•Very Highly Recommended. Now Available To Rent Or Own On Vudu & Other Streaming Platforms•
Director and writer Benh Zeitlin, Returns eight years after his phenomenal Oscar nominated film “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”. Zeitlin’s latest is one, in a long string of Hollywood adaptations of the Peter Pan story. Taking place in a poverty stricken area, within rural Louisiana that eventually moves to the magical island of Neverland. “Wendy” is a whole new fresh re-telling of the classic story, told from a young girl’s perspective by reimagining it from Wendy’s point of view. Powered by not only a fast pace, but a smartly written script to keep the old tale fresh for a new generation. Also the lead performance from the young Devin France, as the headstrong Wendy is a revelation. Zeitlin’s direction is gorgeously shot and Zeitlin is a master at showcasing beauty from desolation. “Wendy” is definitely one of the ten best of the year. I’m going to remember this one for a long time to come.
It’s been a while, but director Benh Zeitlin, is back with a new movie. He has been structuring “Wendy” since 2013. He at one time told the New York Times, that he and his team were “working on it all day every day, but as all psychotic adventures go, you know where your destination is but not how long it’s going to take to get there”.
Zeitlin’s last film was eight years ago, with his 2012 Oscar nominated film “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”. It was nominated for best picture, best director, best original screenplay and best actress for its lead star Quvenzhané Wallis (who is the youngest actress to be nominated for an Oscar).
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a gothic fantasy of a Southern little girl (Quvenzhané Wallis) surviving the stormy elements in Louisiana. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was one of my favorite films of that year. It’s a magical film, so beautifully directed and acted. While the kind of recognition he got for “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”, would have put any director on the fast track toward several big studio projects. Instead Zeitlin’s taken his time, to stay in the indie genre and quietly put all the parts together for “Wendy”.
“Wendy” is the latest in a long string of Hollywood adaptations of Peter Pan‘s story. Many directors of different visual styles, have tackled the classic material, from Steven Spielberg with 1991’s “Hook” to Marc Forster’s Oscar-winning 2004 drama “Finding Neverland”, which focused its attention on playwright and Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. There have also been director Joe Wrights big screen spectacle “Pan”. While it flopped at the box office and was slammed by critics, I actually really enjoy the movie and love the grand spectacle of it.
While we are slowly getting back to the new normal, the real world was and in some places is still feeling bleak and scary. Which makes it a good time for some escapism. What story is more escapist fare than that of “Peter Pan”? J.M. Barrie’s play, originally subtitled “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”, premiered in December 1904. Barrie followed it up with a novel that expanded on the story and themes, called “Peter and Wendy”. It is this version of the story that Benh Zeitlin takes as the jumping-off point for “Wendy”.
Like Hushpuppy (the little girl from “Beasts Of Southern Wild”), Wendy Darling (played beautifully by Devin France) lives in poverty within rural Louisiana. She and her two twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin) help out their mother Angela (Shay Walker) in the little cafe she runs by the railroad tracks. But Wendy dreams of a bigger world, and one day, she gets a call to adventure from a mysterious figure riding the rails. Perhaps on a whim, or perhaps heeding a more mysterious and magical force, Wendy and the boys leap from their upstairs window onto the moving train.
Peter (Yashua Mack) is ever a trickster. Via a circuitous and scary route, he leads the Darling children to Neverland, a mysterious volcanic island far from land. There, Wendy and her two brothers meet the Lost Boys, Peter’s followers, who have found the secret to eternal youth. But there are others on the island as well, a group of older people who have somehow lost their youthful immortality. Buzzo (Lowell Landes) leads the group trying to regain the secret, and their youth, by hunting a glowing underwater creature Peter calls Mother.
In the play, Wendy is the voice of reason and whose function it is to balance out Peter’s wildness. Director Zeitlin and actress Devin France make the character much more curious and daring, even if at times she seems a little disconnected from the wonders around her.
“Wendy” was shot for $6 million in Louisiana and the island of Montserrat, site of one of the few active volcanoes in the Caribbean. Co-written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza Zeitlin. “Wendy” feels similar in spirit, is full of dark whimsy and precocious young protagonists. It also treads a lot of the same visual and emotional territory as “Beasts of the Southern Wild“, his excellent breakout film.
It’s no surprise that the director who guided five-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis to an Oscar nomination has once again proven himself to be a master at working with children, with the cast of unknown kids he uses here are all uniquely excellent. It’s led by the young Devin France, as the headstrong Wendy. She is wonderful in the role and like Wallis’ performance in “Beasts Of Southern Wild”, France is a revelation on her way to the big time.
Yashua Mack, playing the first African American Peter is an impressive little actor, who looks like a seasoned kid actor. While Wendy is said that the island paradise has the power for them to stay young forever, the island does have a terrible price. That once a child gives into despair, they’ll grow old and infirm, with no way of going back, a fate that several characters bittersweetly fall prey to.
Your probably asking yourself if there is a Wendy and Peter. Then there must be a Hook? Well there is a boy in the group named James and a character named Buzzo and I’ll just say that you need to discover these two for yourself. It’s one of the many factors of the screenplay that Zeitlin has so expertly crafted. His screenplay is smart, with great ideas and gives us a refreshing new take on the classic story. Including in deciding to tell a story from a young girl’s perspective by reimagining it from Wendy’s point of view.
To warn anyone with little kiddos, that there is one scene that is too gruesome for the youngsters. However I also don’t see them enjoying this version, as “Wendy” is another children’s fable designed for adults. Zeitlin plays “Wendy” out almost like a Terrence Malick film at times, although “Wendy” is much more tightly paced.
The thing that Zeitlin captures best is a sense of joyous exhilaration that comes through his young cast, Dan Romer’s driving score, and the breathless cinematography and editing. Zeitlin keeps a sense of movement, whether it’s the landscape whizzing by as the train travels or as the children are running without care, that conveys such a sense of joy and wildness. But he also balances that with a sense of reality. You’ll see it in the landscape as the train passes by, looking ravaged as if destroyed by climate change or by other things humanity has wrought.
The film is an absolute feast for the eyes. As in “Beasts”, Zeitlin is at his best wringing beauty from desolation. Scenes with Peter and Wendy hiding from marauding adults in beach hotels half buried, are as beautiful and mysterious as anything you’ll see in a film this year. Zeitlin makes the most of his limited special effects budget by delivering some beautifully trippy underwater imagery.
“Wendy” is not as complex or nuanced as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and as much as I enjoyed that film (one of my favorites that year). I think “Wendy” is a much better film, much better paced and smartly written to keep the old tale fresh for a new generation. “Wendy” is definitely going on my ten best of the year.
It’s a wonderful film full of both enchantment and a gritty sense of the real world. It is a film that acknowledges the refusal to grow up but also for the reality of having to accept our responsibilities. Let’s hope it’s not another eight year wait but, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with for his next film.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5/5)