‘Wendy’ Beautifully Updates ‘Peter Pan’ (FILM REVIEW)


In 2012, Benh Zeitlin made one of the best movies last decade, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Using a cast of unknowns and non-professionals, he crafted a film that explored racism and classism through the lens of childlike wonder that resonates with a raw beauty that could melt the coldest heart. And then? He disappeared.

That’s not something you’d expect from a filmmaker whose first feature netted four Oscar nominations, especially considering the four he got were Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. That kind of showing typically means studios are clamoring to get him back in the chair. Certainly, at the very least, we would expect it would take less than eight years for the follow up.

But Zeitlin isn’t really a typical director. Like Terrence Malick—another director known for long gaps between films—Zeitlin takes the artist’s approach to filmmaking, taking his time to craft visual poems that elude common perceptions. Or, at least, we suspected as much after Beasts of the Southern Wild. But, now, with his latest film, Wendy, we have some supporting evidence.

For his latest, Zeitlin turns his artistic eye towards the classic story of Peter Pan, updating it to modern times and telling it from the perspective of Wendy Darling (Devin France). Zeitlin, however, refuses to be bogged down by convention. In this telling, Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) doesn’t fly. Rather, he visits prospective Lost Boys by train, luring them out to join him on a mystical island where youth is eternal for those who can manage to hold on to the joys of childhood.

Narratively, it’s all at once familiar and fresh. This is a decidedly new take on the classic tale that allows Zeitlin to explore similar thematic grounds as he did with his debut. Fueled by the imagination of youth, Wendy deigns to ask the audience when they lost the exuberance they once held, that childhood zest for life that gets pushed down by the perils and responsibilities of adulthood.

Zeitlin uses his camera with an almost verité flourish, never really allowing himself to interfere with the story so much as he lets the story occur before us. He is, if nothing else, a master of visual poetry, framing shots that ache with emotion and say so much more than the script is telling us.

While the story itself suffers from some first act stumbling, it’s not hard to get drawn into Zeitlin’s revisioning of Neverland, which here takes the form a volcanic island that Peter and the Lost Boys call Mother. Much of the joy of Wendy comes from watching Wendy and her two brothers, James and Doug (Gavin and Gage Naquin), explore the mysteries and dangers of their island paradise.

Though far from as resonate that Beasts of the Southern Wild was, Wendy manages to be a thoughtful and engaging follow up that allows Zeitlin to flex his artistry in fascinating ways. The film is a stunning ode to the joys of childhood and celebration of aging that invites us to consider how we look at the world and ourselves. Perhaps there’s still some of the old magic left, we just have to remember how to see it. And maybe, in the end, it’s enough that we can occasionally tap into the joys of play and imagination as adults to make the magic glow again.

Wendy is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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