Much was expected of Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January. In 2012, when he brought his Terrence Malick-influenced Beasts of the Southern Wild, his magical realism generated four Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, the critical reception of this modern reworking of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan has been distinctly underwhelming.
On the one hand, it is because the thematic and cinematic similarities between the two features belie the fact this passion project took seven years to make. Predominantly, though, it is because the leaden pace of an inconsistent narrative (created by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza) saps the movie of its ability to engage viewers.
The prologue foreshadows the leap of faith Wendy (Devin France) takes, pre-adolescence. As a toddler, she sees a figure atop a train, whom she imagines has taken the journey to a more mythical and magical land than the reality that is in store for her. Several years later, she hops aboard with twin brothers James and Douglas (Gavin and Gage Naquin) and arrives at the ocean. There, Peter (Yashua Mack) rows them to a volcanic island where time stands still and children remain young – provided they keep their hope and imagination alive. If not, they will age and join the embittered adults on the desolate side of the island. With their arrival, though come inconsistencies and a restricted plot.
Despite the immersive camerawork of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and the dazzling shots that foreground the beauty of nature, it feels like the picture spends far too much time following the frolicking characters, rather than developing a plot. Even the soaring score from Dan Romer, with its continuous crescendos, suggests an impending climax is going to occur. That promise, however, is never realised.
It feels a particular shame that Wendy never lives up to its Academy Award-nominated predecessor, particularly as the titular character is deftly and confidently portrayed by the young France. So strong is her performance, it is unlikely the film will stymie her career. It could, however, stall Zeitlin’s.
Wendy is released nationwide on 13th August 2021.
Watch the trailer for Wendy here: