Arty reimagining of Peter Pan grows up fast
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin
Back in 2012 writer-director Benh Zeitlin made his feature film debut with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fiercely fresh fairy tale set in a flood-ravaged, postapocalyptic world inspired by the lingering ghosts of Hurricane Katrina. Eight years later Zeitlin returns, delivering another dirt poor Deep South fantasia with the kids’ lit-inspired Wendy.
Less of a modern-day remake of the eternal childhood fantasy Peter Pan and more of a freeform rumination on author J.M Barrie’s characters and themes, Wendy takes us to a greasy spoon diner buried along the railroad tracks in some nameless Southern American hamlet. This is home to 10-year-old Wendy Darling (intense-eyed moppet Devin France), whose single mother (Shay Walker) labors day and night at the diner trying to support Wendy and her two roustabout brothers, James and Doug-o (twins Gavin and Gage Naquin). Wendy is a dreamer, though, with an overactive imagination, and she fantasizes about escaping her dreary life and flying away to a world filled with magic and adventure.
Those prospects come calling one night in the form of Peter (Yashua Mack), a dreadlocked ragamuffin in a threadbare school uniform. Peter lures Wendy and her two brothers onto the top of the steaming locomotive—a timeworn American symbol for vagabonds and runaways—that rattles past their clapboard home every night like clockwork. Soon, the Darling children are whisked away to a magical tropical island inhabited by a tribe of wild child “Lost Boys” who never seem to age.
Peter’s Lost Boys play childish games, tumble down mountainsides in the rain and rage at the smoking volcano that looms over their island. (Wendy was shot largely on the striking Caribbean island of Montserrat, which was devastated by a volcano in 1995.) As in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin willingly mires himself in a muddy, sweaty, earthy, positively primordial environment. All dirty knees and frayed clothing, these kids are refreshingly, realistically (and quite gleefully) freed from society’s civilizing influence. Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer—or maybe the kids in Lord of the Flies—they have been absorbed back into nature.
Unfettered from Mr. Barrie’s distinctly Victorian views about gender and womanhood, our new Wendy is perfectly happy to wallow in the mud alongside the boys. But she carries her single mom’s sense of parental duty with her—which boils down, simply, to “protect your tribe.”
In time Zeitlin’s take on the material manages to include pirates (of a sort) and even an extremely weird variation on Tinkerbell. While all of this sounds like a rather standard, modern-day reinterpretation of Peter Pan, it plays out in a meandering, mythopoetic, symbol-laden style that will be instantly familiar to anyone who saw Beasts of the Southern Wild. In fact, Wendy functions as a near-identical companion piece to that earlier work of magical realist cinema. Whether this speaks to Zeitlin’s strong sense of artistic identity or his lack of creative growth is up for debate.
For long stretches of time, Zeitlin’s unhurried film is happy to luxuriate in the hypnotic visual imagery of his striking outdoor setting. (It doesn’t look as if a single rotting set or rusty prop that wasn’t found in situ has been utilized here.) A bit more interest in the niceties of plot and character development, however, might have eased the film over some of its budgetary limitations. Zeitlin’s insistence on using “natural,” untrained actors is more obvious when there’s less for them to do. (The guy basically lugged an old 16mm film camera around a destroyed, still-actively volcanic tropical island and filmed a bunch of kids with no acting experience. That he got anything on film is something of a miracle.) Wendy is a hell of a lot less polished than your average Peter Pan adaptation—but it comes closer in spirit than most to capturing the energy of unsupervised childhood.
Eventually, Wendy and the Lost Boys run afoul of a group of “olds” (former Lost Boys whose sense of childhood wonder has worn off) from the devastated side of Neverland. (Zeitlin’s idea of aging is as grubby and unromantic as his view of childhood.) This leads to a potentially dangerous physical confrontation. Not to mention a heady philosophical battle between “staying young and innocent” and “growing up and losing your sense of wonder”—which is pretty much the heart of Peter Pan in any iteration.
Viewers expecting the cartoonish vibrancy of Disney’s familiar Peter Pan or the strained mirth of Steven Spielberg’s studio-bound Hook are likely to find themselves leagues adrift with this arty adventure. Wendy is a fantastical and wholly original work of art. That’s for damn sure. But its mixture of gritty, down-to-earth realism and dreamy childhood reverie are two strong flavors that aren’t always easy to swallow together. If you prefer your fairy tales fractured, however, Wendy definitely fits the bill.
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