Have you ever had a dream that is so weird, crazy, frustrating, and yet, beautiful and somehow makes sense once you reflect on it. That’s how I felt watching Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy — a weird, crazy, frustrating — yet — beautiful dream.
Wendy is a more contemporary take on the idea of Peter Pan. We follow Wendy (a ten year old girl from the midwest) and her two twin brothers, Doug and James, as Peter takes them to an island where no one ever ages. Yeah, this movie wears its inspirations proudly and I don’t think any lesser for it. It’s really quite interesting on how Benh uses the lore of Peter Pan and spins it around to fit his story.
There are a lot of creative choices here that work so well to the movie’s benefit. For example, Peter is made WAY younger, almost seven here, to help justify his forever young mindset. Peter has always seen the world through the eyes of a little boy, so making him more so here is a choice that I felt works and really fleshes out his character. We know that he sees the world in a very black and white way and his choices here reflect that ideology, creating a more naive Peter compared to other iterations. Wendy and her two brothers are also very fleshed out and have compelling arcs. We see them go through the black and white mindset to the more adult grey. It’s compelling and sometimes saddening to watch and that’s what this movie does really well.
One of the best creative choices here is the world itself. Neverland here is a mix of SEVERAL ideas and things. The idea of never growing up from the actual Neverland is present, the island from Cast Away is used as the main look and feel for it, the shantytowns from Book of Eli are used and, believe or not, Rudolph’s island of misfit toys is shown to be filled with unused things and garbage. There’s even a dash of Lord of the Flies. The world feels lived in and it fits within the movie’s tone and setting, while just being a gorgeous place to look at. From the volcano constantly on the verge of erupting, to the desert sands that lay in front of those that have become lost, to the underwater palace of Mother. Oh yeah, there is a giant fish creature that’s a Mother to all the Lost Boys. It is beautifully constructed and one of the most breath taking creatures I’ve seen in a while. I have no idea what they did to make it look so real, but it pays off wonderfully.
Another creative choice, albeit more on-the-nose, is the depiction of the pirates. On the island, the Lost Boys that live there are young. REALLY YOUNG. Think under the age of thirteen. Meanwhile, all the adults that live there are VERY, VERY OLD. On Neverland, you are either under thirteen or older than sixty. It really nails home the theme of young vs old. Some people thought it was too obvious, but I thought it was conveyed perfectly.
Wendy is probably the most mature Peter Pan story that we’ve ever had. There’s swearing, blood, some gore, and very heavy themes that are actually horrifying to witness on screen. People get their hands chopped, children are melted due to an active volcano, we see a very real depiction of grief unfold on screen — this is not a movie for kids, which is odd because at times it tries to be. Its messages are sometimes conveyed through on-the-nose dialogue that make for a slightly uncomfortable experience. Yes, we know the point of your movie, Wendy, you don’t need to flat out tell us.
But what I must commend the movie for are the risks that it’s willing to take. The pirates from Peter Pan are present here, but how they become pirates and who they were as people is actually explored and it’s horrifying. These pirates are the kids who let sadness into their hearts and, due to that grief and sadness, the island aged them quickly. We can see this unfold with one character and it’s utterly gut wrenching.
Another risk is how the children perceive Neverland. We see them have loads of fun and it’s a joy to watch, but eventually they have to reflect upon the choices they made and deal with the possibility of never seeing their parents again. Not just a “Oh well, maybe I will, maybe I won’t.” I mean a full ten minute scene where they discuss who they are as people and who they reflect upon in terms of their parents or even their own future children. It’s a sense of self-awareness that I have not seen before, not even with Hook.
However, Wendy is not without its fair share of flaws. The story moves in an almost dream like/slice of life pace. Things can sometimes happen too quickly or drag on for too long and there’s not a lot of context built into the world Benh has created. Sure, we can piece some things together, but for a lot of the characters, Peter included, we don’t know much about them. It does make for a frustrated viewing experience at times. And some of the performances don’t help either.
With the exception of the main three actors, performances from the child cast can either be hit or miss. Specifically the actor playing Peter had a lot of his lines ADR’ed, something I found very noticeable and will pull you right out of the movie every time. His acting is also very shaky in terms of execution, sometimes delivering a really captivating performance, but other times just making you chuckle by how bad the performance turned out. I know I shouldn’t rip into a seven year old for trying his best, but you have to objective when it comes to these sort of things. And in this movie’s case, a good chunk of the performances are bad. Laughably bad.
Then there’s the camerawork. The style that Benh shoots for is a more documentary, shaky-cam style. This does work for a majority of the movie, but there are times where you can’t tell what is going on. Some shots are out of focus or just too damn shaky to see what’s on screen. I get it’s his style, but there are some points where a nice steady shot is all you need.
The last bit of negativity that needs to be discussed are the various Peter Pan references. Yes, I know I said I like them, and I do. But many of them are handled are so blatantly that it’ll make you roll your eyes. One of the characters gets their hand chopped off and you realize exactly who they’re meant to be. And when said character gets a hook you think two things: One, you think, “Oh, REDACTED’s Hook. That’s cool.” Two, you then think, “God, finally. Was wondering when the hook would come in.” It’s a symbiotic relationship: you feel great for understanding the references, but you can’t help but sit in your seat, annoyingly waiting for the next reference to happen. It sucks, but it’s true.
So, with everything considered, what is the final verdict?
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Wendy is a unique take on the Peter Pan mythos. In many ways, it feels sort of like the inspiration for the character itself, if you can forget that the original story was written back in 1890-something. It’s hopeful and conveys a message of youth and age very competently. But the dreamlike pacing and story, mixed with on-the-nose dialogue and sometimes hilarious acting, make for a frustrating viewing experience. It’s definitely worth checking out, but just know that this ship has a lot of holes in it. Whether or not it sinks or floats on the way to Neverland is entirely up to you.