Peter Pan & Wendy Disney+ movie review: sacrilegious and not shocking enough but when it gets going, it soars

 (Courtesy of Disney Enterprises)
(Courtesy of Disney Enterprises)

You know those live-action versions of Disney cartoons that worship at the font of the original and barely change a thing? Well, this ain’t that. The story deviates wildly from the 1953 cartoon classic (as well as J.M. Barrie’s practically perfect 1911 book, Peter and Wendy).

Cocky Peter (Alexander Molony, making his film debut) is forced to acknowledge he’s nothing without the strong women around him; Wendy (Ever Anderson) imagines her future at an Oxbridge college. Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi) doesn’t like it when her opinions are mansplained and bilingual Tiger Lily (Alyssa Wapanatahk) is part of a clan with only female chiefs.

Oh yes, and there are four Lost Girls, no misogynistic mermaids and Captain James Hook (Jude Law) is a proud mummy’s boy. Clearly, writer-director David Lowery is in heretical mood. When Peter mutters, “I don’t think I like this adventure”, many viewers may find themselves muttering, “Same”.

Many of Lowery’s ideas concerning Peter and Hook are brilliant (possibly influenced by the Christina Henry novel Lost Boy, Lowery casts Hook as a victim of the despotic Pan). My issue is with the script: it’s not shocking enough. It’s certainly not as funny or scary as it should be.

In Barrie’s novel, the characters, especially Mr and Mrs Darling, are blissfully neurotic and hilarious-slash-chilling. Here, where Barrie was slyly dark, Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks (who collaborated on an adaptation of another Disney favourite, Pete’s Dragon) are earnest and bland. It’s cool to have an actor with Down’s Syndrome (Noah Matthews Matofsky) play one of the Lost Boys, but give him something interesting to say!

Jude Law as Captain Hook (Eric Zachanowich)
Jude Law as Captain Hook (Eric Zachanowich)

There are good points. Anderson, daughter of model and actor Milla Jovovich, is stunning to look at, but it’s Molony and Law who leave you shaken. Every exchange between them is simultaneously sparky and sad.

Law is incredible as Hook. His battered face and straggly long hair makes him seem so vulnerable – it’s such a poignant performance – but he also provokes the biggest laughs, getting the pirate’s spite and energy. It’s a real tour de force.

Lowery also nails the bit where the Darlings whizz over to Neverland, only to start moving with the slow-motion languor of astronauts. Wendy seems to be pointing at a mirror. Suddenly, the angle changes and you realise she’s touching the sea. The director’s The Green Knight played similarly simple, if profound, tricks with time and space. This film-maker is such an expert at whipping the ground from beneath our feet.

Elsewhere, however, the visuals are shrug-worthy. The use of CGI and motion capture technology underwhelms (the implacably hungry crocodile lacks bite); the practical effects aren’t as charming or immersive as they should be and the editing is laboured. What’s that noise, as the children battle Hook on his ship, or Tiger Lily gallops on a horse? Tick tick tick. They’re precious seconds of your life, that you’ll never get back.

Unlike Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan & Wendy isn’t getting a big screen release. Still, I’m hopeful a certain kind of kid will be able to ignore the movie’s awfully big problems and concentrate on what Lowery gets right. Smarter and way more magical than Spielberg’s Hook, P. J. Hogan’s Peter Pan or Joe Wright’s Pan, this version, when it gets off the ground, soars.

106mins, cert PG

On Disney+