Ever since J.M. Barrie published the original version of Peter Pan in 1904, the story of the boy who refused to grow up has captivated generations of fantasy fans. We've seen the titular character and his friends adapted numerous times before, including the beloved 1953 Disney film, Steven Spielberg's 1991 cult classic 'Hook,' and Marc Forster's criminally underappreciated Barrie biopic, 'Finding Neverland' just to name a few. It's been adapted so much that the idea of telling new stories with this material almost feels inevitable.
That being said, if we're talking about filmmakers that I probably wouldn't have pinned down to tackle this story, Benh Zeitlin would probably be on that list. 2012's 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' captivated critics and put Zeitlin on the map for a lot of people. But despite a few composing and cinematography gigs here and there, this is his first film back in the director's chair in the eight years.
Despite my attempts to track down a copy, I wasn't able to 'Beasts' in time for this review (I actually don't even think I saw the entire thing, as the 2012 awards season was right before I started really getting invested in movies). The few things I do remember were a distinctly unique sense of visuals and an appreciation for blending fantastical elements with real-world issues and struggles. Between all of those aspects, I definitely had my curiosity behind this, so what exactly do we get with 'Wendy?'
Alright, so I have never been too knowledgeable of the "mythology" of Peter Pan despite the incarnations that I've seen, so I can't necessarily comment on 'Wendy's legacy in terms of Barrie's story. In regards to the film itself, I can't help but feel that the result is a bit too preachy for the type of emotion it's trying to keep consistent. Zeitlin's film rests on giving a sense of empowerment and liveliness to its story that has enough to keep interest, but not all that much to stay with the audience afterward.
Wendy (played by Devin France) is a young girl living with her family in rural Louisiana. This includes her twin brothers, Douglas (played by Gage Naquin) and James (played by Gavin Naquin), as well as their mother who runs a local diner. Like her brothers, Wendy has a fascination with adventures and stories but is surrounded by adults who believe that wonder doesn't have a place with old age.
One night, Wendy and her brothers see a young boy on top of a nearby train and attempt to follow him. They then accompany the boy to a mysterious island that is seemingly in the middle of the ocean. The young boy is revealed to be named Peter (played by Yashua Mack), and is the leader of a group of children who have found their way to the island.
Even more astounding is the discovery that the island is watched over by an ancient creature called The Mother, whose strange abilities allow the children to stay young forever. Together with her siblings and their exciting new friends, Wendy explores the island's massive cave systems, a dormant volcano, and meets a group of elderly inhabitants that may shed some new light on the prospects of youth.
The first half of this film is distinctly more inviting, and it's the half that captured my imagination the most. From the moment we're introduced to a young Wendy at the start of the film, Zeitlin's direction does everything it can to try and frame this from her point of view, not only from a story perspective, but from a size perspective as well.
In particular, cinematographer Sturla Grøvlen and composer Dan Romer (who worked alongside Zeitlin on the music) deserve a lot of credit in enhancing the world around Wendy, between the former's low-angled shots of rural Louisiana, and the latter's use of vocal cues in the score that heavily tie in as the film goes on. It's that mix of beautiful visuals and ethereal music choices that allows some of Zeitlin's ambition to really shine through.
But if we're talking about shining through, we have to talk about Zeitlin's bizarre ability to find incredible child leads for his types of stories, first with Quevenzhane Wallis in 'Beasts' and now with Devin Chance as Wendy. As I mentioned, a lot of the film is through Wendy's eyes, both her sense of wonder and fear, and this is where Chance really gets a lot of room to work as a performer. Wendy's fears of growing up carry on to her brothers and are only accentuated by her mother and the other adults around her.
At that time as a kid, a lot of us feel this deeply confusing fear of what adult life is like, yet Wendy is the one area where this fear comes off as genuine rather than other times in the film. In addition, a lot of the young cast are giving a pretty sincere effort to make the island feel like their own kind of utopia, particularly Yashua Mack as Peter. His portrayal is a very different take on Peter Pan, but he still has this charismatic ability to hold a scene, even with a sort of hidden trauma underneath that doesn't get that much screen time to explore.
Where the film starts to falter is along its second half, a lot of it having to do with those ideas and themes of adulthood and maturity. Zeitlin's script (co-written with his sister Eliza) seemingly has all the pieces going for it, trying to put these kids in an environment of their own while making commentary on those childhood fears many of us have had in the past. The biggest issue for me is that the film seems to want to build a fantastical world for these characters to play in, and then the Peter Pan elements come in and just can't keep up with its momentum.
Sure, some things are left out for convenience, but the story behind Captain Hook and the eventual deifying of Peter don't feel as unique as they should be. The Mother is an interesting plot device, but it also results in the last third feeling like an ode to 'Jaws,' moving from its more introspective ideas to tense action, and feeling incredibly out of place.
That can also be said for the remainder of the film's third act, where some bizarre character choices are made that, despite its best efforts to keep you locked in with the kids, you can't help but turn to real-world logic and question the reasoning behind it.
'Wendy' is muddled, but it also feels like a project made from legitimate love from Benh Zeitlin; tying into ideas that its primarily adult audience may have lost over the years and taking back to, not only a story many of us grew up loving, but the ideas it presents as well.
A lot of that love feels misplaced at times, especially as the film distances itself from its origins in the second half, and yet I couldn't help but get excited at points. This is a Peter Pan story that at least tries to modernize its classic status in a new way, and I can at least give it enough props for trying, but I still wish it took to those heights that I know it believes it can reach.
Overall, I give 'Wendy' 6/10.
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