There is a crucial moment in “Wendy,” Benh Zeitlin’s riff on the Peter Pan story, where Wendy (Devin France) and Peter (Yashua Mack) must save the Lost Boys from evil pirates. It is a crucial act and must be done swiftly, not only for the sake of the captives, but also for the big glowy fish called “Mother” that the pirates are trying to lure using the Lost Boys. If Mother is caught, bad things will happen, and so, Peter and Wendy decide to try once more to fly. Peter tells Wendy that this time, with enough belief, it will work and so the two jump off of a ledge and triumphantly plop into the water below.
At that moment, for no particular reason, all sense of momentum is lost. It becomes okay to sit and explore a cave and not worry about the hostages for a little while. Yes, Mother is shown to not immediately be with the pirates, but she will still undoubtedly go towards them. Narratively speaking, big things happen during that cave sequence, but only after the captives, who are still in trouble, are forgotten.
“Wendy” is a movie full of missed and abandoned threads; convoluted philosophies; and, above all else, the belief that handheld closeups of kids’ faces alongside soaring, dreamy, inspirational music (from Zeitlin and Dan Romer) will save the day. That doesn’t happen. The movie doesn’t work. And while it is a big miss, it is possible to argue that as the film very much riffs on the style of Zeitlin’s last effort, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” it isn’t a terribly big swing at all.
Zeitlin, who wrote the screenplay with Eliza Zeitlin, never seems to quite know what he wants to say here. Surprising to many in the audience will be that the Peter depicted is a bad person. What is worse is that it is unclear whether Zeitlin knows that Peter is bad.
In this version of the tale, Peter, quite literally, pushes Wendy and her twin brothers (played by Gavin and Gage Naquin), off of a moving train. It’s into water and everyone lives, but that doesn’t make the action remotely acceptable. Certainly, neither Wendy nor the brothers are aware that they will live and Peter has a plan. Soon after, Peter frightens the trio by making a volcano erupt right by them. He must assume they won’t get hurt, and they don’t, but it seems random that they are okay and it’s a rather demonic action. With different music and lighting, this Peter is the lead in a horror movie, not a wondrous tale looking at what it means to be a child versus what it means to be an adult.
And with that last sentence written, it must be pointed out that the film has no idea what it means to be a child and what it means to be an adult. Kids apparently, get passes for near murder. Adults merely wish for their youth to return and will do anything to make that happen (this involves capturing the large glowy fish). The kids learn the maybe growing up can be an adventure. This contradicts absolutely everything the kids have seen of the adults in the movie and maybe that’s why one of them abandons the notion of growing up immediately after setting forth the idea that it could be great, but there’s no explanation, implicit or explicit, of any sort offered.
It should come as no surprise reading the above that the movie can’t even really make sense of its own rules about why some kids do grow old on Neverland. Statements are offered about this, but the characters actions and feelings seem to belie those statements.
In short, barely anything that happens in “Wendy” makes sense. This might be a film that wants to give a child’s perspective on the world, and Wendy herself is a storyteller and offers up voiceover, but that’s not enough to paper over the issues. One feels that Wendy would make better characters given the chance.
Should we talk about performance?
Mack unquestionably has a devilish glint in his eye that works very well for Peter, whether that Peter is having fun with others or at their expense. France is convincingly unclear about what is happening or why or why she keeps doing whatever Peter wants, right up until she decides to follow him once again. The adults in the cast are… there? The movie’s take on adulthood is that largely it’s just old age and wanting to be young once more (again, until that’s magically and for no reason whatsoever not the take… until maybe it is one last time?), so they tend to be doddering and evil… doing things like having some sort of ill-conceived, ill-explained, idea about how capturing the glowy fish will make them young. It’s a weird take, but maybe no more weird than anything else in the movie.
More than anything else, “Wendy” feels like a whole bunch of concepts about what Peter Pan could be and what Wendy could be and what Neverland could be and what the Lost Boys could be than any single, cohesive, idea. It is a movie where the narrative has the attention span of one of the Lost Boys and the largest degree of emotion comes from handheld cameras and over-the-top music.
“Wendy” is not enjoyable and while movies don’t have to be enjoyable, and truly some of the best are the ones that make you the least comfortable, this isn’t one of those. There is no redeeming message or bit of enlightenment that comes just as the credits roll. But, thankfully, those credits do roll.
photo credit: Searchlight Pictures