Wendy Review: Zeitlin’s admirable adaptation lacks strong inspiration
While Peter Pan has seen plenty of unique live action adaptations over the years, writer/director Benh Zeitlin brings own unique vision to the iconic tale with Wendy – for better or worse.
Rather than focus on the mischievous and youthful Peter Pan, the film follows a young Wendy (Devin France) yearning for adventure and opportunity to escape her dull life with her brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin). However, after seeing a highly spirited young boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) run across a train that passes by their house at night, Wendy and her brothers jump onto the train and Peter takes them to an isolated and mysterious island. So long as they don’t lose hope and only think positive things, Wendy, her brothers, and all the other children of the island can remain young and go on adventures forever. However, Peter’s sole desire to stay young forever has created a strong rift on the island and Wendy must discover what it means to be young in both body and heart.
What’s initially makes Wendy stand on its own compared to other adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s characters is how it introduces us to the Darling children. Rather than be the affluent children in a London family, Zeitlan brings introduces us to a lower middle-class Darling family living in a train yard. Wendy is certainly the most rugged and realistic depiction of the classic Peter Pan story and in some ways it really works. Seeing where Wendy and her brothers come from and the mentality that they’ll always be stuck working in their mother’s diner really makes their dreams of escaping on an adventure very believable and relatable.
Really, the entire film really sucks you into its environment and when Wendy and her brothers make it to Peter’s island you the shots of them venturing across the island are just beautiful. Although, the film was filmed on Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, it generally feels like Zeitlan has transported viewers to a new world with some perfectly downplayed elements of fantasy.
However, the sense of realism Zeitlan tries to evoke heavily hinders the tone, characters, and the overall flow of the film. For the first half or so, the has a considerable drag to it that makes it both hard to figure out where the film is really going and a total bore. All of the scenes that are supposed to spark an adventurous spirit, like Wendy’s narration about her dreams of adventuring or Peter and the group freely running across the island, lack any energy behind them and are hard to connect to because there’s no clear direction in the story.
Even the characters are heavily hindered by the more realistic approach to them as Wendy rarely shows her more adventurous side and the overuse of her whispering narration becomes tiring and never connects with viewers because of how lifeless it is. The only energetic and lively aspect that comes from the first half, outside of gorgeous environment, is the score from Dan Romer, but not even that can make the film livelier on its own. Honestly, if the second half wasn’t so much stronger than the first, Wendy would probably be just a total bore. However, Zeitlan’s vision comes to life in the second half of Wendy as the themes and unique alterations to the classic story are really interesting.
Initially, the performance from France is incredibly contained and her cravings for adventure come off like all talk and no show. However, France eventually dances and speaks with much more conviction and heart that really makes Wendy such a strong and connective character. The way that she gains a sense of maturity seeing others that have lost their way on the island and understands the importance of growing up yet staying young at heart is very touching. She even acts as sort of a middle ground between Peter and Hook and France really thrives in becoming a strong voice to end their conflict. Even for classic characters like Peter and Captain Hook and his crew, Zeitlan gives new meaning to their motivations and it’s what makes Wendy such an intriguing and unique adaptation.
Admittedly, certain nostalgic directions in the story, like Hook’s rise, are little predictable and safety nets the film falls back on to keep fans interested, but you kind of forget about that because the characters are treated in a unique light. Mack delivers the kind of youthful and stubborn performance anyone would expect of Peter, but I deeply appreciated how he and his mentality wasn’t treated as this “perfect” force of good. When looking at how people that lose hope and don’t follow in his way of life are pretty much exiled, it creates these flaws within him that are rarely touched upon and offered the chance to have Peter take a different path at the end that the film doesn’t follow through on. He never really takes Wendy’s words to heart and it leaves you kind of cold towards him by the end.
All the stuff with Hook’s rise into the story was great though and the way the film gives new meaning to his motivations are great. It makes sense why Hook hates Peter and the way the island keeps people who remain hopeful young and I loved how personal his arc actually is. The end to Wendy’s story is probably one of the strongest elements of the film as it shows how her realizations lead her into adulthood and gives her, as well as the other inhabitants, a new outlook on growing up. Frankly, I wish the entire film had as much heart as the second half does because it could’ve been such a connective coming of age experience the whole way through.
While Zeitlin brings a fresh vision to the classic Peter Pan story by putting the spotlight on its titular heroine and creating unique story threads to make it more original, the film suffers from too much familiarity and not enough adventurous spirit. Wendy certainly has elements that fans will love and creates memories that viewers won’t forget, it just takes too long to get to them.