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First run Theater cinema

It’s been eight years since filmmaker, animator, and composer Benh Zeitlin burst on the scene with his début feature Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), which was one of that year’s most acclaimed and honored independent pictures. It was also one of the most divisive movies of the year, with many finding Zeitlin’s hyper-art-house style pretentious and others calling the film out for what they felt was a patronizing depiction of African Americans living in an off the grid community in the Louisiana bayou. But love it or hate it (I was slightly more on the “love it” side), this was a film that made an impression! So it’s off that it has taken so long for Zeitlin’s follow up picture. I wish I could say it was worth the wait, but Wendy is both an inert, stylistic rehash of Beasts and yet another a tedious retelling of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

Newcomer Devin France stars as Wendy Darling, a pre-teen girl who lives above her mother’s diner with her two brothers Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin). When she was very young, she saw a little boy named Peter escape the dull world of the diner and hop a train at the station across the street. When the boy (Yashua Mack) appears again, Wendy and her brothers follow him off to an enchanted volcanic island where time and ageing stand still.

But despite the lush locations (filmed on the Caribbean island of Montserrat), the visual qualities of Wendy quickly become redundant, and the narrative comes across like Beasts of the Southern Wild with all forward momentum removed. Worse, the film lacks the exciting sensation of seeing something entirely new on screen. Beasts was an inventive blending of neo-realism and magical-realism set in an unexplored cinematic environment and produced in a fresh style that was unlike any movie many of us had ever seen before. Wendy feels like that same style amped up and grafted onto an oft-told story that too many others have already mined to near death.

The cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who photographed the impressive 2015 all-in-one-shot German heist thriller Victoria) and the production design by Zeitlin’ sister and co-writer Eliza Zeitlin (who also designed Beasts) gave me the sensation of overkill and Attention Deficit Disorder that many viewers complained of when watching Beasts. The score, by Zeitlin’s usual collaborator Dan Romer, is much to similar to the music in Beasts, and without the cinematic sense of wonder to accompany it, it weighs the picture down rather than lifting it up and making it soar.

The child actors are all good but they lack the effortless raw charisma of Beasts’s six-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis. In my brief review of Beasts of the Southern Wild I wondered if Wallis was giving one of the greatest film performances by a child actor or if she was simply a kid with tremendous presence who was well directed. Both are probably true, but watching Wendy reminds me that filmmakers can’t create an iconic child performance strictly in the editing room – some raw star-quality must be in place for the camera to capture. I’ll never forget Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts; I have already forgotten the kids in Wendy.

I also have to admit that I’m growing tired of Peter Pan. Barrie’s wistful and playful fairy tale of prolonged childhood is wonderful, but don’t think it’s deep enough to support all the adaptations, reimaginings, origin stories, over-intellectualized deconstructions, over-sentimentalized meditations, and fantasy biopics of its author’s life that have been mined from it for the last hundred years.

Twitter Capsule: 
Benh Zeitlin rehashes himself and J. M. Barrie in his disappointing follow-up to Beasts of the Southern Wild. Do audiences still want more reimaginings of Peter Pan? If so, can any filmmakers out there make one that's less inert and cerebral than the last seven or eight have been?

Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Produced by Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Paul Mezey, and Becky Glupczynski

Written by Benh Zeitlin and Eliza Zeitlin
Based on Based on Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

With: Yashua Mack, Devin France, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Romyri Ross, and Shay Walker

Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Editing: Affonso Gonçalves and Scott Cummings
Music: Dan Romer

Runtime: 112 min
Release Date: 28 February 2020
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1