“Wendy,” the sophomore feature from director Benh Zeitlin, has faced high expectations from critics and audiences since the film was announced. After all, Zeitlin’s 2012 film “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a breakout critical and commercial success despite its small budget, tight-knit production team and lack of name recognition for its director or its leads. With “Wendy,” it seems as if Zeitlin is keen on replicating the narrative that made his first film so successful: A fairy tale about children without restrictions, living on the outskirts of society and dancing to the beat of their own drums.
“Beasts” was a fresh, vibrant story that audiences hadn’t previously experienced. “Wendy,” a modern reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s 20th-century classic “Peter Pan,” adopts the themes and visual elements of “Beasts” and uses them to bring the story to life. And unfortunately, while “Wendy” succeeds in its creative retelling and strong performances, it never becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Zeitlin’s script, which he co-wrote with his sister Eliza Zeitlin, loosely brings ideas, characters and plot elements from the original “Peter Pan” to a small town in the American South. Wendy Darling (Devin France) is a young girl living with her two brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), and a single, working-class mother (Shay Walker). One night, Wendy sees a train passing by her window, on top of which a boy in a red blazer climbs, runs and dances, urging the children inside to join him. Desperate to experience life without being bogged down by the troubles of growing up, Wendy, Douglas and James follow the boy, later introduced as Peter (Yashua Mack), to a distant island, where time seems to stop and the fears of aging are no longer imminent.
This tropical island, a modern revisionist Neverland, serves as the setting for a majority of the film. Without an extravagant set design, the simplicity of the island, its rocky shores and its dark caves highlight the rawness and vulnerability that the children face when they explore this world on their own for the first time. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen spends plenty of time showcasing the island setting and all of its natural wonders; along with the film’s pristine art direction, this visual mastery brings the adventure and spirituality underlying “Wendy” to life in vibrant, memorable ways.
But the film spends too long being preoccupied with the visuals and narrative twists at its surface, ultimately failing to fully capture the thematic depths it attempts to approach.
With a cast of largely unknown child actors, spearheaded by a mature, complex performance by France in the lead role, “Wendy” reimagines plot elements from the original “Peter Pan” in a much darker fashion. Creative references to a troupe of Lost Boys and the inclusion of Captain Hook are incorporated skillfully and subtly, but with an emphasis on the danger and existentiality facing the children on their adventure. The actors handle the tonal balance with surprising ease — but save for France, many of them still appear to be overexerting their performances past the point of true naturalism.
Besides the visual brilliance and its performances, “Wendy” largely misses the mark. The structure of the film feels metaphorical and abstract to the point where a clear grasp of themes and a narrative command are lost. The darker moments do serve to bring the film its complexity, but “Wendy” is so wrapped up in its surface-level visual and narrative elements that it fails to address its darkness with depth and understanding — ultimately, these instances feel gimmicky rather than earned.
Even with a runtime of less than two hours, “Wendy” feels stretched too thin. For most of the film, audiences are simply following the children’s various escapades on the island — we never get to spend enough time with France’s titular character, and when we finally set off on a journey with her alone, the film has already lost our interest. For a film occupied with living in the moment, it’s a shame that so much of “Wendy” is spent waiting for it all to end.