“No one wants to be a mom-and-broom man, but that’s how we all end up.”
That’s what a diner customer tells young Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) early in Benh Zeitlin’s “Peter Pan” homage/quasi-adaptation “Wendy.” Thomas won’t have any of the old man’s downtrodden, but realistic, expectations for what he will become. He’s going to be a pirate, he says.
I doubt this scene was intended as autobiography, but it’s certainly easy to see a bit of Zeitlin in Thomas.
We live a cinematic world in which studios are hiring distinctive filmmakers for big-budget tentpoles and then removing everything unique about those filmmakers in exchange for a sort of bland sameness. Just look at some of the directors who had Top 10-grossing films last year: Jon Favreau, Guy Ritchie, Todd Phillips, J.J. Abrams. All talented folks who’ve taken a turn as studio mop-and-broom men, and, I think, lost an essential piece of themselves along the way.
But not Zeitlin. Even in “Wendy,” a film that could have had major crowd-pleasing potential, he refuses to take the easy way out. “Wendy” is idiosyncratic, messy and, best of all, incredibly human. Not everyone will love it – most won’t, I imagine- but I don’t think anyone will argue that it isn’t a distinctively original piece derived from a filmmaker’s singular vision. And, in a blockbuster culture where every film looks and feels the same, that kind of singularity feels like a minor miracle.
“Wendy” as you might imagine, is “Peter Pan” retold through the lens of Zeitlin’s Academy Award-nominated breakthrough “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The setting moves from England to Louisiana and from the 1800s to present day.
The result is more magical realism than straight fantasy this time around. All the old stalwarts are there- Peter and Wendy and Captain Hook. But there’s no Tinker Bell, no ticking crocodile. Even the pirate ship is an old fishing boat.
Even with all the changes, Zeitlin keeps the raw humanity of James Barrie’s original story intact and even adds to it a little bit. This is still, at its core, a story about growing up and facing a magicless world with hope and optimism. Zeitlin also makes it a story of death and loss and of not losing an important part of ourselves in the process.
Zeitlin’s script can be a bit of a mess at times, but it is certainly sweet and well-intentioned. In the best moments of “Wendy,” Zeitlin conjures more whimsy than noted whimsy manufacturer Steven Spielberg managed in his own Peter Pan film.
The script is bolstered by a truly remarkable cast- unknowns one and all- who truly disappear into these characters. Zeitlin’s best decision was to cast actual kids, not professional actors, in these roles, and his young actors reward him with charmingly naturalistic performances.
Take for example, young Devin France, whose Wendy is our wide-eyed window into the world of Neverland. Even when things take a bizarre twist or two, France sells the hell out of it. The same can be said for Yashua Mack, as Peter, who captures the character’s mischievous spirit well.
Twins Gage and Gavin Naquin, as Wendy’s brothers, handle the script’s emotional moments with ease. Shay Walker, as the kids’ mom, gives life and authenticity to the film’s opening act.
These naturalistic performances are augmented nicely by the professionalism of everyone else involved in the project. Composer Dan Romer, who scored “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Beasts of No Nation” and a few other films without the word “Beasts” in the title, has created a lovely emotional score that ranks among the year’s best. For his part, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen strikingly captures the beauty of Caribbean island Montserrat. (There are, thankfully, no digital sets here and very few digital effects at all, honestly.)
After a first act that ranks among the best stuff Zeitlin has done, the script sags a bit once the kids get to Neverland, which is ostensibly when things should pick up. While things improve again in the third act- pirates, as a general rule, make everything interesting- the whole project does have a rather languid pace, and it’s hard to come away from “Wendy” with the impression that every minute of footage actually needed to be in it. Some tighter editing would have gone a long way, I think.
There is also the question of just who this is for exactly. For a “Peter Pan” adaptation, “Wendy” can be surprisingly grim and gory – even with the PG-13 rating, I was not expecting to watch a 12-year-old boy’s hand get chopped off- and that, along with the film’s slow pace, will probably make it a non-starter for families.
At the same time, adults may find themselves suffering a whimsy overload from “Wendy,” and I didn’t love how the voiceover narration from France hammered home every single lesson to the point where it felt like Zeitlin was talking down to his audience.
It is an incredibly imperfect film, in other words, and even those who like it, as I did, may find it curiously difficult-to-parse. If you’re not on Zeitlin’s adult-fairy-tale wavelength, you may be better off sticking with Disney’s “Peter Pan” or Spielberg’s “Hook.”
But I don’t want to take away from what is often a strikingly beautiful and incredibly touching film. If “Wendy” (rated PG-13 for brief violent/bloody images) is an oddity, it’s often a very good one, and this kind of go-for-broke ambition deserves to be celebrated.
Zeitlin, for his occasional faults as a filmmaker and a writer, is no mop-and-broom man. And “Wendy” – and cinema as a whole – is better because of it.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cast: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Shay Walker, Krzysztof Meyn
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2020