In the seemingly endless line of live-action remakes of Walt Disney Animated Classics, the older the films tend to have the better movie adaptations.
For one, there’s a lot more separation and nostalgia from 1950s classics than there is for the ’90s installments. But some of the story and character choices that were products of their times, for better or worse, could use an update or at least a new take on the traditional tales, especially “Peter Pan.”
A new interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s initial play and later novel about the boy who wouldn’t grow up tends to pop up every decade, and everyone has their favorites. It’s tough to beat Mary Martin, but many Millennials have a soft spot for Robin Williams in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook.”
Now with Disney’s latest live-action remake, titled “Peter Pan & Wendy” after the novel, the sweet spot between honoring and following the original film while not delivering a shot-for-shot remake is within sight, but not without some choices hindering this version’s success.
The film begins in the Edwardian-era London nursery of Wendy (played by Ever Anderson) and her brothers, John and Michael Darling, who are all visited one night by Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), the real-life embodiment of their mother’s bedtime stories.
With the help of his small fairy friend Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi), Peter takes the three children on a magical flight to Neverland, home to Peter, Tink, the Lost Boys, Princess Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatâhk) and her Native American nation.
Also in Neverland is the scheming Captain Hook (Jude Law), his first mate Mr. Smee (Jim Gaffigan) and a crew of pirates, who are as intent on defeating Peter Pan as Hook is from escaping the tick-tocking crocodile that once ate a hand of his that Peter cut off.
Throughout this adaptation, directed refreshingly by the visionary David Lowery, every positive choice sadly a negative with it. As seen in the opening minutes, a dark, dreary and “realistic” look for a children’s fantasy story is a gamble that doesn’t work here, but using floating CGI camerawork reminiscent of Tinkerbell flying through the Darling home is a unique choice that does work.
Meanwhile, you never know what you’re going to get with child actors, which isn’t anyone’s fault but the director. Kids can either act — like Molony and Anderson’s Peter and Wendy do quite well — or they can’t, which is sadly the case for Wendy’s youngest brother and many of the Lost Boys. This isn’t too bad in many scenes featuring the adults, but when it’s nearly all kids on screen, your niece or nephew’s second-grade school play is what comes to mind.
Thankfully, the two adults with the most screen time in this story make it the most fun. Law and Gaffigan know exactly what the assignments were and ham up their roles by making Hook and Smee as cartoony as they can under Lowery’s direction. And with some of the welcome story changes affecting their roles specifically, their balances of cheesy villains and genuine emotion get the job done.
Because all but the opening and closing scenes take place in Neverland, its location shooting on northern Atlantic islands are gorgeous and the full-size studio set in Vancouver lends a lot to building this fantasy world as real. Sadly, much of the visual effects and CGI work stick out like a sore, dated and unconvincing thumb. Flying is a big part of “Peter Pan,” but it’s distractingly bad in several scenes.
The lows of soulless adaptations like “The Lion King” and “Pinocchio” or the insane deviations like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Dumbo” are hopefully in the rear-view mirror. “Peter Pan & Wendy” comes closer to the likes of “The Jungle Book” and “Cinderella” with enough improvements — still using real Indigenous people but axing all the American Indian stereotypes — that complement the story without changing its heart entirely.
Unfortunately, this trend of live-action remakes is far from over. Fourteen have already been greenlit by the studio with four — including “The Little Mermaid” in theaters May 26 — already setting their release dates. Let’s just hope they’re even better than or at least as good as this one.