Since Peter Pan and Wendy Darling first adventured together in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 Peter Pan stage play, the characters and Peter’s world of arrested development have captivated generations of kids, former kids, and parents alike. Every so often, the characters get an infusion of new interest thanks to films like the 1953 Disney animated film, Peter Pan, and, the studio hopes, its latest offering Peter Pan & Wendy, debuting Friday on Disney+.
But make no mistake, the film is more than just a live-action rendition of the animated film. As director David Lowery told Rotten Tomatoes, building the tale in a new way and expanding upon it quickly became a facet of the production as he developed it.
“Let’s see how concise we can make this story because it is so well-told,” he explained. “But then I realized I was robbing myself of my own natural curiosity about these characters, and a better approach was to treat them not as icons, but as human beings you naturally are going to want to know more about.”
That led to a reinvention of the Darlings — after a fashion — a focus on Wendy (Ever Anderson) inspired by Barrie’s 1911 novelization of the play, and a greater emphasis on the how of Peter (Alexander Molony) and Hook (Jude Law).
“You’re going to want to know why they are the way they are, how they got to where they are,” Lowery continued. “Once I started treating them as human beings who have these rich backstories, who have these feelings, who have these emotions, all of those elements came into play in a very centrifugal way.”
(Photo by Disney)
And emerging from that centrifuge is a Captain James Hook who may seem different from previous iterations. Since the character’s earliest appearances on stage — and Barrie’s novelization of the play — Hook had mannerisms and affectations that mark him as a student of Eton College, a private academy for the upper echelons of the British society. But according to Lowery, the Eton influence was used as “backstory” to produce a Hook with new relationships to Neverland and his Jolly Roger crew.
Despite that setup of a new take on the character, though, Hook is still theatrical and flamboyant.
“I guess [the flamboyance] comes from anyone in a position that has to vocally command others, has to have a certain sense of confidence in their presence and their voice, and I certainly felt that responsibility talking to and rousing this awesome motley crew of men and women,” Law told Rotten Tomatoes. “You can’t do it quietly. I don’t think there’ll have ever been a sea captain or pirate captain who was timid and quiet. There’s a certain sort of tyranny to them.”
(Photo by Eric Zachanowich/Disney)
That impression of Hook’s tyrannical leadership, and Barrie’s references to Hook’s “bloodthirstiness” and “coldheartedness,” inspired a lot of Law’s take on the character.
“[The book] talks about him killing his own men willfully and easily. It talks about how he’s the only pirate who scares Long John Silver, and I wanted to capture some of that real honest threat,” the actor explained. “And to create real threat, you have to understand what sort of damage someone’s undergone to quantify the lengths they’ll go to hurt you. If someone’s really damaged, then they’re probably likely to find pain a low currency.”
Of course, Hook under Barrie’s supervision evolved to a place where the author would eventually call him “not wholly unheroic” and some of that makes its way into the actor’s performance. Although, that evolution – like the evidence of the character’s Eton education – emerged via the various actors who played the part on stage and even earlier film versions of Peter Pan.
“I was resting on the shoulders of all the people that have done it before,” Law said, specifically crediting Hans Conried, who lent his voice to Walt Disney’s Hook. “The animated version was very flamboyant and almost pantomimical and camp,” Law continued. “There have been brilliant versions since on stage and on film that I wanted to rest lightly on, and so I wasn’t interested in suddenly turning him into some completely unrecognizable creature.”
Instead, Law hoped to “plug him into my version of his reality and maybe explain some of the curiosities we all have for the character.” He also teased the film may give new insight into what Hook himself was trying to escape from all those years ago when he first arrived in Neverland.
(Photo by Disney)
In fact, the film plays on the curiosities many may have about the three main characters and revives at least one very early idea from drafts of Barrie’s play that has since received less attention over the years. It only goes to show that part of Peter Pan‘s longevity is the depths just lurking near the surface of a children’s tale.
As Law put it, if a children’s tale is “well told,” it can both “get [you] the wonder and the embrace of childhood, but you also get the fears and the jeopardy, and jeopardy is real.”
Lowery added, “The other hope I have with any film I make for family audiences is that they are movies that will grow with the audience. You can watch it now at the age of five or six or seven and come back to it when you’re a teenager or an adult and have just as rich an experience. It’ll be a different experience because you’re watching it from a different perspective.”
And, as it happens, the story of Peter, Wendy, Hook, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and the Lost Boys lends itself well to that changing perspective as a story about a boy who won’t grow up invites contemplation about aging.
“[It] is that desire that sometimes I think probably starts in childhood to hang on to one’s youth, to hang on to all of the safety and comforts of home, all the trappings of childhood. It’s an enduring dream that has captivated people probably since the dawn of time. We’d probably track it back to, on an evolutionary level: why it’s scary to leave the cave,” Lowery said of the enduring appeal within Peter Pan – which is on full display in Peter Pan & Wendy.
“I certainly have felt those pains of longing to go back or to just move back in with my parents and to be a child once again,” he continued. “I felt that so profoundly in my own life that I knew that a new iteration of this story was going to always be relevant. There’s always going to be a need for a new version of Peter Pan for a new generation because those are feelings that people will always feel.”