Wendy ambitiously reimagines Peter Pan — with much younger protagonists
The great tragedy of our linear existence is that you can't appreciate your youth until it's already gone. For all the stories about children supposedly not wanting to grow up, every child I've ever met yearns to be older, ignorant of tax returns and student debt and how much of a bummer it is that a day comes when you have to fold your own laundry for the rest of your life. Perhaps that explains our cultural obsession with never getting old: The Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, Dr. Garth Fisher. Even the story of Peter Pan, after all, was concocted by a grown up.
The dream of eternal youth is also the subject of director Benh Zeitlin's Wendy, out Friday, which uses J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan as its foundation. Unlike many of the other live-action adaptations of that tale, though, Zeitlin chose to cast children quite a few years younger than the young teens suggested by Barrie's 1904 text. It's an ambitious decision, not the least because working with actors whose ages are largely in the single-digits is unpredictable. The small stars, though, are Wendy's saving grace, even when its larger philosophizing about aging fails to land.
Zeitlin, you might say, is a starcatcher. His 2012 debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, introduced the world to the preternaturally-talented Quvenzhané Wallis, who was five years old at the time of her audition for the movie, and nine when she earned a nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for the part. With Wendy, Zeitlin again turns to nonprofessional child actors, and again finds success, this time with the tempestuous 10-year-old Devin France in the title role. Rounding out the movie are Gavin and Gage Naquin, playing Wendy's older twin brothers, and six-year-old Antigua native Yashua Mack, the movie's Peter Pan, who was allegedly discovered by Zeitlin at a "Rastafarian compound deep in the forest."
Repositioning the Peter Pan story to be about younger children is also a brilliant way to sidestep the original story's sexist undertones. "In every version of Wendy, including the one in the original text, she just has no agency," Zeitlin explained to IndieWire. "She's this girl who has a crush on Peter." Solution? Make the children prepubescent. Gone is the romantic tension between Wendy and Peter; instead, the kids can be kids, loud and rollicking, the embodiment of worry-free youth. When Wendy leaves her mother's diner in Louisiana to escape to a volcanic Neverland on a train car, you completely buy her and her brother's wide-eyed excitement and eagerness to flee the monotony of home. "We were looking for people that would run away with Peter Pan actually if he showed up," Zeitlin told The Wall Street Journal. Amazingly, it worked; none of the kids' motivations ever feel manufactured, perhaps because they basically aren't.
Assisting in Wendy's all-encompassing child's-eye view of the world is the movie's score, which finds Zeitlin reteaming with his Beasts of the Southern Wild co-composer Dan Romer. The pair rely on a similar recipe of swelling strings and triumphant horns to accompany the children's play and build a sense of grand adventure in Wendy. But the score is also more plucky and percussive than Beasts, with rolling drums that suggest the chugging of the bayou trains — the transport to Neverland — and also, of course, inevitability, that march along a predetermined track, the ticking of passing time. Mortality.
When Wendy eventually begins to derail, though, it's all on the grownups. Zeitlin gets a little too precious when it comes to emphasizing the bliss and freedom of childhood, with far too much of the movie focused on the kids running around and screaming, or treading water. The 60-day shoot was described by The Atlantic as "a chaotic group-filmmaking effort," and it shows; there is room for the editing to be tighter and more focused, even without losing its meandering whimsy. The script, which Zeitlin co-wrote with his sister, Eliza Zeitlin, can feel at times like The Tree of Life for tots, stuffed with opaque filler text for the voice-overs ("when the first child laughed for the first time, the sound broke into a million glowing pieces," a riff on a line that surely only the hardest core Peter Pan fans will recognize, being a memorably puzzling one). There is also a tone-deaf over-reliance on the word "tribe" in lieu of "family," and Peter's existence on a slightly different plane of reality threatens to make him a trope.
Worst of all, though, are the movie's empty epiphanies about aging. Having mostly stripped the Peter Pan story of its gender commentary (and in doing so, an easy opportunity to say something about delayed adulthood or male entitlement), Zeitlin boxes himself into needing to justify why he's chosen to revisit Barrie's story at all. The answer seems to be for Peter Pan's aesthetics more than having anything meaningful to say. By the end, I was confused about what I was supposed to have learned: That you can't lose hope; that's what makes you old? That growing up is a grand adventure? (That, of course, being a more optimistic reworking of Barrie's original, "To die will be an awfully big adventure"). Either way, the takeaways feel more like Hallmark cards for a high school graduate than an honest conclusion.
That is no fault of the cast, though, who shimmer in their roles. In time, many will undoubtedly grow up to be stars if they choose to continue acting — the ever-serious France, in particular, is an emotionally intelligent actress, a skill that is more innate than learned. There is time to speculate about all that later, though; in Wendy, you can enjoy them just being kids, forever.
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