Peter Pan & Wendy: Is This The Best Disney Readaptation?

A Film Review & Discussion by Kate O’Brien. 

There will be spoilers ahead – You’ve been warned! 

J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan has widely been hailed as the children’s literature classic text for a long time, & the figure of Peter Pan is often the icon used when it comes to encapsulating & celebrating the freedom of youth & the idyllic nature of childhood. 

There are many interpretations of the tale of Peter Pan … some say it is a story that celebrates the magical nature of childhood, others say it is a cautionary tale about what we miss out on if we refuse to grow up, some have even added a horror twist to the tale, imagining that the character of Peter Pan is an angel figure who guides children who have died very young to Neverland, which is a kind of heaven-like place. All of these different readings make the text one that can be returned to often. There are many imaginings & readaptations of the tale, the latest one being Disney’s Peter Pan & Wendy, directed by David Lowery. The film was just released on Disney + (April, 2023). 

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I felt disappointed with some of Disney’s latest releases. I felt that Hocus Pocus 2 lacked any real stakes & I was looking forward to Disenchanted as I loved the original when I was little, however I was disappointed by the plot & some of the lazy tropes that were employed. As someone who loved the original Disney animated version of Peter Pan when I was little & as someone who studies children’s texts often, I was excited when I first saw the trailer for Peter Pan & Wendy, however I do remember thinking, “They better do this well.” 

I was pleasantly surprised by this readaptation. I didn’t read any other reviews before sitting down to watch it. The only feedback that I’d heard before watching the film for myself was that, “Jude Law had fun with the role of Captain Hook,” (paraphrased) . A comment like this is usually code for, “The film was just okay, and the actor was okay, but he had fun,” however I came away from this film feeling like Jude Law stole the show. This version of the story focused more on Wendy & Captain Hook rather than on Peter Pan himself, & while this decision did have some minor drawbacks that I will expand upon in further points, I felt that this was a really great decision overall. Captain Hook in this readaptation was a wonderful, compelling, highly fleshed out character & he had some brilliant lines. In fact, Captain Hook uttered my favourite line in the entire film. “You find me a child who truly knows the difference between right and wrong. And I’ll show you a man who can’t remember why it mattered in the first place.” 

This readaptation focused a lot on Wendy & her readiness to grow up. At the beginning of the film she does not feel ready, which prompts her to wish to go to Neverland in the first place. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this modern take on Wendy. The character of Wendy in the original is a young girl who is quite looking forward to growing up & she is happy to envision herself as a mother to the Lost Boys, she also looks forward to being like her own mother & having a family some day. It is important to remember that the original version of this tale was prominently popular in the 19th century so Wendy’s wishes reflect the societal view of what was appropriate for women to aspire to at that time. In this version, Wendy is still maternal in the sense that she loves her younger brothers & she cares for them. She also comforts & sings to the Lost Boys, but in this readaptation, Wendy confidently states that she’s not even sure if she wants to be a mother someday. I found this refreshing as the change didn’t strip Wendy of her maternal nature altogether, as one can be maternal if they are not a mother & one can care for children without wanting their own, but this change did not rule out the possibility of her ever wanting children in the future as she has yet to grow up to see what the future holds & how she feels. It felt remarkably nuanced & nuance is something that these Disney readaptations in particular often lack. I also felt like her apprehension around going off to boarding school & growing up felt authentic. She was excited about all that there is to come, but she was also nervous about the impending changes & this felt extremely realistic. 

As I said above, this version gives audiences a more fleshed out Captain Hook, one that was once a friend of Peter Pan’s. The two boys played together & shared  adventures around Neverland until Captain Hook, who back then was simply James, decided that he missed his mother. He was just a boy after all. James wanted to go home, so he was banished by Peter Pan, but he never made it home. Instead he was found & raised by pirates & eventually he grew up to be the infamous Captain Hook. I’ve said it in a point above, but it is worth repeating, Jude Law stole the show. He played the part with great depth & I was drawn in by his performance.

When this film began, I predicted that the pirates may be my favourite & I was right. 

The atmosphere created on the pirate ship was fantastic. The fact that this film incorporated sea shanties was brilliant. The music was fantastic. The singing, chanting pirates created a rich, magical atmosphere & I must say that seeing Skull Rock was brilliant. 

Now I have arrived at the point of Peter Pan himself. While I enjoyed that this film focused on Wendy & Hook, & Tigerlily to a certain extent (she plays a huge role in helping Wendy in the final battle), there were, in my opinion, some drawbacks that came with this choice. 

Alexander Molony played the role of Peter Pan & while I think he did a good job with the material, I felt like he was largely absent for quite a lot of the film & when he was onscreen, I felt that he didn’t command my attention in the way that the role of Peter Pan needs to. 

I’m not sure what age Molony was during filming, but his version of Peter Pan felt very young & he seemed really childish in certain scenes – which could have been a direction choice & if so, this would make sense due to what this version did with the character, but I’ll admit that while watching I could not help but think of Jeremy Sumpter. 

Jeremy Sumpter played Peter Pan in the 2003 live action adaptation of Peter Pan. I can admit that I may be biassed as this was the version of the story that I grew up watching, & Sumpter may have been older, but I just felt he was so much more commanding in the role. Peter Pan is a mischievous, somewhat spoiled, idealistic, heroic, freedom loving character & he is supposed to be charming & hopeful even though at the end of the story, Wendy & the others are always meant to return home. Molony’s delivery was quieter. I will restate that this could have been a director decision so I am not blaming the actor as that would be unfair. He looked great in the role & he played his key scenes with a quiet, gentle sincerity, especially towards the end of the film, however there were some moments that this quieter approach just did not work. A great example is the iconic sword fight scene between Captain Hook & Peter Pan that takes place at the film’s climax. Captain Hook & his pirates have taken Wendy, Tink, & the Lost Boys captive, we as the audience are supposed to feel like all is lost as Peter Pan has been beaten, but then when Peter Pan arrives to fight Hook, we’re supposed to be thrilled to see him. We’re supposed to cheer. Our excitement should mirror the excitement of Wendy & the Lost Boys, but in this version, Wendy was given a much more active role in the sword fight, she grabs a sword herself & tackles some pirates so when Peter Pan arrives again, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Instead of cheering for him, I kind of felt like Wendy was doing fine on her own & I’d rather the film allow her to have this fight for herself since the plot focused more on her anyways. Having Peter Pan come back to fight Captain Hook felt slightly out of place. It felt like the film was going in a fresh direction, but then someone said,  “No wait, we have to have the iconic fight scene between Peter Pan & Captain Hook.” 

This point leads me to the one other critique I have about the plot. As I’ve already stated, this readaptation focused more on Wendy & Captain Hook, especially Hook as his backstory felt tragic & misunderstood instead of downright evil. Wendy talks a lot about the idea of “growing up wrong,” as Peter Pan insists that if you grow up, you’ll end up evil like Captain Hook, & this mode of thinking highlights his immaturity. Wendy realises that growing up does not automatically mean that one will end up like Captain Hook, she states that he grew up wrong. Again, this is a very nuanced take from Wendy & it felt like the plot was leading up to an interesting plot point – Captain Hook grew up to be a resentful, bitter adult because of being banished by Peter Pan & because of being raised by pirates. The focus on having Wendy & Captain Hook discuss his banishment from Neverland, all because “he dared to miss his mother,” (paraphrased), & the fact that Wendy tells Captain Hook that he was just a boy & it was only natural that he missed his mother felt like the film was setting up Peter Pan to be the bad guy as there are subtle hints that the Lost Boys also miss home, & miss their mothers, but Peter Pan shuts the conversation down whenever it arises. He is also upset & angry that Wendy does not love Neverland. She wants to grow up, she wants to be more than she is now & Peter Pan cannot accept that. 

In my opinion, it seemed like the film was gearing up to be much more nuanced overall in tone, with Hook not being a villain just for the sake of it & instead having him be hurt & angry about Peter Pan’s actions, while also perhaps highlighting that Peter Pan & Neverland are not as wonderful as they seem. I won’t go as far as to say that the film was going to call Peter Pan the bad guy outright, but the film was definitely gearing up to state that he was not totally innocent in his feud with Captain Hook. It felt like the film’s narrative was being set up to go in one direction, but then perhaps this idea about a more nuanced take didn’t get a green light further on in the production process, because while watching it felt like the film was gearing up to do something different, but ultimately had to allow Peter Pan to return at the end to fight Hook & have his iconic sword fight in which he is cheered on as the heroic, hopeful figure. 

Now I will say that there is a moment where Peter Pan does apologise to Captain Hook for hurting him, & the film ends with Peter Pan returning to Neverland as always & he & Captain Hook share a knowing smirk. Their game will begin again because it must, it always does, for there is no Peter Pan without Captain Hook & vice versa. On one hand I like this idea, I like imagining that these two know what their roles on Neverland are & they play them out each time, but underneath it all there is a fondness that comes with knowing someone such a long time – for as the story goes, generations of Wendy’s family return to Neverland again & again, each of them having their magical adventure before returning home to grow up so the story of Peter Pan & Captain Hook will inevitably play out over & over again too. I like this thought because at the end of the film, there is an implication that Wendy’s own mother has been to Neverland too because when asked “who is that boy?,’ she, with a knowing smile, says, “Peter Pan.” 

So yes, on one hand I like the idea that Peter Pan & Captain Hook know their roles on Neverland & choose to play them accordingly, however on the other hand, part of me wishes that the film had have been able to commit to going with a darker, more nuanced tone overall, simply because an entirely fresh take would have been extremely interesting. 

The themes of Peter Pan & Wendy, naturally, were all about the idea of growing up & being ready to do so. The film discussed ideas around the fear of growing up, while also discussing the idea of looking forward to all that comes with maturity – the classic themes that are always discussed when the tale of Peter Pan is told. Due to the backstory between Peter Pan & Captain Hook, the film also delved into themes of loss & betrayal. Peter Pan felt betrayed by Captain Hook & vice versa. Captain Hook felt an immense sense of loss because he missed his mother & then he never made it home again, so all these years later he is still missing her. He is also angry & hurt because of the way he was treated by Peter Pan.

 I would argue that the film hinted at discussing the idea of nature vs nurture because there is an emphasis placed on how Captain Hook “grew up wrong.” I think this would have been interesting if they had gone into more details when discussing how Captain Hook really could not have escaped becoming the man he is today due to being found & raised by pirates as people are usually products of their upbringings & it can be hard to break out of cycles/habits that we’ve been taught all our lives. I think it would have been interesting if Captain Hook had have let Wendy & the Lost Boys go rather than proceed to make them walk the plank as this would have shown him breaking the cycle & stepping away from his archetypal, preformulated role in this story – however a notion such as this might be too complex for what this film was, which was a Disney readaptation. I do not say this in an insulting way, but there are certain boundaries that Disney films must abide by whereas a different production company could have afforded to perhaps take more risks with the tale & try new things that would inevitably go in a somewhat darker direction. 

A point that I really enjoyed was Wendy’s personal growth. At the beginning of the film when she is hesitant to grow up & embrace the changes that are coming her way, when she thinks happy thoughts in order to be able to fly, all of her thoughts are memories of when she was little. She envisions herself as younger, as she considers her past to be the happiest time in her life, but then, at the film’s climax when she is forced to walk the plank, she never hits the water because her happy thoughts allow her to fly. This time though, all of her happy thoughts are looking forward, she envisions herself growing up, going to school, making new friends, having a joyful home, and the last image she sees is one of her as an older woman with a smile on her face. This scene made me emotional. I thought it was a really well done, poignant moment because while life is full of ups & downs, & change can be scary, life is long & you never know what is around the corner. I thought that a scene that showed a young woman looking forward & being so excited about it was really lovely. This moment, this use of showing her happy thoughts was also the perfect way to illustrate & show, not tell us as the audience how Wendy has grown. 

Overall I would recommend this film. I had fun watching it. I believe that Peter Pan & Wendy is the best Disney readaptation that has graced the screens in a long time. It was fun, there was a great atmosphere, & the cast was very strong. It was a familiar, beloved story retold with some welcomed changes & even though I do wish that the plot could have followed through with some of the more nuanced ideas that I believe it was setting up, I really enjoyed this take on the story anyways. I loved what they did, I just wish they had gone even further with it. 

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