It’s been eight years since Benh Zeitlin made his astonishing feature-directing debut with Beasts of the Southern Wild, a low-budget landmark set on the bayous of Louisiana that won Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (for its extraordinary nine-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay nods. Now, at 37, Zeitlin is back with Wendy, his folkloric spin on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that top-lines Wendy Darling, the Victorian girl who flew off to Neverland to mother an island’s worth of lost boys. If you’re thinking that sounds too straight-ahead for the formally ambitious Zeitlin, you’re not wrong.
Wendy, played by Tommie Milazzo at age three and by the sublime Devin France at 10, is no longer the well-bred heroine that Barrie created. This young lady lives off the grid in Louisiana, helping her single mom (Shay Walker) sling hash and entertaining the customers at a whistle-stop diner. Early on, she spots the figure of a boy — yup, it’s Peter — running on top of a moving freight train. Years later, worried that her droning existence will drain the light from her eyes, Wendy decides to hop on board herself, along with her brothers, James and Douglas (played by twins Gavin and Gage Naquin).
And they’re off — and so is the movie, which removes every trace of Hollywood slickness (remember Steven Spielberg’s Hook?) and botched avant-gardism (remember Joe Wright’s Pan?) from this oft-told tale. The magic realism that Zeitlin conjures up with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, his sister Eliza Zeitlin’s keenly imagined production design (the siblings also co-wrote the screenplay), and the beguiling score he composed with Dan Romer radiates an elemental, DIY energy. It’s a roughed-up, lived-in take on the bedtime story. And when Peter appears in the person of Yashua Mack, a young black actor with a Caribbean lilt in his voice and eyes alive with mischief, the stage is set for vibrant adventure. As for Wendy, she has no intention of playing caregiver to a crew of bratty boys. She’s as wild and free as they are, and eager to explore the island (Montserrat, just south of Antigua, is the location), whose mysteries include an active volcano and a glowing sea creature known as “Mother” that might hold the key to reversing the aging process.
It’s here that the life goes out of the party and things start to drift from exhilarating to enervating. Instead of pirates, we get a group of aging, depressive adults who think they need to capture Mother to become young again. Instead of Captain Hook, we get a James, who cuts off his hand on Peter’s orders as a means to stay young, and maybe find his brother Douglas, who’s gone missing. (Huh?) Instead of flying, we get the threat of crashing on jagged rocks. And instead of Neverland we get an island whose ecosystem is being destroyed by climate change. What younger audiences will make of the bloodshed and moralizing is anyone’s guess.
It’s true that Beasts showed us a Southern wilderness ravaged by hurricanes and rising sea levels, but here the environmental theme feels less organic than pasted-on. The Zeitlins have dreamed since childhood of bringing their version of Peter Pan to the screen. Their collective imaginative powers are indisputable. But what started as a visually gripping, fiercely funny, and emotionally centered take on Wendy’s mission statement (“The more you grow up, the less things you get to do that you wanna”) ends in a chaotic clutter that deserves, well, the hook.