A look at Peter Pan in film through the years
'Proud and insolent youth,' said Hook, 'prepare to meet thy doom.'
'Dark and sinister man,' Peter answered, 'have at thee.'
- from Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie (1911)
When I saw the trailer for David Lowery’s latest film, Peter Pan & Wendy, I was pumped. Lowery directed 2016’s Pete’s Dragon remake for Disney; he also directed The Green Knight, one of my favorite films of 2021. I hoped that Peter Pan & Wendy would be weird, ya know, in a good way. I also knew it was set to release straight to Disney+ which gave me my doubts. Upon viewing, I was initially a bit underwhelmed (NOT WEIRD ENOUGH, I thought), but it got me thinking about all of the other movie adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s famous story that I had watched over the years. Which film gets it the “most right”? Do any of them? There’s a lot to like about Lowery’s movie but, ultimately, there still seems to be something missing. After watching Peter Pan & Wendy, I revisited a few of the more recent films featuring the boy who wouldn’t grow up, namely: 1991’s Hook, 2003’s Peter Pan, 2015’s Pan, and 2020’s Wendy, to see which movies I liked the most and why. Is there a film version of Peter Pan that you love the most? What (or who) makes those versions work so well?
Wendy Moira Angela Darling
Wendy Moira Angela Darling is a girl on a precipice. She still wants to play with her younger brothers, but at the same time, she admires her beautiful adult mother. She knows she is on the verge of “growing up,” but she doesn’t want to, not yet. She’s a bit smitten with Peter Pan when he arrives, encouraging her and her brothers, John and Michael, to leave their London bedroom for Neverland. J.M. Barrie’s original play and novel is not titled, “Peter Pan,” but actually, “Peter and Wendy.” At times, she is the “damsel in distress” and, at others, Wendy is the voice of the audience, taking it all in, wondering whether or not to return home or to continue on the adventure. If I’m being honest, I always found the 1953 Disney animated version of Wendy kind of annoying. Maybe because she is voiced by an adult woman? She seems a little too proper to be a child. It was hard to find admiration and sympathy for a little girl who sounded like she was about to give Peter a history lecture.
In Lowery’s film, Wendy is played by Ever Anderson (daughter of actress Milla Jovovich and director Paul W. S. Anderson). She is scolded for accidentally breaking a mirror while “swashbuckling” with her brothers the night before she is scheduled to leave for boarding school. Her father tells her to “grow up,” but I found that Anderson’s Wendy already seems older than some of the other film versions I have watched. I liked her strength of spirit and curiosity, but I found I wasn’t as drawn to her as much as I’d hoped. She seems a bit too skeptical at times, which doesn’t really play well with the idea of wanting to stay a child forever. Part of drinking the Kool-Aid of Peter Pan is being excited by at least some of his shenanigans. Anderson starts the film already a bit too “wise beyond her years.” Or at least, she acts like she thinks she is wise. Lowery seems to want to update Wendy’s character a bit and make her less reliant on Peter to save the day (which I totally respect) but it doesn’t quite flow with the rest of the story. As I watched other versions of the story, I started to better understand why that is the case.
I forgot how much I liked Rachel Hurd-Wood’s portrayal of Wendy in the 2003 film Peter Pan, directed by P.J. Hogan until I watched it again all these years later. Hurd-Wood’s Wendy is a bit younger than Anderson’s. She’s an imaginative storyteller, who gladly plays with her younger brothers. Her adult aspirations include becoming a great writer of adventure stories. Peter Pan is drawn to her home because of her ability to tell these captivating stories. It is not until her stuffy and proper Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave) visits that Wendy’s parents begin having doubts about her “unladylike behavior” and tell her (hesitantly I might add) that maybe she has to start growing up.
Aunt Millicent starts talking about getting Wendy on track to become more fashionable and worthy of eventual marriage (she is only 12 in this version). This includes having her shy father engage more among “polite society.” Hogan’s film takes a little more time initially building a backstory and sympathy for both Wendy and her father, played by Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter) as they both try to fit into the molds society seems to want for them. I found this version of Wendy a lot more compelling. It made me want to see her escape the daily grind and reach her potential that much more by the time Peter Pan shows up.
The biggest contrast in Wendy's representation in the movies I rewatched comes in 2020’s film Wendy. A modern-day Wendy (played by Devin France) is tempted by the daily trains that stop and pass by her home above the diner where she helps her mom wait tables. Her twin brothers hint at stories of their mom’s wild youth before she had children. Wendy is disappointed by how her mom’s dreams seem to have diminished and rebels at the same possible outcome for herself. One night, the children hear a giggling boy outside their window on top of a departing train; they decide to jump aboard and follow him on his adventure. This is director Benh Zeitlin’s second film. He also directed and co-wrote the screenplay and music for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a beautiful and emotional movie that I think can never be replicated. Wendy is always told from the titular character’s point of view. The movie takes the themes of Barrie’s story and tempers them with some more somber modern changes while still trying to keep some of the fantastical elements of the story. I think Wendy best captures childlike wonder while showing how quickly that can change. It’s a cautionary tale, more so than any of the other film adaptations I viewed.
“Proud and Insolent Youth”
Peter Pan. Lots of things come to mind when you read the name, but for me, it is mostly a mischievous grin. Pan is the embodiment of youth, play, bravado, and often, freedom. Jeremy Sumpter, star of P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan, is the most like the Greek god Pan (god of the wilderness). When Sumpter’s Peter leaves Neverland, it grows snowy and cold there. When he returns, he brings springtime with him; the ice thaws and the flowers bloom. Peter has wild hair and clothing made out of leaves. Sumpter (as Peter) also happens to be very cute. Of all the movies I rewatched, Wendy seems the most enamored with Peter in this particular film. There is something of Romeo and Juliet in the initial interaction between Wendy and Peter as he convinces her to leave her home behind.
Despite not wanting to “grow up,” Peter and Wendy spend a lot of time play-acting as grownups in Neverland. They act as “mom” and “dad” to the rest of the Lost Boys. There is a hint of romance mixed with childhood innocence in their interactions. You get the feeling that Wendy believes being with Peter is both completely safe and the most dangerous thing in the world. However, this version of Peter is a bit more chauvinistic. He often tells Wendy to “wait here,” while he goes off to save the day. When it comes to “love,” Peter denies knowing what it is, but Wendy believes he is lying. At one point of contention, Peter tells Wendy to go home and “take her feelings with her.” In this film, Peter often tries to present himself as invincible to having his feelings hurt, but what finally does hurt him is Captain Hook telling him that Wendy will leave him and he will die “alone and unloved.”
In contrast to Sumpter’s dreamboat version of Peter, Wendy’s Peter is played by much younger Yashua Mack; he is playful and full of laughter. He brings the Darling children to an island with a massive active volcano. Once they arrive, they encounter Thomas, a boy who ran away from home a few years ago and has not aged a day. Peter seems to conduct the eruptions of the volcano like a maestro with an orchestra. He talks about “The Mother,” who seems to be part mythical sea creature, part Mother Nature and the spirit of the island itself. She and Peter share a special connection. He loves his mother and she loves him. Wendy describes The Mother the way J.M. Barrie describes fairies in his text: if you believe, you will never grow up. One of the things I love most about Wendy is how Zeitlin shows us the power of children’s ability to play and use their imagination while enjoying and respecting the natural world around them. Peter and his Lost Boys all love and respect The Mother. But Peter can be fickle. He is quick to threaten expulsion from the group for those that do not follow his rules.
The power and magic of play and using your imagination come to the forefront of the story in 1991’s Hook, directed by Steven Spielberg. It stars Robin Williams as Peter Banning, the adult version of Peter Pan who left Neverland and ultimately lost his way. Now Peter is a workaholic dad who misses his son’s baseball games and is always on his massive 90s cell phone with some work colleague. When he and his wife Moira take their kids to England to visit (great) “Grandma Wendy,” Moira gives Peter an ultimatum: he has to “fix this family.” Peter doesn’t remember his life before age 12. It takes returning to Neverland, a bonk on the head, and lots of “training” with the Lost Boys for him to become Peter Pan again. Peter’s imagination brings an epic food fight to life during dinnertime with the Lost Boys. Spielberg brings the power of imagination to the screen in globs of colorful puddings and pies as Peter and the Lost Boys can let loose and really play. Hook is about a father (Peter) learning to be a kid again (Pan) so he can connect with his children.
All of these versions of Peter made me reexamine my thoughts on the latest Pan: Alexander Molony in Peter Pan & Wendy. Molony as an actor is pretty endearing, but as Peter, he doesn’t seem as puckish as Sumpter or his animated predecessor. Even Robin Williams looks a bit more windswept and wild than Molony’s Peter when he finally becomes Pan. Molony’s Peter is sure of himself on the outside, but a bit more introspective at times in private. The main issue I have with Lowery’s film is that Peter and Wendy never really seem to hit it off. They don't have the same chemistry that Sumpter and Hurd-Wood have in Hogan’s film. In Peter Pan & Wendy, Wendy thinks Peter is showing off most of the time and even hits him in the face at one point.
She doubts aloud that he would be able to defeat Captain Hook on his own. Peter expresses his frustration to Wendy that he thought they would be friends and have fun. As the audience, I feel just as frustrated. I like the self-assuredness of Lowery’s Wendy, she saves herself on more than one occasion and relies less on Peter, but in doing so, the two main characters seem too much at odds. I think for the story to work, you have to believe in the chemistry and camaraderie between these two characters. You have to accept that Wendy would consider staying in Neverland for Peter and that he might consider leaving it for her. We don't have that strength of bond between Molony and Anderson and I think that becomes the greatest flaw in Lowery’s film.
Finally, we have a horse of an entirely different color in 2015’s Pan, directed by Joe Wright. Pan is an origin story (that I am not sure anyone ever asked for) about the J.M. Barrie character, showing us how the boy, Peter, escapes London, journeys to Neverland, and ultimately becomes the legendary figure, Peter Pan. This tale begins during WWII; Peter is at an orphanage run by mean nuns that is a bit too much like Oliver Twist. He insists his mother will come back for him one day, but before you know it, he is kidnapped by pirates and put INTO SLAVE LABOR mining in Neverland. Joe Wright directed one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, but I dunno what happened with Pan. Levi Miller as Peter is a different kind of cutie patootie than Jeremy Sumpter, and he’s not exactly Peter Pan either. His whole story arc is about finding his mother and learning in the end how much she loves him and will “always be with him.” To me, this message is kind of the opposite of what Peter Pan as a figure stands for. In this origin story, there is a prophecy of a boy, born from a human and a fairy, who could fly. He is supposed to return to Neverland to lead an uprising of the “natives” against the wicked pirate Blackbeard. Whew, just summarizing that for you made me tired all over again.
“Dark and Sinister Man”
What would the story of Peter Pan be like without Captain Hook? The true love affair in every film adaptation has to be between Peter and his supposed arch-nemesis, James Hook. One seems to lose purpose without the other. Hook and Peter are described in Barrie’s original text:
In person he was cadaverous and blackavized, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly … Such is the terrible man against whom Peter Pan is pitted. Which will win?
Peter was such a small boy that one tends to wonder at the man's hatred of him. True he had flung Hook's arm to the crocodile; but even this and the increased insecurity of life to which it led, owing to the crocodile's pertinacity, hardly account for a vindictiveness so relentless and malignant. The truth is that there was a something about Peter which goaded the pirate captain to frenzy. It was not his courage, it was not his engaging appearance, it was not—. There is no beating about the bush, for we know quite well what it was, and have got to tell. It was Peter's cockiness.
- from Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie (1911)
As Captain Hook in Peter Pan & Wendy, Jude Law is a little repulsive (but only a little bit). Grungy with long stringy dyed hair, he’s like someone who is trying to hide that he is balding with a long comb-over. Jim Gaffigan plays his first mate, Mr. Smee, delivering a few funny one-liners throughout the film, but he also remains extremely sweet and somewhat protective of Hook. Law’s Hook seems more melancholy than other versions, but you can tell the actor is still having a great time. Without giving away too much, Lowery creates a backstory for Hook and Peter’s relationship that paints Peter in a less favorable but much more realistic light. While I mentioned earlier that we don't have a strong bond between Molony and Anderson’s Peter and Wendy, I do think we have it between Molony’s Peter and Law’s Hook. Their back and forth is some of the best exchanges in the entire film. I think if I were going to get a prequel to the famous story, I’d be more likely to trust Lowery to write a thoughtful prologue to how Peter and Hook became enemies.
As the titular Hook in Spielberg’s 1991 film, Dustin Hoffman seems to be emulating Jeremy Irons with his deep growling voice. Hook is dressed to kill in this movie. He looks like a British buccaneer with a Salvadore Dali mustache. I never knew Hoffman could shine as brightly as he does playing Captain Hook. Honestly, I would have watched an entirely separate film about Hook with Hoffman performing. Bob Hoskins is my favorite version of Hook’s right-hand man, Smee. He introduces Hook as the hype man to Hook’s rockstar about to take the stage. When Hook meets the adult Peter, fresh from London still in a bedraggled suit, he pities him. Peter is no real enemy. Without a real adversary, Hook becomes depressed and lost, suicidal even. Tinker Bell the fairy convinces Hook to give her and the Lost Boys three days to get Peter back into fighting shape for the all-out “war between good and evil” that he had promised his men. Despite Hook also being a new story in itself, I enjoy this version of Hook the most. He seems the most in line with the spirit of J.M. Barrie’s tale.
While it can’t quite compete with Hoffman's (or even Law’s performance for that matter), one of the best twists is in Hogan’s version of Peter Pan when he casts Jason Issacs to play both Wendy’s father, Mr. Darling, and Captain Hook. Once Wendy sees Captain Hook for the first time, she finds herself entranced by his blue eyes rather than being afraid of him. Earlier in the film, Wendy does not view her father as brave or adventurous, but her mother says, “There are many different kinds of bravery.” She explains that their father had to give up many of his dreams to make sacrifices for his family and that makes him brave.
As Hook, Jason Isaacs is pretty wicked. Onscreen, I think he kills the most people out of all of the film adaptations I watched. He’s just shooting people left and right. It’s a little disturbing. The only thing that seems to scare Captain Hook himself is the crocodile that ate his hand and now wants the rest of him. At the time of filming, Jason Isaacs was 40 years old. I’m about to turn 42, and I now realize how hot stuff Isaacs was in all of his Hook glory, wearing a wig of long curly hair and a van dyke beard. Zaddy, indeed. Issacs definitely had the sexy rockstar look down, even if Dustin Hoffman was the Hook with the actual gravitas to pull it off.
Wendy has a more non-traditional interpretation of Hook. Wendy has twin brothers, Douglas and James, who follow her and Peter to the island of Neverland. When Doug becomes lost, James is so distraught that he starts to age rapidly. First, his hand starts to wrinkle. He asks Peter to cut it off, hoping it will stop the aging process. Peter agrees to help but says that James has to believe it for it to really work. It doesn’t. Eventually, Wendy finds other grownups on the island, living in a settlement of adults who were once Lost Boys that Peter now pretends no longer exist. It’s a hint at the cruelty of little boys like Peter. Now exiled, the adults, led by a much older James, decide that they should try to catch and eat “The Mother” to become young again.
The film’s message seems to be that adults will abuse Mother Nature to stay young while children can appreciate her for what she is. Later in the movie, adult James laments that he cannot go back home. Wendy and Doug are sad until Peter challenges James to stay on the island, now as Captain Hook, “his sworn enemy.” This new role gives James purpose and they play, sword-fighting in full display to the admiration of the rest of the Lost Boys. Again, Peter and Hook have formed a bond that gives each other purpose. The story doesn’t work otherwise.
And then there’s Pan. (I know, I’m sorry.) In Pan, Hugh Jackman does not play Hook, instead, he is a steampunk-pixie-dust-addled-nightmare version of the pirate Blackbeard. As Blackbeard, he looks like a cross between a rotting Don Quixote and something out of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. He puts children and adults alike to work, mining for chunks of something called, “Pixum,” (think the amber equivalent of residual pixie dust). He has already killed off all known pixies in Neverland and he craves more dust, breathing it in through a terrifying mask to keep himself young. For some reason, all the captives mining for Pixum sing modern songs like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Garrett Hedlund is a miner named James Hook (presumably before he becomes the fearsome pirate Captain and loses his right hand). Hedlund does some seriously bizarre voicework in this film. I’m not sure what kind of accent he is trying to put on but it mostly makes him seem like a worse actor than he actually is. He helps Peter escape the mines once Peter learns he can fly, hoping it will lead to their escape from Neverland. We never get the full transformation of James into Captain Hook in Wright’s film. It can only be assumed that Wright hoped there might be a sequel that never came. I love Hugh Jackman, but even he could not save the film. Pan was panned at the box office. The film’s production budget cost $150 million (with an estimated $100-125 million additionally spent on marketing) but it flopped, only grossing $128.4 million worldwide.
The Other Woman(en)
In almost every version of Barrie’s tale, two female characters create tension between Peter and Wendy: Indian princess Tiger Lily and the fairy Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell is often portrayed as jealous of Wendy from the very beginning of the tale, convincing the Lost Boys that a flying Wendy is really a bird that Peter wants to be shot down from the sky. The Lost Boys almost kill Wendy early on in the story and Tink doesn’t bat an eye. This plotline and Tink’s subsequent banishment from the group by Peter Pan, are recreated in the 2003 adaptation. In Hogan’s film, Tinker Bell is sort of a comic mime using CGI.
It is one of the aspects of the film that I like the least. Tink doesn’t speak a language that we can understand, instead, she makes a lot of garish facial expressions and angry hand gestures. As Peter and Wendy grow closer, both Tinker Bell and Captain Hook bond over their fear that they will lose “their Peter” and they form a pact to exact revenge. Tinker Bell inevitably falls victim to Captain Hook’s devious ways.
Yara Shahidi (Black-ish) plays Tinker Bell in Peter Pan & Wendy in a role that I wish Lowery had expanded. I was pleased to see that this version of Tinker Bell is not malicious toward Wendy at all. Tink speaks in hushed ringing tones, so initially, Wendy can never seem to hear what she is saying. Peter translates, acting like he knows what Tink is saying, but in fact, he doesn’t seem to actually be listening to her. It’s another way Lowery’s version of the story paints Peter in a less favorable light. Tinker Bell often looks like she is trying to help steer Peter into better actions throughout the film but is often ignored. It presents a more interesting take than the jealous lackey character. Eventually, Wendy really listens to her and Tinker Bell thanks her for it. It’s a great way of having those characters find a connection and common ground instead of being antagonists like in all the other versions of the tale. It also promotes a positive message that even if someone is on the quieter side initially, it doesn’t mean they can’t help out or that they don’t have something to say.
In the 1953 Disney animated film Peter Pan, Tiger Lily is portrayed as an attractive Indian girl who makes Wendy jealous. She dances with Peter amidst a sea of blatantly racist caricatures of Indians during a song titled, “What Made the Red Man Red.” Now Disney+ puts a disclaimer before the movie for anyone about to watch it. Hogan’s 2003 version of Tiger Lily is still problematic, but it tries to make some improvements on earlier versions of the character. In his film, Tiger Lily is played by Canadian actress Carsen Gray, who is a Haida descendant. She doesn’t speak English in the film, but she is still a bit stereotypically dressed in “Indian clothing” and Wendy’s brother, John, initially refers to her as a “savage.” In a change from Barrie’s version, Hogan has John save Tiger Lily from the pirates. She kisses him in thanks and it gives John instant strength and courage (almost like a cartoon Olive Oyl kisses Popeye moment).
The most tone-deaf portrayal of Tiger Lily, however, is in Joe Wright’s Pan, where the young James Hook seems to be attracted to the princess, who IS PLAYED BY ROONEY MARA. Don’t get me wrong, I like Rooney Mara, she is a great actress, but she should not have played Tiger Lily. Her tribe looks like a colorful circus troupe inspired by the works of Baz Luhrmann. Mara’s acting is pretty benign but not memorable. She fights the pirates and scolds Hook. Her character embraces Peter as the tribe’s “savior” from Blackbeard, a problematic and frequently used plotline. Peter the Savior is a boring plotline. It helps me appreciate Lowery’s Peter who is often a brat but starting to learn from his mistakes by the end of the film.
By far the best changes to Tiger Lily’s representation have come in David Lowery’s 2023 film. Early in the story, Wendy is separated from Peter and her brothers after they are attacked by pirates. Tiger Lily and the Lost “Boys” find her. In Lowery’s film, the Lost Boys are not all boys and the group is a lot more diverse than many earlier film adaptations. However, I want to point out that just three years before complaints surfacing on Twitter of Lowery’s “woke” version of Peter Pan, Behn Zeitlin showed us a diverse group of Lost “Boys” made up of both boys and girls of different races, in Wendy, a film starring a young Black boy as Peter Pan.
In Lowery’s movie, Tiger Lily is played by Alyssa Wapanatâhk, an indigenous actress, who is a member of the Bigstone Cree First Nation in Alberta, Canada. She is the only character in the group who is a bit older (the actress playing her is 22 in real life). She speaks both Cree and English throughout the film, and she is a badass fighter. Rather than making Wendy jealous, Tiger Lily proves to be a strong guiding presence. She gives both Wendy and Peter aid as a big sister figure when they need it. Despite Peter’s early protests that he will always defeat Hook without any help, he ends up needing it. That’s the real lesson for Peter in Lowery’s film, that he needs help sometimes and he should not be afraid to accept it.
While I will admit, I missed the personality of the crocodile from the original 1953 animated Peter Pan, I realized upon rewatching all of these movies that the inciting events of each film adaptation mostly stayed the same over the years. What changed is how each film represents its main characters and their relationships with each other. Some of them do a better job than others of capturing the whimsy and magic of J.M. Barrie’s original story while updating aspects for more modern audiences. Rewatching all of these earlier versions of Peter Pan in film helped me find a deeper appreciation for David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy. Lowery’s version, while lacking in Peter and Wendy chemistry, has a great cast, a far better representation of Tiger Lily, some new and interesting character development, and a love affair for the ages between its frenemies: Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Give it a watch and try to give it the benefit of the doubt. I think you’ll find there’s more to enjoy than you might think.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro