Nestled in David Lowery’s filmography, between his Badlands-indebted Sundance breakthrough Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and his quietly shattering journey across the eons, A Ghost Story, is what at first glance is a curious outlier: 2016’s Pete’s Dragon. A loose remake of one of Walt Disney’s less remembered forays into integrating live-action with animation, Lowery parted ways with contemporaries like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book — which prioritized CGI garishness and slavish fidelity, respectively — to make something almost revolutionary. Tossing aside everything but the skeleton of the premise, Lowery refashioned the story as a comparatively modest, understated fable of an orphan, abandoned by tragedy, raised in the wild by a giant furry dragon until such a time that the outside world encroached upon their paradise. Taking its inspiration from the doomed-to-be-fleeting bond between a boy and his dog, the film is awash in natural beauty, understated ‘70s production value, a smartly curated soundtrack expansive enough to showcase both Leonard Cohen and St. Vincent, and a Spielbergian mix of high adventure and the first blush of melancholy. It’s also one of the single best arguments in favor of a hotshot indie filmmaker taking a corporation’s money to play in a larger sandbox.
All of which is to say that if anyone’s earned the benefit of the doubt in returning to this particular well, it’s Lowery. And return he has with Peter Pan & Wendy, which somewhat predictably doesn’t afford the same amount of latitude in reinventing the 1953 animated classic to fit the filmmaker’s sensibilities. For better or worse, this remains the story of Peter whisking away the three Darling siblings — although true to the title, eldest child Wendy has been elevated to a true co-lead — to the fantastical playground of Neverland, where they’re joined by Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys, and Tiger Lily in facing off against the obsessed/incensed Captain Hook and his band of pirates. Even the crocodile makes a brief appearance. Boldly re-conceiving this particular story for contemporary audiences is practically a siren’s call for ambitious filmmakers, which in the past few decades has led to the aforementioned Spielberg, Joe Wright, and Benh Zeitlin all but crashing upon the rocks with their own updates. It’s somewhat understandable why Lowery might have chosen to play things so safe in his turn at bat, but the results are slightly underwhelming all the same.
Taking most of its inspiration from merely acknowledging how mortifyingly reactionary the 1953 film must appear to modern viewers, most of Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks contributions can be filed under best practices simply for avoiding a round of problematic discourse (although the crowd that’s super upset about a Black Little Mermaid is yet to be heard from). Alexander Molony, the young actor who plays Peter, has a notably dark complexion, Tinker Bell is played by the multiracial actress Yara Shahidi, and the Lost Boys feature several actors of color in addition to a handful of girls and even an actor with Down syndrome. Princess Tiger Lily, a sore spot as recently as eight years ago when Rooney Mara appeared in the role, is played by Indigenous actress Alyssa Wapanatâhk and is as far from a mute damsel in distress as one can get, with the film flipping the dynamic so that she’s the one riding in heroically to rescue Peter. Beyond the diversity in the casting, the film has also done away with all of the casual misogyny of the original, which is every bit as uncomfortable to sit through as its racism. (If you haven’t seen the cartoon in a while, it’s fair to bet you don’t remember how much of the action is driven by every woman being jealous of one another or, for that matter, there being multiple gags related to the size of Tinker Bell’s backside.) Ever Anderson’s Wendy is no longer a coquettish accessory who longs for more days spent living out of the nursery with her younger brothers and eyeing every other female character suspiciously as competition for Peter’s affections. Instead, the character now bristles at her surrogate mother role, cleverly evades giving Peter a kiss, and fully throws herself into the scrum, wielding a cutlass and engaging in as much derring-do as the boys.
The most notable change here is in the dynamic between Peter and Hook (Jude Law), with the film devising a fraught backstory for the famed villain, painting him as the aggrieved party in a feud that extends far beyond the captain’s hand being fed to a crocodile. Law plays the famously cowardly and foppish Hook as a tragic figure, fueled as much by rejection by a former friend as resentment over a missing appendage. This also coincides with the decision to emphasize Peter’s capriciousness and impertinence; his tendency to lash out and hold his friends emotionally hostage. It furthers a recent Disney trend of humanizing its antagonists (see also: Maleficent, Cruella) as wronged or misunderstood outsiders, and it’s to Law’s credit that he’s able to build his performance on top of a foundation of resentment and longing for everything that’s been taken from him while still giving a good snarl and contemptible line readings.
However, one can appreciate Lowery’s sensitive handling of problematic material while still finding the overall results wanting. Returning almost the entire production team behind Pete’s Dragon, Peter Pan & Wendy is by comparison quite muddy-looking in its interior scenes and washed-out and flat in its exteriors, with much of the action set against what looks like digital barf. Minimal effort seems to have been made to recreate the hand-painted cel animation aesthetics of the animated version, with dreary minimalism and muted colors having overtaken Neverland. There’s also a weightlessness to the FX work — not ideal in something that features this much flying — and a plodding, going-through-the-motions quality to the film on the whole, particularly in its first half which is marred by a dogged faithfulness to the original text. And the result of sanding off most of the cultural insensitivity is an absence of actual tension: there are no suspicious Lost Boys or Indigenous tribes to win over, nor is there any Tinker Bell-inspired mayhem (Shahidi is mostly forced to smile and silently mouth encouraging dialogue in close-up, with the character rewritten to be a consummate ally). Most frustrating of all is how diminished Lowery’s voice is in the film, demonstrating little of the tactile production design, obsession with the natural world, or temporal playfulness that defines his best work — the closest the film comes are a couple of brief interludes that posit, in rapid succession, what Wendy’s entire life might look like. Even the Daniel Hart score is blandly forgettable, other than when it strains to incorporate “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!” If Pete’s Dragon felt like a young filmmaker sneaking something personal and idiosyncratic onto the assembly line, Peter Pan & Wendy unmistakably feels like corporate product — something inoffensive enough to appeal to small children and Disney board members alike.
You can currently stream Peter Pan & Wendy on Disney Plus.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 17.