Nothing should bring shivers of dread to the modern moviegoer quicker than the words “visionary reimagining.” This virtually always means the director thinks s/he knows better than the guy who wrote a classic. That’s exactly what’s happening with director Benh Zeitlin’s new movie Wendy, which “reimagines” J.M. Barrie’s enduring classic Peter Pan right into the cutout bin at Walmart. Wendy is almost as entertaining as a prostate biopsy, but takes far longer.
Zeitlin’s last movie was eight years ago—the trippy and unpredictable Beasts of the Southern Wild. Wendy shares that movie’s surreal, vision of the American deep south, but lacks its sense of wonder. This effort seems very much a case of belated sophomore slump. Where Beasts was loose-limbed and free-flowing, Wendy is disjointed and choppy, drifting in and out of lanes uneasily between fantasy and surrealism, unsure of whether it takes place in the real world or a magical landscape, with a frayed narrative thread that flirts dangerously close to incoherence.
And while nearly a decade has passed since Zeitlin made his last movie, cinema itself has not been standing still, and what was cutting edge in 2012 is already looking a little dated. Motion sickness-inducing, handheld camera work and stringing together successions of close-ups is just not the way things are being done anymore. We are unanchored almost immediately, as this movie’s Wendy (newcomer Devin France), raised above a family diner, seems to enjoy her existence helping her mother (Shay Walker) and sparring with her brothers James and Douglas (brothers Gavin and Gage Naquin respectively), who believe that adulthood means the end of dreams and accomplishment. Zeitlin shoots virtually everything in jarring and disorienting handheld close-ups, which more than anything else makes the viewer feel like voyeuristic intruder in every scene. It also makes it far more difficult to for the audience to get its bearings.
The diner is set right by train tracks, a fact that proves important. At the very beginning of the movie, a young boy, hearing that his future is apparently going to be as a janitor, runs out and hops a passing freight train, perhaps egged on by a mysterious shape atop the train. Years later, he is a face on the side of a milk carton and Wendy and her brothers regard adulthood as something threatening. Peter Pan does make his inevitable appearance—it seems to take a while—but not the way we’re expecting. This Peter doesn’t fly into Wendy’s room, there is no Tinkerbell, no trying to stick his shadow back on with soap. He is glimpsed only as a shadow on the wall, as a train rushes by the diner. Peter is on top of the train, laughing wildly, apparently luring additional runaways. Wendy climbs out the window and pursues the train, followed by her brothers.
Rapidly the movie strays into territory that’s not necessarily unfamiliar—many viewers will start having post-traumatic flashbacks to Lord of the Flies—but it’s definitely not Barrie’s well-beloved classic. The landscape of Peter’s island is no paradise. Much of it is rocky and foreboding, reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s take on Skull Island in his King Kong reboot. A volcano throws mortar shell-like chunks of steaming debris without warning. The Lost Boys sleep outdoors and there isn’t a mermaid in sight.
Peter seems to worship The Mother, who initially seems to be some sort of neo-pagan goddess, and is eventually revealed to be a luminous, deep sea Kraken, which seems to be the movie’s substitute for the crocodile that ate Captain Hook’s hand.
The other only magic seems to be that on Neverland (a name we never hear) childhood can, but does not inevitably, last forever. Eternal childhood is an act of will. Apparently, you can never doubt yourself—introspection of any kind leads to aging, and these Lost Boys regard that with coronavirus-level dread. In the 1967 “Star Trek” episode “Metamorphosis,” written by Gene L. Coon, the character Zefram Cochrane, played by Glenn Corbett, says: “Believe me, Captain, immortality consists largely of boredom.” Here it appears to be absolute stagnation followed by dementia. The Lost Boys who become really lost, a euphemism for growing old, are exiled to a kind of post-apocalyptic Margaritaville on the far side of the island where they fish for The Mother, in the misguided belief that eating her flesh and drinking their blood will restore their lost youth—an obscene perversion of Christian communion likely to be deeply offensive to Catholics.
There are dark, psychological underpinnings to the Peter Pan story—they’re inevitable. Peter does separate children from their parents in Barrie’s original story, and the parents do suffer as a result. But those aspects of the story are sugarcoated by a story that’s full of magic and adventure. This version, paints Peter as a virtual monster, a Trumpian narcissist whose decisions are invariably wrong, has all of the darkness—in fact here the dark aspects aren’t a subtext, they’re the point—and added more of its own. Wendy, ultimately, is a horror movie about a pernicious imp who refuses to grow up and rides the rails through eternity luring discontented children to purgatory, even Hell itself. Although I personally do, as a rule, resist the tendency to throw out spoilers, it should be noted that the movie’s final scene, presented as an epilogue, utterly undercuts the apparent third act climax.
Zeitlin predominantly, if not exclusively, shoots on 16mm film, and Wendy was shot on 16mm stock with an ARRI 416 camera. There’s an anti-digital backlash happening in some quarters, and 16mm is currently being used more extensively in professional film production, often with surprisingly rich, handsome results (AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is shot on 16mm), than many cineastes realize. One might wish that Zeitlin and his DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen had condescended to use a camera mount occasionally, but you can’t deny the richness of light and texture they’ve captured. Dan Romer’s often soaring score has a triumphant note—and as to whether that’s supposed to be ironic or not, your guess is as good as mine.
There is a tendency, with child actors, to praise their performances blindly and automatically. In point of fact, a movie does not achieve excellence simply because the main characters are children. The performances here are neither charming nor particularly insightful, although blame should not be laid at the feet of the performers (newcomers, by the way). Nothing about this movie is their fault. The screenplay doesn’t know where its going, so how can children with no prior acting experience? It doesn’t help that the movie’s Peter, Yashua Mack, has an expressive face, but a nearly unintelligible voice.
Joel Schumacher’s MTV-influenced, 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys also used Peter Pan as a creative springboard, but with far more success and oddly, far more heart. Devoid of magic, adventure or humor, Wendy comes off like the unpleasant results of combining Peter Pan and Lord of the Flies in a food processor. Far too dark and intense for children, it doesn’t offer adults much either. Zeitlin’s dystopian reimagining of a classic that didn’t need reimagining, has the soul of a horror movie and in the end your blood will probably run a little cold.