David Lowery Shows How to Do a Disney Remake

Apr 28, 2023

Disney’s live-action remakes of their animated classics have certainly been a mixed bag. Many of them—like 2019’s The Lion King or 2017’s Beauty and the Beast—are almost identical to the original film and seemingly exist for the sole reason of reminding audiences that they loved the animated versions of these stories. But the best remakes take a classic that we all know and likely grew up with, and takes the opportunity to present a new angle to these timeless tales. 2015’s Cinderella made us understand the anger within the evil stepmother, 2014’s Maleficent showed the origins of one of Disney’s most iconic villains, and even 2019’s Aladdin found new ways to expand these characters and give them more agency than their animated counterparts.

But maybe the best of these live-action remakes so far has been 2016’s Pete’s Dragon, directed and co-written by David Lowery, made after his breakthrough film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and before his films A Ghost Story and The Green Knight. Lowery showed through Pete’s Dragon that even beloved works could be improved and made into new classics for a new generation. They didn’t have to be beholden to the original film, but rather, Lowery knew that the way to make them just as memorable as Disney’s animated versions is to take chances and try something new—even if these are stories that we’ve all grown up with since childhood. Lowery’s second Disney remake, Peter Pan & Wendy, recreates Peter Pan—a story that has already had its fair share of remakes over the years—and, like with Pete’s Dragon, manages to breath new life into a story we’ve already heard countless times.

Peter Pan & Wendy begins as most of these retellings have: with Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) stuck between her burgeoning adulthood and wanting to remain of the childish and playful nature that her brothers Michael and John (Jacobi Jupe and Joshua Pickering, respectively) are currently in. The night before Wendy is to go to boarding school, she’s visited by Peter Pan (Alexander Molony), of whom the Darling children have heard many stories about from their mother, and his fairy friend Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi). With a little pixie dust and some happy memories, the Darling kids follow Peter Pan and Tinker Bell back to Neverland—a place where kids never grow up, and where Peter is constantly pursued by his archenemy Captain Hook (Jude Law), his first mate Mr. Smee (Jim Gaffigan), and the rest of his crew.

Image via Disney

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David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks aren’t necessarily reinventing the wheel with this latest take on J. M. Barrie’s classic story, but they’re at least making that wheel something worth exploring again. Yes, this is the story that you probably know, but with enough smart changes from the 1953 animated classic and directorial touches from Lowery to make this feel new. For example, the moment when the Darling children fly to Neverland through Big Ben feels more akin to something we’d see in Lowery’s A Ghost Story than anything from a typical Disney remake, and quick montages in which Wendy remembers her youth, and imagines what her life could be like as an adult both feel far more emotional and powerful than anything in most Disney remakes. Lowery makes sure to show us that while eternal youth could be wonderful, the beauty of a life fully lived is equally beautiful. Quite often, the director can get lost in the Disney machine, but Lowery ensures that’s never the case.

Lowery and Halbrooks also spend substantial time exploring the relationship between Peter Pan and Hook. While Wendy reckons with being not quite a girl, not yet a woman, she sees the extreme opposites before her: the frustration of eternal childishness and the dangers of losing the joy of life and that childlike spirit. Putting Wendy at the center of this story, instead of making Peter the focal point makes complete sense, and Anderson’s performance wonderfully balances Wendy’s desire to grow up, as well as keep that playfulness intact. Peter Pan & Wendy also always feels like we’re watching kids at play, with dialogue choices that hint this could all just be a game played in a bedroom, with one character even asking, “You mean, I’m in a story?” There are very important questions about growing up here, but Lowery always makes sure to keep this sense of play front-and-center of this story.

Helping show this balance are the performances of Molony and Law. Molony is a bit stiff here and there, but he manages to properly present Peter as both a promising possibility, as well as a bit of a brat—all while remaining likable throughout. But the real star here is Law’s Hook, who seems to be having a ball as this classic Disney villain, while also bringing a real heart to this character. As we learn more about his history with Peter, we see a much deeper pain, a kid deep down who struggled with the rules of Neverland, and felt betrayed by a close friend. Again, Lowery and Halbrooks are adding those much-needed layers to this remake that too many of these Disney retellings lack.

We’ve seen an absurd amount of Disney remakes in recent years, and every year or so, we get yet another retelling of Peter Pan—some good, some bad. But with Peter Pan & Wendy, Lowery shows there’s nothing wrong with sticking close to the text, as long as you bring some new identity to the story and give the audience a reason to care about seeing this story once more. With both Pete’s Dragon and Peter Pan & Wendy, Lowery has shown the correct way to tell a time-honored story once more. Jon Favreau might have found the way to make these films profitable, but Lowery has shown exactly how Disney should be handling these projects.

Rating: B+

Peter Pan & Wendy is on Disney+ now.

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