By Carlos Aguilar
It was “E.T. the Extra-Terrestial” that turned David Lowery into a lifelong fan of “Peter Pan,” specifically the scene in which a mother reads the section about Tinkerbell’s possible death to her daughter while the friendly alien hides in the closet. “You just watch E.T. listening to that story, and it’s so emotionally resonant that it hooked me to ‘Peter Pan,’ no pun intended, more than any film version of it did early on,” Lowery said.
For his second live-action retelling of a classic Disney film — following “Pete’s Dragon” (2016) — Lowery imagined his own variation on Neverland in “Peter Pan & Wendy,” with young actors Alexander Molony and Ever Anderson in the title roles and Jude Law as the villainous Captain Hook. Initially, however, Lowery underestimated the task.
“When I first took the job, I thought, ‘It’s Peter Pan, how hard could it be?’ It turned out to be the hardest but most exhilarating creative endeavor I’ve done to date,” he said. The difficulty, he thinks, stemmed from his desire to introduce a new shade to a fairy tale while honoring the story’s legacy.
The original J.M. Barrie novel about Peter Pan and Wendy as well as the numerous film adaptations — Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan,” Joe Wright’s “Pan” and, of course, Disney’s 1953 animated rendering, among them — all swirled in Lowery’s mind as he reconsidered the boy who never grows up.
Speaking during a recent video interview from Cologne, Germany, Lowery, 42, laid out some of the less obvious influences for his re-imagining of “Peter Pan & Wendy,” now streaming on Disney+.
Peter Pan’s Flight at Disneyland
To remain faithful to Disney’s take on “Peter Pan,” Lowery closely observed Peter Pan’s Flight, one of the original rides at Disneyland based on the 1953 film. The attraction, he said, “represents the movie distilled into a physical experience.” Although stunningly crafted, some the animated film’s defining iconography, most notably the image of Captain Hook straddling the jaws of the crocodile, has a greater impact on younger audiences when they see it immortalized in three dimensions in Peter Pan’s Flight.
That the old-fashioned theatrical illusions the ride employs, like the use of forced perspective for London’s skyline, could still elicit wonder even in an age of digital effects, impressed him. Lowery rode Peter Pan’s Flight while preparing to shoot “Peter Pan & Wendy,” and hearing the excited reactions of children and adults alike reminded him of how beloved the animated version is. “Seeing this film condensed into a theme park ride, I realized the weight that these stories, as told by Disney, have in popular culture,” he said.
‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’
Lowery first watched the Steven Spielberg action adventure at the tender age of 7, and it immediately ignited his creative aspirations. “It’s a real kitchen-sink experience,” he said. “It’s a musical, it’s a drama, it’s a romance, it’s a horror film.” For the emotional approach to “Peter Pan & Wendy,” Lowery drew on the eclectic tone of “Temple of Doom” as well as its juvenile sense of humor.
When creating the pirate hideout Skull Rock, Lowery tried to evoke the underground mines, in a cavernous space illuminated by lava, where the film’s Temple of Doom was located. “There’s also one shot in particular of Tiger Lily, the Lost Boys and Wendy looking down as John and Michael are about to be executed that is a direct homage to Indy, Willie Scott and Short Round looking down into the temple as the poor gentleman is about to be sacrificed to Kali,” Lowery explained.
Lowery sought to reconceptualize how Peter Pan and Tinkerbell are introduced to the Darling children. As he wrote the sequence in which Tinkerbell sprinkles Wendy with pixie dust, ostensibly to float her all the way to Neverland before she wakes up, the image of the sleeping woman levitating in the Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky’s surrealist “Mirror” (1975) came to mind. He added a screen grab of that moment to his look-book and then replicated it with Wendy.
‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’
To differentiate his movie from traditional pirate films, including Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Lowery looked to Peter Weir’s 2003 high-seas saga, which informed how he thought about Captain Hook and his crew. Instead of mere scoundrels, Lowery saw Captain Hook’s men as pirates playacting as soldiers and Hook himself as a decaying version of Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe in “Master and Commander”).
“I thought, ‘What if Captain Hook at some point commandeered a Napoleonic vessel and executed all the other soldiers on board and he and his pirates took over this ship and he now thought of himself as an admiral on the HMS Bounty?” Lowery said. To help the actors, the director brought in consultants to teach them how to realistically operate a ship. One bit of unexpected synchronicity: John DeSantis, who plays Bill Jukes in Lowery’s fantasy, also appeared in Weir’s Oscar-winning film.
‘Death in Venice’
Since Captain Hook is horrified at the notion that he has grown up, Lowery introduced the idea that he dyes his hair. “He wants to maintain his youth as an affront to Peter,” Lowery explained. The inspiration came from Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”: In the Italian director’s historical drama, an aging composer played by Dirk Bogarde colors his hair and wears makeup to appear younger. “At the end, when he’s on the beach, the hair dye just starts running down his face, exposing the deceit at the heart of Bogarde’s character,” Lowery said.
Bill the Butcher and ‘Candyman’
For Captain Hook’s image, Lowery drew from multiple sources. When he first pitched the project to the studio, he edited a hook for a hand onto a photo of a mustachioed Daniel Day-Lewis in 19th-century attire as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” “That became the Captain Hook I saw in my mind while I was writing the script,” he recalled.
With the hook itself, Lowery wanted to stay away from the precise, shiny devices used in other adaptations, like Spielberg’s “Hook.” The one Jude Law would wield in “Peter Pan & Wendy” had to look like a less refined, “pugilistic instrument of violence.” Lowery gave the prop department an image of actor Tony Todd in Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror film “Candyman,” about a ghostly killer with a hook for a missing hand. “We want it to be rusty,” Lowery added, “and to feel like it was a piece of metal that he pulled from the boat and had a blacksmith hammer into a barely usable form.”
There’s a vivid montage near the end of Lowery’s movie that shows Wendy’s adult life. She overcomes nostalgia and embraces the potential that lies ahead. “I wanted to capture the idea that growing up could be a beautiful thing,” he said. The montage is an allusion to a sequence, known as “Dream of the Future,” in the offbeat Coen brothers comedy “Raising Arizona,” in particular the shot where the kidnapper H. I. McDunnough (played by Nicolas Cage) imagines himself and his wife in old age with their large family gathered around a table. “As someone who is still in the process of growing up, it’s really helpful for me, on a therapeutic level, to see a character look at the future with a sense of wonder and anticipation,” Lowery said.