by Sarah Cook
Since J.M. Barrie penned the stories of Peter Pan in the early 1900s, the tale has been told countless number of times. From Disney to Spielberg, it seems there has been an adaptation every year, most recently Brenda Chapman’s Come Away (2020).
For better or for worse, adults and children still warm to the fantastic adventures of children who never grow up. It enchants us with fairy dust and propels us through the sky.
The allure of the story, then, feels natural for director Ben Zeitlin. His award-winning triumphant debut Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) blended the fantastical with the harsh reality of life post-Hurricane Katrina and Quvenzhané Wallis, at the young age of nine, gave one of the most ferocious and brilliant performances.
Eight years have passed since Beasts of the Southern Wild, and we have been aching for a new cinematic outing for the director.
Wendy is a unique interpretation of Barrie’s work. Set in the rural South of the USA, it revolves around the titular character and her brothers James and Douglas. Their mother Angela runs a railroad café called Darling’s Diner. One night, as Wendy tells her brothers bedtime stories, a train rolls by and a young boy named Peter beckons them to join him on the ride. Finding themselves on a volcanic tropical island, Wendy soon discovers that time has stopped and all the children there haven’t aged. Initially enjoying her new haven, Wendy discovers there are penalties in her fantasy world – especially for those who forget their happy thoughts.
Whilst Wendy is wild and wondrous, the film surprisingly takes a while to get off the ground. The initial opening sequences are choppy and confusing. Perhaps to show the claustrophobia of the Darling Diner and the aged patrons around the children, Zeitlin keeps this shaky camera focused on the faces of his characters. Old age towers over Wendy throughout the film, threathening to take her childhood dreams. Only when she finds herself at the island does the camera move outward and basks in the glory of gorgeous landscapes and a roaring sea. By design, this camerawork should work yet the story cannot match this inventiveness and therefore, the editing and closeups keep us confused.
The island itself is run by a mysterious whale-like spirit called Mother who keeps the children full of their life. This, as we learn, comes at a cost and anytime a child dwells on sadness, they age and become adults (or eventually pirates.) These concepts are intriguing because they have the promise to delve into what adulthood really means. Do we grow up due to tragedy and cynicism? Is adventure and happiness what keeps us youthful?
Yet sadly, Wendy feels haphazardly put together and the ideas never fully paint an endearing picture. The most complete and comeplling scenes happen towards the finale of the film. The ending is the most poignant, therefore making the beginning even more jarring.
What is most magical here is Dan Romer’s beautiful score. It pulsates with themes of the fantastical.. From beach fires to erupting volcanoes, Romer captures the imagery in the fervent strings and beats. For a film about stories we tell through generations, I don’t know why, but I feel it would’ve benefited more from far less dialogue – if any at all. Romer’s score has enough depth and meaning to it that it would’ve served as a great narrator here.
Wendy is a disappointing outing for Zeitlin. It feels like a tapestry of ideas stitched together in a slapdash manner.
However, a truly magnificent score helps the film fly, even if it is just momentarily glide across the sea.
Wendy is out in theatres Friday 13th August