THE STORY – Lost on a mysterious island, a girl fights to save her family, her freedom and the joyous spirit of youth.
THE CAST – Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn & Romyri Ross
THE TEAM – Benh Zeitlin (Director/Writer) & Eliza Zeitlin (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 112 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
We all know the story of “Peter Pan.” We’ve seen countless adaptations for the screen. However, we’ve never seen one as grounded in reality with such a youthful and visionary spirit as Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy.” Only his second feature film after the Academy Award-nominated “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” it’s taken 8 long years for Zeitlin to come back to the big screen. While “Wendy” shares many of the same elements which made “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” a success (child actors, gorgeous visuals and a breathtaking score), it, unfortunately, does get bogged down by a screenplay that is never entirely gripping in its narrative despite the proven formula of the story.
A young girl named Wendy (Devin France) is taken away from her home in the American south by a young boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) by train to Neverland (there’s no flying in this adaptation). There, Wendy and her twin brothers James (Gavin Naquin) & Douglas (Gage Naquin) meet the Lost Boys and go on adventures together which they will all carry with them for a lifetime.
Drenched in sun-soaked visuals, with a handheld camera that feels like it’s as free-spirited as the children it is capturing on film, “Wendy” is one gorgeous looking movie. Despite not receiving another film from him in the last eight years, Zeitlin’s visual storytelling has not suffered one bit as we’re constantly reminded of what made “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” such an extraordinary film back in 2012. However, as a result of its many similarities, there are inevitable comparisons that need to be made and that is where “Wendy” can’t measure up. Too often the screenplay feels unfocused, with one too many improvised moments, following a basic outline but with no refinement from its storyteller whose hands are all over this project. Overlong, the first hour is enticing due to the narrative changes that Zeitlin has made and his filmmaking style but by the time the second hour hits, the weaknesses of Zeitlin’s approach start to take hold. There are even uses of voiceover narration which feels like it was a last-minute addition to try and add a bit of context to the story and what the characters were feeling and thinking. Altogether, despite it being a story we’re already familiar with, it’s both surprising and upsetting that Zeitlin and his co-writer Eliza Zeitlin (his sister) could not pull off what could’ve been another knockout cinematic experience.
I wouldn’t however, call “Wendy” an outright failure from the young director. Just an inferior effort. A sophomore slump for sure. But there are still many aspects to praise about it. Despite being given weak writing, the child actors are all very strong. Wendy is a brave and adventurous character, as she leads this telling of the Peter Pan story, and newcomer Devin France is absolutely captivating every moment she’s on screen, making her another great discovery as Quvenzhané Wallis was for “Beasts Of The Southern Wild.” Yashua Mack plays Peter (not Pan, just Peter) and brings a ton of energy to the role, making him a leader you believe the lost boys could really get behind as he instills confidence and strength in them all. And Gavin Naquin has a very complicated role as Wendy’s brother, the conflicted James, which leads to one graphic scene and a clever twist near the end of the film that the young actor pulls off very well, providing the film with an emotional crux. Also, the film’s exuberance and overall vibe is uplifting and highly imaginative, brought to vivid life by Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s soaring score which is easily the best aspect of the film. It’s the kind of score which will make your heart sing and your mind take flight, as you travel back to the years of your childhood, reliving a time when the world was bigger, more mysterious and more enjoyable to be in.
With its Terrence Malick-like visuals, amazing score, delightful performances and nostalgic sense of wonder, working off of a well-known story but putting enough inventive twists on it to make it feel fresh and new again, it pains me to say “Wendy” is not perfect. There are many moments where the brilliance that we saw in Zeitlin’s first film shine through here but they are held back by a messy screenplay, lacking in narrative momentum and coherence. The score, in particular, is a remarkable achievement and the kind of work that makes me wish I too, like Wendy, Peter and the Lost Boys never had to grow up so that I could continue listening to it for all eternity.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Imaginative and filled with energy thanks to its impressive visuals and soaring score. The child actors are all terrific finds.
THE BAD – An overlong and messy screenplay, lacking in narrative momentum and coherence that threatens to derail the entire experience.