Across all media, J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan probably boasts more adaptations and related works than anything other than William Shakespeare’s plays or the Bible. It is transcendent, in part, because the character achieves what everyone wishes for at some time in their lives: to be immortal.
Movie Reviewby George Lang
While there are many themes in Barrie’s work, the one at the center of director Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy is that concept of being forever young. Set in the same coastal Louisiana swampland that provided the world-in-decline feel of his previous film, 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin’s version centers on the title character’s pursuit of Peter (Yashua Mack), a free-spirited dreadlocked boy wearing a tattered private school blazer.
Wendy (Devin France) sees Peter running on top of a passing train from her railroad-adjacent bedroom. His elfin demeanor beckons Wendy and her twin brothers Douglas and James (Gavin and Gage Naquin) to hop the train and join Peter’s adventure in a worn-down Never-Neverland; a Caribbean island where she meets the Lost Boys and discovers equal parts paradise and apocalypse.
In the early run of things, Wendy plays like a worthy follow-up to Beasts, and the magical realism of that acclaimed film carries into Zeitlin’s latest along with the director’s unmistakable tableau of overgrowth and detritus. The young actors are on par with Beasts’ Quvenzhane´ Wallis, but Zeitlin’s screenplay (written with his sister, Eliza Zeitlin) becomes considerably less sharp once the children reach the island.
Peter’s island becomes the setting for meditations on age, innocence and staving off cynicism, but each new development feels half-developed. Imagery becomes more important than coherence as the time spent in lush greenery gives way to an empire of dirt populated by a group of ragged elderly castaways.
In the same way Wes Anderson’s visual style is uniquely his own, Zeitlin is master of the humid, squalid environments he favors in his work. But while Anderson always hews close to his story in every shot, Wendy loses the thread and atmosphere becomes the driving force.
Zeitlin is exceptionally gifted and he is likely to bring forward more socially conscious, transporting films, that put forward equal parts style and substance. But while Beasts spoke to the erasure of wetlands and life in a cloistered community after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the move toward more pronounced fantasy renders Wendy as a mere hanging rod for Zeitlin’s tarnished window dressing.
PG-13 1:52 2 ½ stars
Directed by: Ben Zeitlin
Starring: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin (brief violent/bloody images)