[This review was originally published on May 11, 2023 at Give Me Some Light on Substack. Subscribe, and you’ll get these reviews while the movie is still brand new!]

Do you hear that tick-tocking? Do you remember what that means? Somewhere, a crocodile lurks, the timepiece in his belly counting the days since this predator swallowed Captain Hook’s right hand.

And that means a fantasy world — one full of whimsy, swashbuckling, children who don’t want to grow up, and cringe-worthy racial stereotypes — is just around the corner! Are you ready to go back… to Neverland?

I think everyone will understand if your answer is “No.” You’ve been invited back before. Several times, probably. And was the journey all that you hoped for? Or were you, like Wendy in most Peter Pan stories, relieved when you got back home from the realm of arrested development?

Peter Pan’s recipe for flight includes, as always, pixie dust and happy thoughts. But happy thoughts are hard to come by in Neverland 2023. [Image from the Disney trailer.]

In the 70 years since Walt Disney’s animated adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic stories, we’ve seen filmmaker after filmmaker try to get a live-action adaptation off the ground. Most attempts, while well-intentioned, have only managed the equivalent of a few long-jumps; none of them have soared. I’m fond of P. J.Hogan’s 2003 version with Jason Isaacs as Hook. And the 1924 silent film is still a wonder. Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Hook remains the most talked-about, but it’s still frustrating for how it squanders Robin Williams’ inspired turn as a bad dad who has forgotten he was once the playful Pan. The thing’s to soggy with sentimentality; and Spielberg somehow forgets that pirate ships are meant to be seaworthy cinematic wonders, not harbor fixtures. (I’m still angry about this: How does the master of UFOs and flying bicycles and Indiana Jones car chases make a Peter Pan movie in which the ship never sails?!)

Still, there’s just so much potential in this story of lost boys who long for their mothers and refuse to grow up, fairies who pepper you with pixie dust if you shake them just right, and pirates who aim their cannons skyward at flying children.

I’ve been optimistic ever since I heard that Disney had given the ship’s wheel to director David Lowery. I’m still high on the head trip of his wildly imaginative 2021 re-imagining of The Green Knight — one of three films I ranked as my #1 of that year — so I couldn’t wait to see how he would make All Things Neverland new.

The clock strikes 70 years since Disney’s child heroes first “buzzed the tower” of Big Ben. [Image from the Disney trailer.]

Alas, while Lowery’s Neverland is an enchanting destination — its dreamy London-by-night skylines, its exotic island environments, and its enchanting networks of caves offering epic possibilities — his idiosyncratic storytelling style seems stifled, as if the studio had promised him a puffy-sleeved pirate shirt and instead strapped him up in a straitjacket. The final cut reeks of studio interference, the results so dissatisfying that Disney has decided to bypass big screens send it straight to Disney Plus won’t put this on big screens, as if to punish an artist for thinking outside the box.

On Letterboxd, I’m giving it the very rare combo of only “✩✩✩” out of 5 and a “🧡” emoji — which means I think the movie’s problems are almost as obvious as its strengths, but I somehow found myself savoring glimpses the voyage we might have taken if the system hadn’t gotten its hooks into Lowery’s imagination.

Some Peter Pan and Wendy Pros:

  • Lowery’s Neverland may be the melancholiest fantasy world the big screen has ever seen, but it looks great. I don’t mind a moody fantasy — Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Thing Are is among my favorite films. If Disneyland looked like this, I would fill a backpack with rock-climbing gear and call my travel agent. It looks like a wonderland for the sort of sailors and hikers and spelunkers who bring along books of poetry and blank journals.

Captain Hook “answers the door.” [Image from the Disney trailer.]

  • Jude Law, who has always been as at his best when he leans into his character-actor strengths instead of leading-man responsibilities, steals this movie whenever he’s onscreen — and I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to say that about him before. He has a surprising take on Captain Hook: This pirate is temperamental, yes… but that’s because he’s more confused than wicked, as if he’s not sure how he got into Neverland to begin with, and he’s half-expecting to wake up from this dream and return to his work as mild-mannered Watson in a Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie. There’s a softness and an insecurity in Hook’s half-whisper that suggests he’s wondering “Did I leave the oven on in some other dimension once upon a time?”
  • Jim Gaffigan (what a pleasant surprise!) gives us a Smee who has some gravitas and dignity. Somehow, dressed up in this silliness, he seems compelled to counteract the camp and dig deep for some wisdom and pathos. If there must be a spin-off or a sequel or a prequel, make it about Smee, Disney! (Or, even better — let Gaffigan do his next Amazon Prime standup special in this costume.)

Tiger Lily and her horse provide Peter with a living catapult. [Image from the Disney trailer.]

  • Tiger Lily and her people are treated with respect in this version — and thank God! Disney’s history with this story is as disgraceful in its treatment of Native Americans as Song of the South was for Black Americans. There are a few moments here where we might imagine Wendy and her brothers stumbling into Terrence Malick’s The New World. (Still, making Tiger Lilly’s tribe noble and respectable doesn’t help us understand what in the world they’re doing in Neverland. If this is a place for people who refuse to grow up, what are we to make of the presence of Native Americans?)
  • And Hook’s ship — my stars! — it looks incredible both at sea and in the air. And that’s the sight I always hope I’ll find breathtaking in any adaptation of this story.

When you’re out of pixie dust… cue up the Van Halen. You might as well jump! [Image from the Disney trailer.]

Some Captain Hook Cons:

  • This Wendy, played by Ever Anderson (daughter of Milla Jovovich and filmmaker W.S. Anderson), is both too precious and too capable, an ideal who can sing, swoon, swordfight, and soar — or whatever is asked of her — at a moment’s notice, without a single idiosyncrasy to make her interesting. She’s like an annoyingly perfect theater kid who hasn’t yet found a way to turn a “type” into a character. That’s not Anderson’s fault; she’ll be fine when she’s cast in the right role. It’s the way this character’s written — or, rather, whatever aspects of her character as written survived the studio slicer-and-dicer and made it to the screen.
  • Peter Pan, as played by Alexander Molony, is off-puttingly glum, annoyingly fickle, and, well, just dull. He has a way of rudely and repeatedly interrupting his own movie and demanding attention. A certain petulance is proper for a character who refuses to grow up, but the thing about Pan is that he’s supposed to be charismatic. We’re supposed to find the thought of playing around with Lost Boys appealing, at least for a while. But this Pan lacks the mischievous spark and the joy in action that is essential to the character.

Alexander Molony plays a petulant Pan. [Image from the Disney trailer.]

  • The symphonic score, credited to Daniel Hart, is lush and euphoric, with occasional nods to melodies from the animated original. But it’s accompanying a much richer and more dramatic film than the one we’re watching. It seems convinced that we’re all caught up in swells of romance and drama and action, and, well… I’m not.
  • Have I been spoiled by the glory of the first few Pirates of the Caribbean films and by Taika Waititi’s ingenious Our Flag Means Death? I just keep hoping for this crew of villains to distinguish themselves and kick some life into the storytelling. Alas, they might as well have been generated by A.I. with the prompts “typical + pirates.”

Wendy walks the plank. I’m tempted to follow her. [Image from the Disney trailer.]

Beyond pros and cons…

There’s a troublesome tonal weirdness to this thing that makes me frustrated while watching it and yet strangely compels me to watch it again. Lowery’s The Green Knight burned with such inspiration that it felt like we were witnessing a rare wonder: a filmmaker taking a substantial leap forward to fulfill his full potential, realizing all of his filmmaking dreams in one wild 140-minute rush. Here, something’s missing. It seems that he and his motley crew are bored by the same old Disney classic storyline, and, worse, held back from imagining and exploring new possibilities. A certain malaise hangs over the whole endeavor, a sense that everyone involved is coping with the loss of what might have been.

And yet, even Disney can’t erase all evidence of his vision. Lowery’s ambitions are evident in the extravagant set design, the acrobatic aerial perspectives which often recall Malick’s “Holy Spirit with a GoPro” cinematography, and the over-edited action scenes which seize upon all the playful possibilities of a levitating pirate ship. While I never find myself caring about this Peter or this Wendy for a moment — in fact, I keep wishing they would wander off together and leave us with Smee, the Lost boys, and Tinkerbell — I would have happily moved through the enchanting aesthetics of this world in their unremarkable company for another hour.

I hope that whatever Lowery does next, he’s free to explore with the energy, curiosity, and awe that made The Green Knight so compelling through multiple screenings. That film was so alive with inspiration that it seemed like he was always scrambling to keep up with new ideas. This one, though… it’s a beautiful ship, but it leaves us with a sinking feeling. Perhaps the studio pirates didn’t have enough respect for their captain. Perhaps they mutinied. Perhaps they took the wind out of its sails.