Benh and Eliza Zeitlin — the writing/directing team of siblings that previously brought us the kickass awards darling Beasts of the Southern Wild — finally came out with their sophomore feature after eight goddamn years, and it’s a reimagining of Peter Pan. Holy shit, sign me up.
Wendy stars the remarkable young newcomer Devin France as the titular Wendy Darling. In this iteration, she and her twin brothers (James and Douglas, respectively played by actual twin brothers Gavin and Gage Naquin) are the children of a single mother running a greasy spoon diner in some USA backwater.
The tone is set early on, when all the regular diner patrons speculate on what the kids will grow into, with one especially prominent voice stating that they’ll stay in this one-hat town and grow into nobodies, just like everyone else there. At this point, the boy next door (played by Krzysztof Meyn) refuses to let the adults decide what kind of man he’ll grow up to be, so he runs off and stows away on a passing train.
So, he’s Peter, right? Nope! That’s Thomas. He’s just another lost boy. Peter in this iteration is played by another young newcomer named Yashua Mack. Gotta say, I appreciate the novelty of a black Peter Pan, and he’s certainly got the look of it. Too bad he hasn’t learned decent line delivery yet.
Anyway, the movie doesn’t start out so bad. The relevant themes are firmly in place. The character analogues are all set. The train that takes us off to Neverland, as the kids spread their arms and pretend they’re flying? I dig that.
But then we actually get to Neverland, and this is where things start to fray.
To be clear, it takes a while. At first, Neverland is established as a remote island, far enough away that it’s untouched by civilization, yet close enough that grade-school kids can row there in a beat-up canoe. So the disbelief is stretched quite a bit at the outset.
I should also add that it’s a volcanic island, which was a neat way of giving the island an illusion of sentient life. And of course Peter seems to have an innate affinity for the island, but he could just be making that up. By all appearances, this is a perfectly mundane island with no fairies, no mermaids, and there sure as hell aren’t any outdated Native American stereotypes. But then, it’s not like an untamed jungle island needs any of that to look magical in the eyes of a young kid.
Yes, this is promised and sold as a more “realistic” Neverland where kids will eventually grow old. Yet it’s also a place with no rules, no laws, no responsibilities, and no expectations or arbitrary goals. For all practical purposes, how is that really any different from staying young forever?
But then we meet Mother. Yes, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys have a mother in this iteration, even before Wendy arrives. And no, that’s not the crazy part.
The crazy part is that Mother is some massive underwater sea creature with a glowing underbelly. And it apparently has some kind of vague magical powers that may or may not be the reason why kids don’t grow old in Neverland. So it’s like a bizarre mashup of the mermaids, the fairies, and the magic of Neverland itself.
So yes, it’s firmly established that while children can get injured and even die on Neverland, they don’t grow old. Except for when they get depressed, they lose hope, their imagination fades, and so on and so forth. So we do have adults on a remote corner of Neverland, which eventually takes us to the pirates and this iteration of Captain Hook, and the analogues have flown clear off the goddamn rails by this point.
(NOTE: In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go any further into the origins of this film’s Captain Hook and why this take is such a fucked bastardization of the source text. Though if you’ve been paying attention, you might have picked up a clue already.)
The bottom line is that in very short order, it becomes perfectly clear that the filmmakers are far more interested in the iconography and broader themes of the source text, rather than the plot or the characters. Watching this movie practically demands a kind of selective amnesia with regards to “Peter Pan”, which is exceedingly difficult for a story so deeply ingrained into our collective consciousness.
(Side note: A month ago, I checked out the 2019 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with Guy Pearce, in which the classic tale was liberally adapted into a three-hour miniseries, stuffing and reworking the source material until it damn near broke. For those of you who’ve seen the miniseries, this is pretty much the same deal.)
“Peter Pan” is primarily known as a work of escapist all-ages fantasy, and that’s not what the film is. Nowhere near it. Yet the film is very explicitly a coming-of-age story that ruminates on the nature of youth and adulthood, something that wasn’t really a prominent factor of the original book — certainly not to this extent — until its closing chapters.
It was always kind of hinted at in the source text, but the film spells it out crystal clear that Peter Pan is the only boy who would never grow up. For everyone else, Neverland is only a temporary redoubt at best and an outright lie at worst. Sooner or later, there will be some trauma, some failure, some irretrievable loss of innocence. Youth inevitably fades, and it can never be completely recovered.
And yet the movie states explicitly — far more than the book ever did, even in its closing chapters — that growing old is perfectly natural and not necessarily anything bad. In fact, with enough hope, imagination, curiosity, and a little bit of playtime, we can always maintain that sense of magic and wonder so crucial to youth.
In summary, what we’ve got here is an aggressively gritty movie about the stubbornly primal nature of youth, set on a fantasy island where kids have run from their parents and there’s nobody to tell them what to do. Funny how the film was made and sold as a reimagining of “Peter Pan”, yet it turned out to be closer in tone to the 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. And the former turned out to be the inferior film, primarily because it’s straining far more visibly against the source material.
The film is beautiful to look at, though I’m sure the shaky-cam would’ve been unbearable on the big screen. Also, the costume design left a fair bit to be desired, especially with regards to Wendy herself — either she inexplicably wore earrings to bed, or she inexplicably put them in while she was running to catch the train to Neverland. I found that design detail to be a distracting and totally unnecessary faux pas.
Also, Wendy goes through most of the film in a worn-out hand-me-down rodeo T-shirt, complete with event dates on the back. Until now, it’s ever occurred to me how much time — in any given movie — we spend looking at the characters’ backs. In all the movies I’ve ever seen, I can’t remember any other character who ever wore text on their back. Turns out there’s a very basic costume design reason why: It’s distracting as hell.
Still, the score was nice enough. And with the minor exception of Yashua Mack, all the child actors were surprisingly capable of playing their parts and carrying the film. Most especially during the underwater shots. Seriously, it’s easy to take for granted, but filming and performing underwater is extremely difficult to do well and do safely, especially for action sequences. There must have been fifteen minutes of screen time shot underwater in this picture, and that’s genuinely impressive.
Last but not least, the film is bloated as hell. There’s absolutely no reason why this movie had to be two hours long. Especially when we don’t have the crocodile, Tiger Lilly, Tinker Bell, the fairies, the Indians, or so many other prominent staples taking up space in the familiar plot.
I wouldn’t say Wendy is necessarily a bad movie. It’s constructed well enough, the child actors all range from passable to incredible, and the Zeitlin Siblings have proven themselves firmly adept at coming-of-age movies contrasting wild and reckless youth with responsible and “civilized” adulthood. But that’s just it.
For a movie that came from the prodigious talents that made Beasts of the Southern Wild, there’s a strong sense that this movie should’ve been far better (or at least less bloated) than it turned out to be. Moreover, an ostensible adaptation of “Peter Pan” comes with certain expectations that the filmmakers either treated as polite suggestions or disregarded entirely — often to the film’s detriment.
Half the time, I couldn’t tell if the filmmakers hadn’t settled on how fantastic they wanted this movie to be, or if I was just having a hard time shedding my preconceived notions of what a Peter Pan retelling should look and operate like. So if you’re okay with leaving your expectations at the door, go ahead and give it a try.
Also, fuck Pan. Yes, I’m still sore about that movie. Now and forever, FUUUCK PAN.