What is it about Peter Pan? The essential themes of J. M. Barrie’s 1904 “fairy play” have been repeated throughout pop culture so many times, in so many forms, that they’ve essentially become modern myth. A magical getaway from a staid reality to a world of adventure, centered around a hero blessed with eternal youth—it’s easy to see the appeal in that elemental mix of excitement and danger. But even though Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy is an aggressively revamped take on Barrie’s work, a freewheeling fable set in rumbling train cars and volcanic oceans, it’s hampered by its reliance on a story that’s been overused on the silver screen.
Between Disney’s totemic 1953 film; Steven Spielberg’s sentimental sequel, Hook; P. J. Hogan’s familiar, uninspired live-action adaptation; the treacly Barrie biopic Finding Neverland; and Joe Wright’s truly maddening prequel, Pan, there are already plenty of Peter Pan angles around. Nonetheless, Zeitlin, who emerged eight years ago with the Sundance smash hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, has spent the intervening time on the ambitious undertaking of Wendy. Like his earlier film, it features a cast of nonprofessional actors, almost all of them children, and a script that I would generously describe as vague. The effort it must have taken to create this movie is apparent in every frame, but that doesn’t mean it’s watchable.
The most interesting thing about Zeitlin’s approach to the Peter Pan story is not the superficial tweaks he’s made, such as setting it on the igneous beaches of Montserrat or rooting the world’s magic in a whale-size sea beast called “Mother.” It’s in the title—this reimagining, co-written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, really does center Barrie’s heroine, Wendy (played by Devin France), as the lead character. Unlike so many of her counterparts, this Wendy, the brash daughter of a New Orleans diner owner, doesn’t exist simply to follow her idol, Peter, around. Afraid to grow up and have to grind life out as her mother does, she decides one day to hop on a train with her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin). They end up in an island world where kids, headed up by the extroverted Peter (Yashua Mack), run around, have adventures, and indeed never age.
That’s about all the plot the film has to offer. Yes, a version of the villainous Captain Hook eventually enters the scene, and the aquatic goddess Mother fills the fairylike role occupied by Tinker Bell in Barrie’s original work. But mostly, Wendy consists of youngsters running around dramatic landscapes, yelling and laughing while the world around them starts to crumble. The dialogue is largely screamed, often to no one in particular, because the details don’t really matter. It’s invigorating at moments, but exhausting over an almost-two-hour running time.
I was not the biggest fan of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which shares a lot of cinematic DNA with Wendy. Its tale of a plucky young girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) was visually arresting, beautifully scored, and enjoyably anarchic from scene to scene, but had a frustrating tendency toward emotional manipulation. Still, Zeitlin’s scattershot approach (a chaotic group-filmmaking effort that emphasizes improvisation) clearly came together in the editing room, managing to hammer out a recognizable plot and an emotional arc for Hushpuppy.
Wendy, on the other hand, is surprisingly aimless. Every strength the film has seems like an echo of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Dan Romer’s propulsive party of a score, composed in collaboration with Zeitlin, does its best to drive the action. The sense of a lush world spinning out of environmental balance is crucial; in Beasts, it was “the Bathtub,” a fictional Louisiana fishing community under threat from rising tides. In Wendy, it’s the children’s island home, which perches on the edge of an active volcano and is being besieged by grown-up fishermen who have no respect for Mother’s magic powers.
Visually, the forcefulness of Zeitlin’s world building is stunning, and Wendy—shot in landscapes no movie crew has ever visited before—is miraculous to look at. But the director can’t back up the aesthetics with any granular detail. In spite, or perhaps because, of their famous origins, Wendy, Peter, and the rest of the Lost Boys never feel like anything more than childlike archetypes, making their adventures strangely dull. Wendy is one of the oddest Peter Pan adaptations I’ve seen committed to celluloid. If only that made it memorable.