WENDY

★★

VISUALLY STRIKING, NARRATIVELY CLUNKY

NEW ZEALAND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
31st July 2020

Since author and playwright J.M. Barrie first told the story of Peter Pan in the 1904 stage play and subsequent 1911 novel, the boy who wouldn't grow up has gone on to become one of the most adapted characters in all of literature. Countless interpretations of the story have made their way to stage and screen since.

'Hook' was one of the first movies I watched as a kid where I realised that something I had been eagerly looking forward to could actually be bad. Disney's 'Peter Pan' had that racist 'Red Man' song. Joe Wright's 'Pan' starred Hugh Jackman as a garish pirate with a tendency to belt out anachronistic showtunes for literally no reason.

Come to think of it, I really don't like anything about the Peter Pan story. Get a job and leave the non-ageless kids alone, kidnapper!

Anyway, it's been eight long years since Benh Zeitlin released his feature directorial debut, the Best Picture-nominated 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'. Now he's returned with his sophomore feature, 'Wendy', yet another reimagining of Barrie's tale.

'WENDY' TRAILER

As with Hushpuppy in 'Beasts of the Southern Wild', 'Wendy' follows a young girl living in an impoverished environment. The movie begins at a dingy whistle-stop diner in the American South run by Wendy's mum, Angela (Shay Walker). It's a friendly but distressingly dead-end place, where little Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn), who wants to grow up to be pirate, is told he's likelier to end up a "mop-and-broom man". Within minutes, the sprog has hopped a train to follow a mysterious cloaked figure. Fair call.

One night, years after Thomas' disappearance, a shadow appears in 10-year-old Wendy's (Devin France) room. It belongs, of course, to Peter (Yashua Mack), a cherub in dreadlocks and a tattered prep school jacket with a lot of cocky self-confidence. Wendy and her twin brothers, James and Douglas (played by Gavin and Gage Naquin) follow him onto that same mystery train (and then a rowboat) to a strange island.

It's here that they meet other Lost Boys: Sweet Heavy (Ahmad Cage) and Cudjoe Head (Romyri Ross). Thomas is also there, and he hasn't aged a bit. Oh yeah... Peter has a special relationship with an entity named Mother who is either a huge glowing catfish or a volcano or something. Believing in Mother is essential, or else you grow up. And in this Neverland, growing up means you become one of the crusty "olds" and have to live in a grubby shanty town. An old named Buzzo (Lowell Landes), we're told, started to age after he lost his best friend. Loss, it seems, is the villain of the piece.

The cinematography of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is admittedly phenomenal - shaky cameras, twinkling magic hour-landscapes and set design that reasserts nature's dominance over the modern world - as is Dan Romer's score.

If you're familiar with 'Beasts of the Southern Wild', you'll notice that 'Wendy' is more of the same, which means it isn't as refreshing or unique. There are late-period Terrence Malick vibes aplenty, with Wendy's stilted, awkward voiceover narration cropping up throughout this dreamlike tale of escape and responsibility-shirking. On occasion, the movie seems like it will become a thoughtful examination of the ways in which kids have the spirit beaten out of them as they become adults. However, the shapeless script (co-written by Zeitlin and his younger sister Eliza) fails to get much narrative momentum going. The acting from an amateur cast of (mostly) children is uneven, the pacing is glacially slow and the 112-minute running time feels an hour longer.

Filmed on an island south of Antigua, the cinematography of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is admittedly phenomenal - shaky cameras, twinkling magic hour-landscapes and set design that reasserts nature's dominance over the modern world - as is Dan Romer's score. There are some truly dazzling sequences, extra-impressive for their minimal CGI. Very occasionally, the surrealist elements reminded me of Bertrand Mandico's R-rated 'The Wild Boys', which is never a bad thing.

Perhaps the problem is that we've finally reached a point within the broader culture wherein someone playing a classic children's or literary story straight without attempting multiple layers of clever-clever deconstruction, meta-analysis and grittiness have become the more interesting and radical approach.

In any event, script issues and a sense of overfamiliarity makes 'Wendy' a slog.

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