Filmmaker Benh Zeitlin emerged in a big way at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival with his fantastical, visually lush debut film ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. Nearly eight years after scoring four Oscar nominations for that movie, including a Best Director nod, Zeitlin returns with his second feature, ‘Wendy’, a similarly fantastical but nearly incomprehensible revision of JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’.
Like ‘Beasts’, ‘Wendy’ assumes chaotic, youthful energy in its slapdash approach to story. Following its principal cast of child actors with sweeping, low-angle camera shots that make the world seem vast and intimidating, the children run around inanely yelling at one another about never growing up but not much else. The whimsy that occasionally makes Zeitlin’s work so thrilling grows tired through repetition in ‘Wendy’.
In this telling, Wendy (Devin France) and her twin brothers live above a small-town diner overlooking a train yard. Years after seeing one of their young friends hop on a train and never return, the children abandon their homes and board a locomotive in the middle of the night. There, they meet a boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) who takes them to a mysterious island. To Zeitlin’s credit – and detriment – his unknown cast of child actors all have a naturalistic, unpolished quality to their performances. It grounds the magic in a type of realism but, conversely, makes it difficult to track the characters’ emotional arcs. Their line deliveries so often lack clarity that it’s impossible to determine what the actual stakes are for Wendy, Peter and their crew.
‘Wendy’ riffs on the familiar tropes of the ‘Pan’ fable; there are Lost Boys, sword fights and a dreadful Captain Hook. Zeitlin does add a new character in the form of a whale-like sea creature named Mother, who watches over the children to keep them from growing old. Occasionally, the children call out to Mother and puffs of smoke burst from the ground around them. It’s a stylistic flair that looks impressive at first, but the more Zeitlin returns to his same tricks, the more tedious it all becomes.