“Peter Pan & Wendy” is a case study in one of the agonies of growing up: the realization that some of the entertainment that tickled us as youngsters — as in the many troubling scenes in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan novel, including the ditty “What Made the Red Man Red?” — have aged as gracefully as its lead character.
The filmmaker David Lowery has opted to update it with his own pixie dust: save what’s good, scuttle the rest, and add plenty of spit and polish for a 21st-century shine.
Seventy years ago, when Peter Pan whisked Wendy and her siblings to Neverland so she could mother his Lost Boys, he treated her like dirt and she swooned over his heroics. Now, Wendy (a compelling Ever Anderson) decks Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and seizes the helm of her own story. “I don’t even know if I want to be a mother!” she protests.
Lowery is a wise choice for a salvage attempt. He’s gifted at exploring the haunted corners of familiar tales (“Pete’s Dragon,” “The Green Knight”) and has revealed a morbid reverence for the passage of time — perfect for a story whose villain, Captain Hook (a scene-stealing Jude Law, hiding beneath artificial under-eye bags), is literally stalked by the ticktock of a clock.
Having stripped out the questionable or merely dubious themes, he and his co-writer, Toby Halbrooks, are left with many minutes to fill. In addition to including a traumatic back story for Captain Hook, they add two lovely reveries on aging: a montage in which Wendy savors her youth and another where she’s tantalized by the prospect of growing up.
The girl-powering of the plot means scrapping the catty mermaids, the glimmer of a love triangle with Tiger Lily (here played by Cree actress Alyssa Wapanatahk) and pretty much everything interesting that Tinkerbell (Yara Shahidi) once got to do, including her multiple attempts to murder Wendy. The fairy is now merely given a camera trick — Tinkervision — a blurred, jittery point of view that has its best moment when she flies through blood spatter.
Lowery clearly adores the look of the cartoon. He and the cinematographer Bojan Bazelli pay it tribute with their use of moody skies, striking shadows, unexpected camera angles and a darkly beautiful color palette that shimmers like jewels in a cave. Still, these well-meaning choices struggle to cohere into a satisfying picture. Peter Pan comes across as a pest, and when Wendy belts the movie’s thesis — “This magic belongs to no boy!” — it hits the ear like a distracting clang.
By the time the woolly pirates burst into their second rousing sea shanty (kudos to the song composer Curtis Glenn Heath), our minds begin to liken the Jolly Roger to the philosophical paradox of Theseus’s ship: How many planks can you swap out while still claiming it’s the real deal?