Benh Zeitlin’s follow up to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” loses its way in a muddle of fairy dust and magical realism.
A person can grow up a tremendous amount in eight years. In the case of filmmaker, Benh Zeitlin, that’s how much time it took to make Wendy, a movie about not growing up, and the unfortunate fact that there’s no stopping it. It also happens to be Zeitlin’s follow up to Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of the most celebrated debut films of all-time, but sadly not talked about much these days.
Maybe it was Zeitlin’s lack of a quick second effort that made us forget about it, like a nice dream that slowly disappears as we go about our day, but now we finally have Wendy, Zeitlin’s folksy reimagining of Peter Pan, told from the perspective of Wendy Darling (Devin France). Similar to Beasts, it’s a magical realism film centered around a young girl growing up and finding her place in a big, scary world, but much like growing up, it’s a mixed bag.
Instead of the London setting from the original play, this version takes place somewhere in the nameless, impoverished backwoods of America. Like Beasts, the characters are below the poverty line and off the grid. While the residents of the Bathtub in Beasts were mostly fine with their place in the world and had fulfilling lives, for the characters in Wendy, there is a sense that joy and imagination have already passed out of their lives, and there’s no getting it back.
Wendy is the daughter of the sweet but rough around the edges Angela (Shay Walker), who tells stories of her wild youth before having kids and needing to settle into adult responsibilities. This bums out Wendy to the point where she, along with her twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), decides to jump on a train (conveniently right outside their bedroom window) when a young Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) beckons them to run away with him to join the Lost Boys of Neverland.
Zeitlin’s unique aesthetic stays essentially the same between his two films. The production design, which is led by his sister and co-writer, Eliza Zeitlin, really puts the “realism” in magical realism with its DIY feel. Everything is rust filled and repurposed. An old shrimping boat, looking like a prop that’s been sitting untouched in the water since WWII, is used as the pirate ship for Captain Hook and his gang.
There’s also the arresting look of Neverland, which is part tropical volcanic island and part post-apocalyptic hellscape. It’s like the Bathtub in Beasts, in that you’re overwhelmed by its beauty, but also genuinely worried about how dangerous it seems for its inhabitants.
The most awe-inspiring moment of the film comes when we discover the creature that’s powering up this Neverland, a giant fish that lives in the waters below the island named “Mother.” The mythical and symbolic power of this fish becomes nonsensical as the film drags on, but the look of it has a beautiful, tactile quality. It’s something that’s rarely seen these days, and a nice throwback to the practical effect creatures of films like The Neverending Story.
It’s like the Bathtub in Beasts, in that you’re overwhelmed by its beauty, but also genuinely worried about how dangerous it seems for its inhabitants.
Part of anticipating the new Benh Zeitlin film is also anticipating his new score with Dan Romer, and it’s really the only thing that lives up to expectations There’s a lot about Beasts I can understand people not being on board for (I don’t agree, but I get it), but the cosmic, cajun-fried wonder of a score is untouchable.
This score is almost as powerful, but also has to do most of the emotional heavy lifting. Its stirring percussion and soaring horn section invokes an immediate sense of epic adventure that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pirates of the Caribbean film. It’s a $100 million score on a $5 million budget.
It’s a shame the rest of the movie struggles to meet it, starting with the narration. Devin France’s voice-over here quickly turns into, “This is what this movie is about and this is how you should feel”. She does a good job with the rest of her performance (Zeitlin proves again he’s capable with young, inexperienced actors) but this movie demands a lot of different levels and nuance for Wendy’s emotional journey to work, and it’s sometimes too much for her.
There’s a fine line when re-telling a classic fairy tale in a modern setting between being too loyal to the source material, and not loyal enough, and Wendy somehow does both at the same time. Peter Pan’s themes of coming to terms with the end of childhood is ripe for a filmmaker of Zeitlin’s power to harness. It’s really all he needs to create a moving film, but those themes quickly get lost in the weeds when the movie dives into the mythology and “rules” of Neverland that become more convoluted than the last few seasons of Lost combined.
There’s also the Captain Hook origin story that’s so insane, it drags down the movie to watery depths it struggles to escape. Usually in Peter Pan adaptations, Hook is already there making trouble. Here, Zeitlin tries to use the creation of the villain to show the harm that comes when one forgets the magic and wonder of childhood, but when it involves child hand amputation, it’s hard to have the emotional impact you want.
Benh Zeitlin is a filmmaker with a heart as big as the giant fish monster that powers his volcanic Neverland, but the love he has for this story and its characters can’t overcome its fatal flaws. Similar to another Peter Pan related misfire, Hook, the heart is in the right place, but it doesn’t make it a satisfying experience. As Thom Yorke once said, “Just cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.”
Wendy flies second star to the right and straight into theaters March 6th.
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