Directed by Benh Zeitlin.
Starring Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Shay Walker, Tommie Lynn Milazzo, and Stephanie Lynn Wilson
Lost on a mysterious island where aging and time have come unglued, Wendy must fight to save her family, her freedom, and the joyous spirit of youth from the deadly peril of growing up.
In every beat from Dan Romer’s delightfully uplifting score for Wendy is the sensation that the narrative is aspiring to reach something grander, almost constantly and desperately seeking to be epic in scale. Unfortunately, the narrative never reaches any of those heights, as director Benh Zeitlin (re-imagining the classic fable of Peter Pan alongside his sister Eliza) has more ideas to either spin this classic tale on its head or demystify aspects than he knows what to do with. Not before long, it’s all a disjointed mess where only the technical aspects provide some measure of enchantment and entertainment.
Starting with what Benh Zeitlin does do well (as evident from his Oscar-nominated debut narrative feature Beasts of the Southern Wild, of which he is collaborating with much of the same talent for this sophomore effort), the casting of child actors is on-point; they truly do deserve to be in a much more focused story. Whether it’s the inquisitive eponymous Wendy (Devin France) who spends her rural days dreaming of not growing old and thinking about a similar young boy who ran away from home entirely to escape such a thing, or the eccentric Rastafarian interpretation of Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) who seems to have been separated from his family now living on the unnamed island of Neverland containing mystical powers ceasing aging, the talent in front of the screen always comes close to generating emotional investment.
The problem is that Benh Zeitlin can’t settle on any one idea to further explore, and there are many. They are also usually intriguing, ranging from the sea creature dubbed Mother that seems to be the source of the island’s abilities and deeper character motives for both never wanting to grow old and the eventual realization that there’s nothing wrong with aging. At times, Peter comes across as selfish but it’s for a purpose the more we learn about his character. It’s also frustrating that for a film titled Wendy, she doesn’t seem to do much besides spout narration, whereas other characters (including her slightly older brothers that are more feral and easily distracted, initially content with living life one day at a time and growing up) go on wilder narrative arcs. The film also has a fascinating way of introducing beloved characters to the story, especially Captain Hook, even if there is an event leading up to it that is so unsettling and gruesome it made me question what target demographic this movie is even for.
That’s a larger issue at play with Wendy, in that while it’s fine as a traditional story about the desire to defy growing up and embrace childhood forever and ever, the magical realism is so far grounded that it’s hard to imagine younger audiences even caring about the experience. Simultaneously, it’s not necessarily for older viewers either, as the longer the movie went on it became tougher and tougher to stick with the story. Again, it doesn’t help that the script is consistently shifting to a new idea before doing anything of note with what is currently being explored.
Benh Zeitlin does have the luxury of a talented filmmaking crew and child actors that are willing to go to extreme lengths to provide a great deal of authenticity when it comes to environments. This interpretation of Neverland takes place on an island near a volcano ready to erupt, and shockingly it is not a special effect (the location is known as the island of Montserrat). Combine this with the abundant amount of underwater sequences (also done for real with Benh Zeitlin himself apparently teaching the kids how to swim, and so often that there’s rarely a moment where the characters aren’t visibly drenched in water), and it’s hard not to contemplate if and how much danger there was on this set. Eight years is a long time to follow up on a debut film and it’s well documented that Benh Zeitlin went through some intense preparation, and to his credit shooting on location with natural lighting and environments alongside terrific photography and cinematography paid off on a technical level. Still, it doesn’t necessarily mean the story is compelling.
There is also the case that some of that insistence on sticking to realism (much more than magic) creates a jarring tone where one isn’t quite sure if they want to go on an adventure with these children or if they want someone to locate them ASAP to get them out of harm’s way. The characters can be just as volatile to one another as the volcano on site, which might work if the film bothered to really get inside the head of these children. Wendy is an episodic series of ideas that never manifests into something greater or grand, no matter how hard every facet of the filmmaking crew tries.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com