David Lowery's Peter Pan And Wendy Gives Us Hope For Live-Action Disney Remakes

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. Maybe.

Of all the Disney animated films turned live-action re-imaginings the Mouse House has churned out since striking box office gold with Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" (which itself, somewhat ironically, re-imagined Disney's 1951 animated feature of the same name while telling a mostly brand-new story), David Lowery's "Pete's Dragon" is one of the only ones I'm willing to go to bat for. In addition to improving on its predecessor, Lowery's film is the rare Disney live-action re-imagining that genuinely, well, re-imagines its source material. If it weren't for the presence of a boy named Pete and his giant green dragon pal Elliot, you wouldn't even realize the two movies were related.

Lowery's take on "Pete's Dragon" holds the peculiar distinction of being the second best-reviewed Disney live-action remake among critics on Rotten Tomatoes yet the lowest-grossing one released since 2010. This may, in part, also account for why Lowery's "Peter Pan and Wendy" — a live-action re-imagining the filmmaker says "honors both the original J.M. Barrie text and Walt Disney's animated adaptation" in an official statement — is skipping theaters in favor of streaming as a Disney+ exclusive. That and the fact that "Peter Pan" movies haven't exactly lit the box office on fire lately.

The thing is, where everyone seemed to recognize that Robert Zemeckis' live-action "Pinocchio" re-telling was a dud well before its own premiere as a Disney+ original in 2022, the trailer for "Peter Pan and Wendy" makes the film look "a hell of a lot more interesting than most live-action Disney remakes we've seen in recent years," to quote /Film's Valerie Ettenhofer. Then again, given who's at the helm, it's less surprising this would be the film to renew our hope for Disney's live-action division.

Life, death, and David Lowery

The inevitably of death and the passage of time are themes David Lowery has returned to over and over in his work, most explicitly in his unconventional supernatural drama "A Ghost Story" and his mesmerizing re-telling of "The Green Knight." Even "Pete's Dragon" opens with nothing less than the demise of a five-year-old Pete's parents in a car accident, which is depicted about as brutally as such a sequence could be within the confines of a PG rating. It's not just a bit of edginess for its own sake; this moment, coupled with Pete's nearly-fatal run-in with a pack of wolves and his initial encounter with Elliot right after, serves to establish the movie's tone, which is a seamless mix of melancholy and wonder. Similarly, the fact that Pete will eventually grow up and have to part ways with Elliot so as to join human society is a key element of the narrative's conflict and serves to form the film's thematic backbone.

You can already see how Lowery's deeper and darker sensibilities are a great match for "Peter Pan and Wendy" based on its trailer. The preview alone shows Wendy (Ever Anderson) lamenting the fact her childhood will unavoidably end, suggesting Lowery and his co-writer/longtime producer, Toby Halbrooks, will hit on the themes of death, mortality, and the never-ending flow of time inherent to J.M. Barrie's source material far harder than Disney's original animated movie did. Lowery himself has indicated as much in the past, describing his pitch for the film as "'The Revenant' with flying kids" during a 2021 appearance on "The Kingcast" (via GamesRadar+). He even claimed his approach to the movie was "very influenced" by, of all things, Robert Eggers' horror film "The Lighthouse" during a Reddit AMA conducted that same year.

The Neverland you've never seen

While it's safe to assume we won't be getting gory bear attacks or half-naked, screeching mermaids in "Peter Pan and Wendy" (although the trailer confirms there are mermaids in the film, like most "Peter Pan" re-tellings), you can already see the influence of those period thrillers on David Lowery's fantasy adventure. The healthy balance of real-world and digital elements on display in this footage — coupled with pleasingly naturalistic visuals that legitimately evoke "The Revenant" at times — is a welcome balm to the uncanny-valley photo-real CG creations and murky imagery of other recent Disney live-action remakes. Much like "Pete's Dragon" painted a gorgeous, fairy tale vision of the Pacific Northwest in the '80s, this new iteration of Neverland seems like one we've never truly laid eyes on before so far.

There are other aspects that point to "Peter Pan and Wendy" being a worthy correction to Disney's problematic animated feature film, starting with the casting of actual Indigenous actor Alyssa Wapanatâhk as the Indigenous princess Tiger Lily (what a concept!) and the fact the "Lost Boys" aren't all white or cisgender boys in the film. Not that this is anything unusual for Lowery, who previously cast Dev Patel to play Sir Gawain in "The Green Knight," in the process uncovering new layers of meaning in the traditionally white character's backstory and journey absent from previous re-tellings. By that same token, the casting of actors of color in several key roles (shout-out to Yara Shahidi's Tinker Bell!) may yet prove to serve a similar purpose here, based on Lowery's track record.

Like I said: just when I thought I was out, here's Lowery roping me back into anticipating another Disney live-action remake.

"Peter Pan and Wendy" arrives on Disney+ on April 28, 2023.