peter Pan, as a story and cultural touchstone, carry into the new film? In a way, the project feels like it’s shaking the loose associations off of the story. Disney had to make their own remake because Benh Zeitlin made Wendy (2020) and it was good but underseen, and Disney has to produce a film if it seems like others are shaping the narratives of the films that are identifiable with them, a pattern you will especially see as some of their IPs age out of copyright protections if Disney lets that happen to begin with. It ends up being a funny thing, Disney’s control of properties that belong to the public. They have to make the movie because when someone makes Wendy that is a signal someone else might take another run at it and they have a vested interest in their theme parks, keeping these associations up-to-date. There are, of course, other unfortunate associations with Peter Pan, with the original author and his relationship with children, with Michael Jackson and his relationship with children, and the disclaimer Disney has to run their original 1953 movie with on their streaming service. A lot of baggage. We can see Peter Pan & Wendy, then, as a clean-up job.
David Lowery’s directorial/janitorial duties, then, are about creating a clean-cut Peter Pan that is admissible to a more critically-focused modern audience, who is appropriately focused on rights and representation. We have gotten used to, in the modern age of Disney, each new film being paraded out as a kind of technical representative ‘first’. They have made ten movies that are the first queer character in this-or-that situation, usually barely parsed out in the text, or simply done in casting folks who have historically been left out of their movies. A really beautiful choice is made in Peter Pan & Wendy, as Noah Matthews Matofsky is the very first actor in a Disney production with Down’s Syndrome, a first that I believe is truly meaningful and feels equally beautiful in how the character is centered among the Lost Boys in the film.
This an important choice to lead with because it informs, or is informed by, the other good choices in the film. Cleaned up is the racist characterization of the first film. Now we have honorary cultural representations in their place. Made better and less creepy, is the film’s relationship and the total statement about growing up and the arc of the characters, with how they face their own adolescence and the coming-of-age experience that allows for their growth. It’s handled cutely and competently here. No notes about another possible approach, because this film is the right way to go with it. The choice of Ever Anderson (daughter of Milla Jojovich & Paul W.S. Anderson), is also the right new direction, recentering the story as a story about Peter Pan and Wendy as a partnership, now reflecting the title of the novel J.M Barrie adapted from his stage play, Peter Pan & Wendy (1911). Jude Law’s Captain Hook is also nicely performed, not as campy as Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in Hook (1991), but we’re all having just the right amount of fun with the characters now. Most importantly, everyone here belongs to the same movie and there aren’t any absurdly silly or badly fitting choices about how to change the story, which is not always true of these adaptations, so throw the new film on at ease and turn the lights out, it’s less dangerous.
David Lowery’s choices are abruptly felt. The camera swims through the opening scenes, quite impressively, existing as though it were a floating fairy within the film’s imagined space. It spins and turns, never disorienting, always appropriately blocked. It feels, almost, like it would be the camera of a horror movie if the new film were not built out of Magical Realist blocks. The combined effect is aesthetically tangible. There is just enough magic here. Tinker Bell doesn’t glow, because David Lowery says “how would she glow,” and you begin to realize he has thoughtfully made a lot of these small changes which produce a new sensibility for how worldbuilding works. The place of the songs, while still present in the material, seems to better fit their sequences, and is most emphasized in the sea shanties of Captain Hook’s crew. It all works and provokes a feeling with a sense of space and place for Neverland, which, while not ephemeral, begins to feel like a real Limbo-like space where Pirates live forever and insist only on adulthood, while the children may never age.
The movement through the sequences you remember is fluid and feels true to the original story. The more cartoony sequences are rendered with a certain new weight which, in this critic’s mind, helps land the material better than even the floaty original animation. It feels like an ensemble job for the children, who work under such caring and tender direction, that they all seem to outperform those original voice actors and drawn concepts. It’s all-in-all a better time, properly adjusted for a new generation of fans, and more possible to reengage with, with fewer of the same social consequences.
Some regular problems with these Disney remakes almost sinks the ship. The problems are the same problems. Unnecessary origin stories are added — did you know Captain Hook was once one of the Lost Boys, till he was kicked out? You probably don’t want to know more, but you will. The film, while it moves well this time, is so darkly-lit, like so many of these are, besides a few sprawling outdoor shots — queue Kevin Feige proclaiming David Lowery shoots with a camera not as a specific choice but an overall style! Then there’s that last factor, where we already have the story conveyed here. Sure, the story is compromised in its original format, but here, it’s just the same overall film with those parts cut out, and what is that really? It’s just another one of these movies but with a little foresight and clear planning, lands just on the brighter side of these possible outcomes.
There is no shame in a director working. David Lowery, it turns out, is not overqualified, but is perhaps one of the few directors who has proven the unique qualifications to match, and in both cases thus far, exceed the magic of his original stories. Because it’s a remake of a film some people hold onto maybe too dearly, there will be other outcomes here. Some people just want that old animated film they’ve always had. They’ll be wrong but that is okay for them. For the rest of us, we now have a Peter Pan we can believe in.