Peter Pan & Wendy Review: A Soaring Adventure Filled With Beauty and Imagination

There's a big difference between remaking a movie and retelling a story. With two live-action Disney adaptations now under his belt, it's clear that filmmaker David Lowery has no interest in the former. Rather than take a popular animated movie and give it a "real-life" look for seemingly no reason at all, Lowery wants to retell stories for a new generation of audiences. For years, his 2016 take on Pete's Dragon has stood alone as the best live-action Disney adaptation in the company's catalog. With his new film, Peter Pan & Wendy, Lowery passes the crown to himself, delivering a Disney retelling that soars high above the rest.

Peter Pan & Wendy is based on the original novel by J.M. Barrie, but more directly adapts the classic 1953 Disney animated feature. A young girl named Wendy wants no part of growing up, and eternal boy Peter Pan wants nothing more than to help make that dream a reality. With the help of Tinkerbell, Peter whisks Wendy and her brothers off to a magical place called Neverland, where they're hunted down by the ruthless Captain Hook.

We've seen this story before, but never told with this much whimsy and sincerity. Lowery's ability to retell a story rather than remake a movie is what turns this new adaptation into such a magical adventure. He approaches the film almost as if he's the guardian of the animated movie's story, and he's been tasked with delivering it to an audience that has never heard it. Instead of trying to mine nostalgia from something you have already seen, Peter Pan & Wendy presents the classic tale as if it's being told for the first time. Much of the first act goes beat-for-beat with the animated film, not because it wants to make you nostalgically remember that movie, but rather because those scenes are vital to the story and they were told perfectly the first time. 

It's in the second and third acts that Peter Pan & Wendy starts breaking new ground, yet it never veers far from the heart of the original. While the 1953 Peter Pan remains a beloved and memorable part of Disney's animated catalog, it isn't without some glaring flaws. The racist treatment of Native Americans stands out as the most obvious problem with the film, and it should go without saying that Lowery's new take fixes that issue. 

The original Peter Pan also has a number of problems that aren't related to societal issues. Peter and Tinkerbell are wildly unlikeable characters in that film, and time has not been kind to them. That movie also spends very little time dealing with the actual growth of the characters in its third act, as their minds suddenly change and the credits roll. Peter Pan & Wendy charts a path that addresses these types of issues head-on. Peter has as much of an arc in this film as Wendy does. Tinkerbell is a three-dimensional character that you actually enjoy spending time with (thanks in part to Yara Shahidi's performance). Her complicated relationship with Wendy is less about jealousy and more about two very different people trying to understand each other. 

Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks' script spends a great deal of time on Captain Hook, who remains the best part of either of Disney's Peter Pan movies. His story in Peter Pan & Wendy serves as a wonderful counter to the film's central thesis. Yes, growing up is "the biggest adventure of all," as Wendy tells Peter, but Hook reminds us that we have an obligation to actually take part in the adventure that's handed to us. Getting older is inevitable for each and every one of us, but how we deal with that process is a whole different story. We can get older and still hold on to our imaginations, or we can become curmudgeons that use our own "growth" as an excuse to make things more difficult for the next generation. The character of Hook is written as well as he's ever been, and Jude Law absolutely understood the assignment he was handed when he took on the role. He brings just the right amount of silliness and camp to a character filled with sadness and regret.

In addition to a dynamite script and a wonderful vision for the story, Peter Pan & Wendy is also a beautiful technical achievement. Shot on location, the film is gorgeous through and through, and it plays in stark contrast to the green-screened and heavily CGI-ed messes that most of these new Disney adaptations become. The landscapes of Neverland are stunning, making you feel as if you were also swept away to a perfect world beyond the stars. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular score from Daniel Hart, which is easily one of the most enjoyable original compositions of the year so far.

Peter Pan & Wendy is the best live-action adaptation of a Disney movie we've seen to date, and it's really not all that close. David Lowery's desire to bring the human experience to the forefront of every story he tells is as present here as it is in any of his other films, this one just comes with a gaggle of Lost Boys and a little bit of pixie dust.

Rating: 4 out of 5

(Photo: Disney+)

Peter Pan & Wendy is now available to stream on Disney+.