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The last thing we need is another version of the Peter Pan mythology. If you really want to sit down with J.M. Barrie’s fairy-tale classic, there’s no shortage of interpretations from which to choose, be they animated, live-action, centered around an adult Peter, or told from the perspective of the pirate, Captain Hook.
And yet, I found myself eating these words as I fell deeper and deeper under the spell of Benh Zeitlin’s magical, mythical Wendy – a new Peter Pan adaptation that’s seen through the eyes of a rambunctious young Wendy Darling (Devin France). Like his debut feature film, the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wendy captures its images through the imaginative eye of a child, adhering to a loose and unstructured path that allows ample time for philosophical meandering.
For some, this might get frustrating. Zeitlin, as a director, is far more interested in letting his young cast – which includes Wendy, her brothers, the adventurous Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) and his Lost Boys – explore and play. In these asides, Zeitlin and his screenwriting partner, his sister Eliza Zeitlin, slip surprisingly deep observations about growing up, the physical fear of aging, and the need a child has to be young (a simple truth that’s too often forgotten). It’s these unexpected and poignant messages that make Wendy a special and worthy watch no matter how many times you have seen the Peter Pan story unfold.
Benh Zeitlin has a naturalistic visual approach that fits Wendy like a glove.
If you saw Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, you get a sense of the way he tells stories. He focuses on the whims of children (in that movie, his lead actress Quvenzhane Wallis earned an Oscar nomination for portraying the headstrong, imaginative, independent, and courageous Hushpuppy), and willingly allows his camera itself to behave like a kid.
The director favors extreme close ups, allowing us to get lost in the deep pools of young Devin France’s eyes. The actress can convey a lot without ever saying anything. You can tell Zeitlin’s the kind of filmmaker who’ll spend an entire production day just to capture a scene with the perfect amount of fading or rising sun. May this man never be asked to film in front of green screen with CGI.
His demand for practical sets meant building Neverland on the remote island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. The island has an active volcano, which Zeitlin factored into his story (meaning he often had to work around mild eruptions that may or may not have changed the flow of the story). But when you approach a film with a loose grip, the ability to improvise means you can come up with something magical, which Wendy often does.
Wendy very subtly works in the staples of the Peter Pan mythology.
Wendy isn’t set in period London. Quite the contrary. The action starts in what looks to be Louisiana, with young Wendy and her brothers surrounded by Bayou folk who’ve forgotten how to be children. They are beckoned to Neverland by the mischievous Peter, and even there, the casting of a Black actor for Peter flies in the face of tradition.
Instead of arriving into a fully formed Peter Pan world, Wendy gradually seeps in recognizable elements of the story. The Zeitlins cleverly treat aging as a disease, one that slowly takes over the physicality of a child, and it’s fun to see how that affects the story, overall. And when the signature aspects of the story show up, it sends an electric shock of both nostalgia and mild frustration that you didn’t see these things coming. As if you said, “Duh, it’s Peter Pan, of COURSE this had to show up!”
The magic of Wendy will stay with you for awhile after your screening.
Now that I’ve seen Benh Zeitlin’s approach to the Peter Pan myth, I realize how much of it existed in Beasts of the Southern Wild as well. The director makes a specific type of film, one that has been described as “magical realism,” and it has worked for at least two movies. There’s a montage at the end of Wendy, and a scene of a woman near a train that haunts me still as I write this review. Also, the soundtrack for Wendy – composed of uplifting music by Zeitlin and Dan Romer – will go down as one of this year’s best no matter what else comes the rest of 2020.
Can Benh Zeitlin make a different type of film, one not rooted in the imaginations of headstrong children? We can’t answer that yet. He has spent the early part of his career scratching this particular itch – successfully, I might add. I’m excited to see what he tackles next, while admitting I’ll be even more intrigued if it’s something wildly different from what he explored in his initial two movies.