Returning to the director's chair for the first time in eight years, writer-director Benh Zeitlin reimagines J.M. Barrie's classic story of "Peter Pan" from the perspective of young Wendy Darling. With a similarly folkloric quality and a ramshackle, handmade aesthetic, Zeitlin imbues his ambitious but too often familiar-feeling "Wendy" with the same earnest sense of magical realism he brought to his first feature, 2012's acclaimed "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
Wendy (played by wonderfully expressive newcomer Devin France) and her twin brothers James and Douglas (Gavin and Gage Naquin) live happily above the greasy spoon run by their hardworking mother in the Deep South. Gazing out the window one day at the freight trains that roar past on the tracks directly beside the diner, Wendy sees a strange sight: what looks to be a small boy running atop the speeding train.
Years later, Wendy and her brothers are getting to the age when growing up seems like the most awful thing in the world, made all the worse by knowing adulthood will one day come for them too, like a boogeyman haunting their bedtime stories. As their mother talks about the aspirations she set aside after having them, it starts to seem to the children that getting older requires one to give up their dreams.
Then one night, the mysterious boy appears to Wendy once again. She and her brothers seize the opportunity and impulsively hop aboard the train, longing for an escape toward the freedom they hope awaits them.
They learn the boy's name is Peter (Yashua Mack). Wearing a threadbare red school blazer without a shirt, Peter has an impish grin and an appetite for danger. He lets them accompany him back to where he lives, a mystical island with a lush jungle and deep blue sea that lies in the shadow of a dismayingly large active volcano. There they meet the rambunctious tribe of children who call Peter their leader. On the island, children seem to never grow up, free to be young and carefree forever.
But there are rules, Wendy and her brothers soon realize: if they slow down or allow sadness to cloud their thoughts, the aging process will catch up with them with a fearsome speed. It's soon apparent the island has a population of "olds," former lost boys and girls who lost their sense of the island's power and are now shunned by Peter and his followers. There's also a massive, whale-like underwater creature the children refer to as "Mother," whose presence seems directly linked to the island's Fountain of Youth-like qualities.
A festival favorite out of Sundance, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was widely praised upon its initial release, going on to become an eventual Best Picture nominee. But its reputation has somewhat dimmed in the years since, and "Wendy" shares a lot of similarities with that film, both for better and for worse. As with "Beasts," Zeitlin uses a cast of unpolished, nonprofessional actors and the performances are a predictably mixed bag.
Like the earlier film, "Wendy" is a rugged tale of childlike wonder melded to a strange and complex mythology, also touching on the idea of growing up in a world on the verge of environmental collapse. But the result feels even more forced this time around. And it shares some of the earlier film's sometimes uncomfortable tendency to romanticize poverty, as well as some well-meaning but ill-conceived messaging around race.
There's a poetry to the film's visuals; shooting on 16-millimeter, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's roving camera and grainy, handheld photography uses mostly natural light to conjure up the feeling of endless childhood afternoons spent running barefoot through the grass.
But the film never entirely earns the emotions at its core, leeching any resonance it does have through whatever attachment the viewer might have to the original "Peter Pan" story. The film's lyrical imagery and jubilant score, composed by Dan Romer and Zeitlin himself, are left to do a lot of heavy lifting.
Written by Zeitlin with his sister, Eliza (who also acts as the film's production designer), there's invention and imagination to their revamped take on the Pan mythos and a genuine sense of menace. But I found myself wishing they'd come up with a story less beholden to one we've seen brought to the screen so many times before.
There's something to be said for having a distinctive artistic voice, though it's disappointing to see so little apparent artistic growth in the eight years since Zeitlin's last film. It ended up making me want to rewatch Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," a film that found a better balance between its mix of wonder and melancholy.
A tinge of sorrow is necessary to any good retelling of "Peter Pan," but "Wendy" frequently feels less melancholy than outright glum, and there's an emptiness to its one-note stabs at wonder and awe. Without that magic the "Peter Pan" story requires, things start to drag, and long before it reached its conclusion I was ready for its childhood games to come to an end.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.