“Wendy”: Film Review | Sundance 2020

"Wendy"
Devin France as the titular Wendy from a screenshot from the film; photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and Searchlight Pictures

Writer-director Benh Zeitlin returns with his second film, and first since 2012’s ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ using the same gorgeous aesthetic as his first feature in a mediocre attempt at reimagining J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ but through the eyes of Wendy.

Eight years after making waves his directorial debut and indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild, Academy-Award nominated director (and writer), Benh Zeitlin returns with another tale about innocence and childhood dreams, breathing his rust-bottomed sense of magical realism into yet another adaptation of Peter Pan, retelling the story but through the eyes of the eldest Darling child. The elusiveness of Peter Pan has attracted plenty of gifted filmmakers over generations of cinema from Steven Spielberg’s Hook to Joe Wright’s Pan both of which were critically panned by critics for their overproduced and under-imagined takes of the classic J.M. Barrie story. And that same curse that hit those films hits here… hard. The director’s feral energy and dazzling aesthetic is unmatched and uninspiring. Cinema has definitely not halted since Zeitlin’s 2012 debut and what felt revolutionary and new back in 2012 feels outdated and packs a disappointing sense of familiarity.

The fresh take on the film is a bit more progressive than other versions (definitely more than Wright’s chaotic mess) – Peter is a Caribbean child and Wendy is a more proactive and feminist-leaning protagonist – but it just makes the film a bit more intense and artsy than it should be, especially if it is trying to attract a younger audience. What is also refreshing, from a cinephile’s point-of-view is the fact that there are no name actors among the amateur cast and it just continues to show Zeitlin’s proven gift of finding relative unknowns with great faces, expressive features and outstanding performances (he directed the “Beasts” discovery Quvenzhane Wallis to her Best Actress Oscar nomination). He struck gold with the casting of Devin France who plays Wendy at age 10. But when it came to casting Peter (Yashua Mack), he chooses a young black actor with a very expressive and emotive face yet a nearly unintelligible voice, which mixed with an exuberantly folksy score (by Dan Romer) does not make anythings better. Still the talent and charm of the children keep the film afloat.

Zeitlin also takes creative liberty in altering and reinventing certain parts of the fairy story that audiences have come to adore thanks to the likes of that Mouse-loving studio. He omits Tinker Ball and all other fairies from the stories, to take on a more approachable realistic tale. He sets the beginning of the film in Louisiana versus London but still chooses to have a tropical setting for the Lost Boy islands (the film was filmed on Montserrat, an island in the Caribbean). Instead of a crocodile, there is a big bioluminescent sea creature, which all the kids call “Mother” and whom the island’s adults (the pirates) believe to be the secret to reversing time and age. But from there, the plot just gets looser and looser with interesting artistic choices that will make you scratch your head and wonder what sort of connection the film has with the original Peter Pan story.

Some might find issue with the screenplay from the start. Zeitlin, whom co-wrote the feature with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, figure out ways to use the general schemes and themes that exist in Barrie’s tale but also removing all of its period baggage. You can feel the film straining to deal with aspects of the original story in an organic way that it ultimately feels less convincing. Yet when it pulls the more explicit statement of themes of “you can never lose hope” and “you have to lose your imagination” – it begins to sound like every repeated line in a Disney film. The film ultimately cannot decide what it wants to be – a more mature, and more realistic tale of a beloved classic. Or does it want to be a surrealistic film that tries to walk a fine line between innocence and maturation.

Do not get me wrong! Wendy is a very fun film to watch, especially on the big screen. But as the film continues to drag on and on, it becomes harder to follow and even becomes boring. The magic wears off long before the characters even decide to leave Neverland for home and although there are plenty of lovely visual looks and touches of practical and CG effects, it’s honestly not clear what Zeitlin is trying to even say with his modern-island adaptation of a classic. Hopefully Zeitlin’s next feature won’t feel like a recycle aesthetic but a newer, more adapted look with a story that has a point to make. That way the magic can last the entire film.

JAKKAWI: C

“Wendy” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres Category. At press time, the film was released in limited theatrical run on February 28, 2020 by Searchlight Pictures which acquired the distribution rights to the film in 2018.

Official trailer for the film, courtesy of YouTube and Searchlight Pictures

Director: Benh Zeitlin.
Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin.
Based on: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Music by: Dan Romer.
Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen.
Production: TSG Entertainment, Department of Motion Pictures, Journeyman Pictures.
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures.
With: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Romyri Ross.

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