Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Movie Review: Peter Pan & Wendy

I'm not entirely sure whether calling David Lowery's divisive new take on Peter Pan a remake is entirely accurate. Scenes and aspects are inspired by the 1953 animated film - they mimicked some of the flying sequences, for example - but setting aside superficial similarities, this is no closer to the story in that movie than it is to most of the other scores of live-action Pan films. The plot and characters have been overhauled, the source material revisited, and the result really is its own creation.

On its own, this isn't entirely surprising. The Disney "remakes" all exist on a spectrum between straight forward recreations and complete reimaginings. Or, to put it another way, you've got Beauty and the Beast and Lion King on one end and, Maleficent and Cruella on the other. Neither philosophy necessarily results in good or bad movies, though I tend to find the more extreme reworkings more interesting, regardless of quality. But while Dumbo and Jungle Book are both new stories, one is far, far better than the other (I trust I don't need to specify which is which).

So the real question you're probably asking is where this falls on that spectrum: is it good or not? And the answer you'll get there depends on who you ask. I dropped the adjective "divisive" in the opening sentence for a reason - Peter Pan & Wendy seems to be eliciting a wide range of opinions.

For what it's worth, I loved it, for a host of reasons I'll get to in a moment. That said, this is also a case where I understand where the other side's coming from. At times, Peter Pan & Wendy feels like a movie that made simultaneously by a fantastic director and a committee of executives, with the former managing character moments and the latter ensuring a quota of reference shots and generic kid's fantasy adventure sequences made it into the finished product.

I have no idea whether that's what occurred here, but it wouldn't at all surprise me. There's a notable shift in tone and quality between, say, the generic London flight sequence lazily failing to recreate the feel of the animated film, and complex relationships and themes explored throughout. I found it pretty easy to ignore the former in this case and enjoy the latter on its own terms, but I can absolutely imagine having a different reaction. Particularly because a great deal of my affection for this traces back to the source material.

Not the animated movie - honestly, Peter Pan ranks pretty close to my least favorite of the Disney classics. And not the 1904 play, either: according to the credits, this was instead inspired by Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie's 1911 novelization of that play. And I've got some strong feelings about that book, in no small part because it was hugely influential on me while writing my first novel.

While there are no shortage of live-action adaptations that play with dark ideas, most frame Peter heroically and use either the antagonists or setting to push things darker. But that's not at all how the book works (or the original play, if memory serves, though good luck finding a staging that doesn't water it down for young audiences). While we're of course encouraged to root for the boy who never grows up, he's ultimately as much a monster as Hook, if not more so. To a degree, all the kids are, which is ultimately the point. Children can be exceedingly cruel, so the primal manifestation of childhood would be unimaginably so.

The brilliance of the novel is how differently it will be interpreted by kids and adults. To a young audience, the adventure shines through, while the darkness plays as comedy. But as a grown-up you'll relate to the Darling parents and - to a limited degree - even with Hook.

David Lowery's adaptation doesn't go this far, of course. Barrie was willing to pen an epilogue in which Peter effectively abandons Wendy as she ages and has forgotten the long dead Tinker Bell, but no one is going to make a big-budget kid's movie with that kind of ending, least of all Disney. Instead, Lowery draws inspiration from this version of Pan, as well as a few lines making Hook into more than a generic villain. James Hook is a pitiful, aging man, alone and desperate for emotional connection.

From that, Lowery builds a new story seemingly aware of its state as one of an endless number of adaptations. The fourth wall isn't broken, but it's certainly prodded on more than one occasion, such as when the audience is all but dared to object to the (wise) decision to include girls among the lost boys' ranks. Likewise, the story consistently tries to invert sexist and racist elements within Barrie's work. I'm not at all qualified to state whether these attempts are sufficient, but I can say from a story and thematic standpoint, I found them satisfying. 

But the real payoff here is within the character relationships. I don't love the choice to revamp Hook's origin here, but I found the payoffs effective, and I do love the way this plays into some of the aforementioned aspects of Pan's character from the book. This isn't that Pan, and his arc certainly isn't the same, but I think the ideas are rooted in the source material enough to make for a compelling direction for an adaptation.

Again, this is far from a perfect film. The effects are hit-or-miss (though the pirate ship sequence at the end looked great), the color palette is far too dark, and we really didn't need that last shot (God forbid one of these ends on even a hint of tragedy, I suppose). But despite the flaws, this one really worked for me. The characters had depth, the story recontextualized the origin in fascinating ways, and the performances were all fantastic. The casting on the kids was particularly good.

For the record, that's enough to cement this as my favorite movie adaptation of Peter Pan. Honestly, that's not the highest bar to clear - again, I don't think much of the Disney classic, and I really haven't liked the other two big-budget live-action attempts - but I really did enjoy this. Just know your mileage may vary.