When writer-director David Lowery wrapped production on his acclaimed film Pete’s Dragon 7 years ago, he was approached to do a live-action adaptation of Peter Pan. “My first instinct was no,” admits Lowery. ” I took a couple days and let it percolate in my head, as ideas tend to do, and thought about what would define my version of ‘Peter Pan,’ and before too long I was hooked (no pun intended).”
“There had been so many great ‘Peter Pan’ movies already. I love the book. I love the story. It’s one of my favorites, but I didn’t know what I could bring to it,” says co-writer/director David Lowery, whose other directing credits include The Green Knight and A Ghost Story, who co-wrote the screenplay for Peter Pan & Wendy with Toby Halbrooks based on the novel by J. M. Barrie and the animated film Peter Pan.
When Peter Pan & Wendy premieres on Disney+ in April, audiences are bound to appreciate different aspects of the film and its numerous messages and themes. “I hope audiences get everything that they need out of it,” says co-writer/director David Lowery. “That’s the best you can hope for when you make a movie – that audiences will find something that relates to them personally, and that’s not for me to prescribe. That’s for them to discover, and I hope that they discover quite a bit.”
“What’s nice about this story is the authenticity of it,” says executive producer Adam Borba. “It feels true to the spirit of the original film. This is a movie that’s for everyone. Not just a movie for kids but one entire families will want to see together, or even couples on date night. It’s epic, there are unbelievable set pieces, spectacular action, kids flying, and real magic in this movie.”
“I’ve grown up within the Disney world, so to be able to be a part of a project that gets to market its 100th year anniversary is so special,” says Yara Shahidi. “Disney has been such a big part of my life, because I grew up on the Disney lot shooting ‘Black-ish’ and ‘Grown-ish,’ so it’s extremely special to be able to grow within the ecosystem.” “I hope that, at the end of this movie,” says writer/executive producer Toby Halbrooks, “the lingering feeling for those watching is that you aren’t alone, you shouldn’t feel alone, and your friends and family matter. Hold on to them.”
J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy was published in 1911 to great acclaim, while Disney’s animated film Peter Pan was well received upon its release in 1953, but the filmmakers were interested in making a new film that would accurately reflect the world we live in today.
The book introduced the world to the timeless story and its beloved characters, and while the book did include some illustrations, it was the iconography from the animated film that secured the story’s place in the annals of pop culture.
In the film when Smee states that John and Michael are not the first boys he has plucked from the sea, it is one of the first hints as to Captain Hook’s history in Never Land, one that continues to have a major impact on himself and everyone around him. It is also one of many departures the film makes from the source material. In the novel Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie writes, “Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze.” In the play “Peter Pan,” Barrie suggests Hook had gone to the prestigious Eton College before becoming a pirate, yet neither work explores how Hook became Hook.
For co-writers Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, this left a hole that begged to be explored and explained.
“After sitting with this story for a long time,” says Executive Producer Toby Halbrooks, who is a partner with Lowery at Sailor Bear Productions, “David had a breakthrough: what if Peter and Hook were friends originally? What if they came to Never Land together? Now you can really play with who they were before, where they came from, and why they’re both in Never Land.”
Executive producer Adam Borba says, “From a story point of view, how do you stay true to the classic that everyone loves, yet create something a modern audience would expect? David and Toby have created quite a few surprises in terms of characters’ backstories, and once you discover them, the dynamic between Hook and Peter, and Peter’s own decisions, will make total sense, perhaps more so than in the original.”
Peter Pan was hurt when Hook departed Never Land when they were boys, but even more bothersome was one of the reasons why he departed. “Hook’s desire to see his mother was something that Peter couldn’t bear,” says producer Jim Whitaker, “because he couldn’t bear to see his friend leave.”
James returned to Never Land and was picked up by pirates and raised to become captain of the Jolly Roger, and everything changed. “During that time, he became more and more becoming aggrieved about being banished,” says Whitaker. “The fight that exists between Peter and Hook is primal. It’s a fight between friends who didn’t want to separate and are now in a constant war over that.”
“When James got back,” Halbrooks explains, “Peter didn’t accept him. Peter didn’t even try to listen to James, to learn about what had happened to him. Peter was just, ‘You’re a grown-up, you’re evil, you’ve joined these pirates.’ So, there’s a complexity there that is difficult for them to unravel. They’re both wrong and that’s what this movie is exploring.”
Adding to the mental anguish is the fact that Peter had cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to a crocodile. Hook’s rudimentary prosthetic is a constant reminder of his loss – of his friendship, his childhood, and his hand – and prevents him from healing. “When Hook returned to Never Land,” says Borba, “he thought he was coming back to Peter Pan, his best friend. But Hook wasn’t a little boy anymore. He wasn’t James, he was an adult and a pirate. He could no longer be a Lost Boy. Peter didn’t recognize his best friend and pushed him away. The two of them fought and Peter cut off Hook’s hand. Because of that, the two of them are forever going to be adversaries.”
“One of the great things about David and Toby’s work,” says Borba, “is that they’re always driven by strong universal themes. There are quite a few in this film, but the one that resonates the most – and it goes back to the source material – and which David has really shone a light on, is that everyone grows up at their own pace. There are times when one character is ready to move on and the other character isn’t, but neither is wrong. We all come to these points multiple times throughout our lives. We all progress through life differently. We all wrestle with the question of when we should leave Never Land, and where is the right place for us to belong.”
Another theme Lowery was eager to explore is the notion of home and belonging and connection. “While this journey is filled with villains and Captain Hook and the irascible Peter Pan, it’s ultimately about these children coming home to their mothers,” says Borba. “And there is this recurring symbol of daughters and mothers – not just Wendy and her mother but also Tiger Lily and her mother and grandmothers – that I think is beautiful. This world that we’ve been living in recently, there’s been a lot of disconnection, a lot of people needing to find each other, and this movie is exactly about that.
One of the biggest concerns when developing “Peter Pan & Wendy” for Disney+ was deciding how much of the original to keep and how much to discard. “J. M. Barrie was writing at a time when the notion of childhood wasn’t important to people at all,” says co-writer/executive producer Toby Halbrooks. “It was important to us that the children have an inner life, so we understand their fear of growing up. We really dug in on that essential core of the story but went way deeper with it, and explored what it means to be a friend, which the source material wasn’t too concerned about.”
As originally written and portrayed, Peter Pan was quite obnoxious and defiant and cocky. This Peter is carefree and steeped in adolescence, but still a little selfish. With his loyal fairy Tinker Bell at his side, he will always be known as the boy who doesn’t want to grow up. “We made our Peter slightly more tolerable as a human being,” says Halbrooks. “And he is constantly looking for new friends to join him on his adventures. So, when he finds this young girl who also doesn’t want to grow up, he brings her to Never Land.
DAVID LOWERY (Director/Co-Screenwriter) came to the attention of moviegoers and Hollywood when in 2013, he wrote and directed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, he wrote and directed The Old Man & the Gun, an adaptation of David Grann’s The New Yorker article. His other writer-director feature credits are St. Nick, Ghost Story, and The Green Knight. Lowery directed Pete’s Dragon, which he co-wrote with Toby Halbrooks.
TOBY HALBROOKS (Co-Screenwriter/Executive Producer) came to film after touring the world for six years as a member of the rock group The Polyphonic Spree. Halbrooks is a partner with David Lowery and James Johnston in the production company Sailor Bear, which was initially formed for their short film “Pioneer.” “Pioneer” was nominated for the Short Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Competition Award at the SXSW Film Festival in 2011. Halbrooks and Johnston were recipients of a 2011 Sundance Creative Producing Fellowship during the development of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” and the pair was also awarded the Indian Paintbrush Producers Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Halbrooks and Johnston also won the Producers Award at the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards. Halbrooks was the co-producer of “Upstream Color,” which was entered into competition at Sundance in 2013. In 2014 he wrote and directed “Dig,” which was nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Grand Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival. Since then, he has produced David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” “The Old Man & the Gun,” and “The Green Knight.” Halbrooks is also a wizard.