'Wendy' Review: 'Peter Pan' Gets Yet Another Update, This Time From The Director Of 'Beasts Of The Southern Wild' [Sundance 2020]

Filmmakers just can't stop returning to the world of Peter Pan. The story of the boy who never grew up holds sway over seemingly everyone, from Walt Disney, to Steven Spielberg, to Joe Wright, and beyond. The latest to tackle to the tale is Benh Zeitlin, director of Beasts of the Southern Wild. That 2012 indie was once acclaimed, but has since fallen out of favor. Zeitlin's return, Wendy, is more of the same, for better or worse. If you enjoyed and still enjoy Beasts, you'll probably find something to love about Zeitlin's Peter Pan riff. But the filmmaker's sophomore effort is also messier, and save for a handful of choices, ultimately brings nothing new to a familiar story.

There's a raw, unrefined energy to Wendy that's charming at first, but quickly gets tiresome. One look at the film and it's clear the narrative was something discovered in the editing (and it must've been a lot of editing, since production on Wendy began in 2017). You begin to get the sense that Zeitlin shot anything, and everything – hours and hours of footage. And then editor Affonso Gonçalves pieced it all together into something semi-coherent, at which Zeitlin added Malick-eseque narration to clean things up further.

The story? You know the story. A little girl and her two brothers run off with a mischievous boy to a magical island that grants you eternal youth. The bare bones of the classic tale remain in place, but Wendy has made a few upgrades. The cast of characters is far more diverse, and the story is set in more modern times. And oh yeah, instead of being a fairy, Tinkerbell is a giant Cthululu-like sea monster with a glowing belly (one of the few exciting new choices here). Eventually, Wendy gets around to introducing its version of Captain Hook, and the way Zeitlin's script tackles this character is admittedly clever, and far more personal than any version of Hook we've seen before.

But before we get there, there are many, many, many scenes of kids being kids. Devin France is Wendy, who lives in a diner with her single mom and two brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin). One day, the three siblings hop a train, egged on by giggling little scamp Peter (Yashua Mack). Peter eventually leads the three to an island where you can stay forever young – if you believe, that is. But the moment you start letting in negative thoughts, old age will suddenly seize you.

Once these paltry story points are haphazardly introduced, Wendy mostly turns into B-roll, with tons of footage of the children running all over the island, shouting, cussin', and falling down. There's undeniable manic energy here, even though a lot of it feels borrowed from Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are adaptation and Sean Baker's The Florida Project. None of the kids here are "actors" in the technical sense, and while that may lend a touch of natural charm to the proceedings, it's also somewhat of the film's downfall. Anytime the children are required to recite lines, the words come out clunky and flat. And there are countless instances where it's clear that Zeitlin had to resort to ADR work, as the words don't quite match the mouths of those reciting them. To get around this, Wendy cuts down on dialogue as much as possible, resort to France's narration, which is mostly fine, but still rough around the edges.

These rough-n-tumble elements bog Wendy down, and the film's 112-minute runtime sure doesn't help. But there's still a little magic lurking in Wendy to keep it from being a total misadventure. The overall look of the film, via cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is quite lovely – full of magic-hour shots, crisp underwater footage, and scenes set on beautiful beaches. Then there's the score, courtesy of Dan Romer (who also scored Southern Wild). Romer's music is gorgeous and energetic, to the point where you wish Zeitlin had decided to drop all dialogue and narration and instead made this a silent film save for Romer's score.

Zeitlin also manages to wring some emotion from the final moments of the film, when the kids realize that they really do have to grow up someday (spoiler alert for anyone who has someone managed to never hear the story of Peter Pan). There's both a touch of melancholy and a calm acceptance here, summed-up by Peter declaring that growing up would indeed be a "great adventure." And a shot where one adult character runs after a train at night, dips into shadows, and reappears young again in a streetlight is so utterly magical that you wish the rest of the film had managed to achieve the same blissful results.

But these moments are so few and far between that the film sags. Wendy should not be written-off entirely, and younger audiences may be taken with the movie's sugar-rush charms. But in the end, there's not enough fairy dust in the world to make Wendy fly.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10