By Ella Smith
Peter Pan has enthralled audiences since the character’s first appearance in the 1902 play “The Little White Bird,” by J. M. Barrie. Since then thousands of reiterations both on stage, in print and on screen have developed, twisted and continued the adaptations of this iconic character. “Peter Pan and Wendy,” directed by David Lowry, is the most recent live-action reiteration and takes inspiration from both the Disney animated film “Peter Pan” and the original 1911 novel “Peter Pan and Wendy” by J. M. Barrie.
The trouble with retellings, particularly live-action retellings, is that they are responsible for living up to the original as well as deepening the story and adding a new aspect to the story. This is only amplified by the thin line Peter Pan walks between appealing to both the adult and child audiences as well as displaying the tragedy and triumph of growing up and the danger of refusing to. As an avid fan of some Peter Pan retellings and a concerned critic of many others, I was interested to see if “Peter Pan and Wendy” would fly above expectations or walk the plank like so many live-action retellings have before.
One of the most prominent and notable qualities of the Peter Pan story is the childlike imaginative view of Neverland. A children’s paradise filled with adventure and excitement. So I was unsettled when our titular characters’ whimsical flight ended in… Scotland? Instead of the place from the Darling children’s dreams, the setting resembled something closer to Mr. and Mrs. Darling’s fantasy vacation, a peaceful empty field on the cliffside. Certainly majestic but not something a child dreams up.
This change made the dialogue, which was heavily copied from the cartoon, feel even more out of place. The humor was largely slapstick and childish, something that would have worked if it hadn’t been at such odds with the colorless adult backdrop. The violence that was depicted in exaggerated childish ways in the cartoon also felt very out-of-place in live-action. All of this conflict in tone made for a confusing watch. While the setting and tone were a letdown, there were some changes that enhanced the story and added a layer of depth to this new retelling.
One thing the cartoon distinctly fell short in was the plot. “Peter Pan and Wendy” didn’t rectify this entirely but they did try to. The movie took more of the themes from the original source material of the book which was a good call in order to give the movie a more mature appeal. However, they didn’t quite follow through with a lot of the improvements that were made. They went in a specific direction that could have improved upon the original and allow it to appeal to both the adult and child audiences as the original story was intended. Instead, they created a hodgepodge of adult themes with childlike dialogue and pacing. It leaves the viewer feeling dissatisfied and gives the film a disjointed feel.
A highlight and near victory of “Peter Pan and Wendy” was the characterization. They had a good basis for what they wanted to do with the characters. I enjoyed how they made Wendy an active character and tried to give Peter Pan a character arch that ended in change. I also thought Captain Hook’s development and backstory were probably the greatest success of the movie.
As much as I enjoyed the improvements though the movie still lacked the development of the changes. While the characters were changed their arcs felt a bit out of place and disjointed from one another’s. All of the vital moments of character change happened individually and the characters had a distinct lack of influence on one another. Instead of Peter and Wendy being catalysts for one another they both rather independently come to their own conclusions and change. Captain Hook was the only character who seemed to have a well-paced and developed arc and even he seemed to do things for no apparent reason.
The theme of any Peter Pan retelling is arguably the most important part. One common thread of nearly every mainstream adaptation is the conflict between staying young and growing up which shows the flaws of both children and adults and ultimately demonstrates the need to grow up. I was interested to see how they would translate the theme, especially since they were taken from two different source materials designed for two different audiences.
Most of us remember the 1953 “Peter Pan” as the original Peter Pan. That movie is almost exclusively intended for children and stayed away from the darker elements of the story. It painted the ending in a more bittersweet but whimsical way where Peter Pan flies away and stays forever young.
However the original 1911 novel “Peter Pan and Wendy” was intended for adults and paints more of a somber cautionary tale of the refusal to grow up. It ends the same way but with a different feeling. There’s a contrast of view on Peter Pan as the boy with eternal youth and the boy who wouldn’t grow up. I think “Peter Pan and Wendy” actually balanced this well by adding their own spin to the ending that preserves the classic plot but gives it a more realistic spin that leaves you feeling optimistic that Peter Pan really can change and grow.
As a whole, the movie was disappointing. It had the bones of a good movie but lacked the development to carry out the changes in a way that felt natural. Instead, the movie felt like an awkward group project with all the pieces done individually and then poorly mashed together despite being in different fonts. The movie had its high-quality moments but they were overshadowed by the disjointed and underwhelming feel of the movie. This took away from the magic and wonder of the story as well as dampening the important themes. “Peter Pan and Wendy” might not have walked the plank but it lacked the pixie dust required to fly.
“Peter Pan and Wendy” is available on Disney+ now.
Ella Smith is a freshmen Professional Writing and Informational Design student as well as a writer for Cedars. She enjoys a stack of good books, leatherbound journals and a cup of tea (with lots of honey.)
Images courtesy of Disney+.