Like many of the existing films that borrow ideas from J. M. Barrie’s classic tale, Wendy draws its own take on the central theme of never wanting to grow up. There’s the Darling children, a boy named Peter, a version of Neverland, some Lost Boys, and even a Captain Hook-like character — but the similarities to the original tale stop there.
I had high hopes for the cinematography based on my love of director Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). Zeitlin continues to deliver beautiful imagery and score with the direction of Wendy, both of which outshine the at times disjointed plot.
Some of the film’s strongest imagery comes right in the first few scenes. There’s a series of warm close-ups, establishing Wendy Darling (Devin France), her twin brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin), and their neighborhood friend Thomas. They’re all inside of the Darling’s family-run, diner-like restaurant next to the train tracks, where everyone is a regular at the small-town Southern establishment. The three Darling kids live upstairs with their mom — a hard-working woman whose life revolves around running the restaurant and taking care of her three kids.
When the kids proclaim that they all have dreams of leaving the small town someday, they’re met with jaded comments from the customers and the Darling’s grandmother, who team up to say none of the kids will leave town; rather, they’ll grow up to mop and broom the restaurant. Wendy, who is young at the time, absorbs these comments along with her brothers. Their friend Thomas however, declares “I ain’t gunna be no mop and broom man,” while running out of the restaurant, and then hops on a passing train and never comes back.
The plot continues to explore the theme of running away — Wendy herself hears someone whisper “run away, run away” on a passing train near her bedroom almost nightly. Wendy and her two brothers muster the courage to do so one night and hop on the train, where we meet Peter (Yashua Mack), and where the plot begins to go in all sorts of directions.
The film’s dialogue begins to fade during the volcanic island scenes, which is presumably Neverland. Much of Wendy, James, and Douglas’ time is spent running around, following Peter, and figuring out the magic of how the kids on the island never grow up. Some of the island scenes remind me of the film Where the Wild Things Are (2009), but instead of Max being the king of the island, it’s Peter.
The movie follows the perspective of Wendy, and if the audience didn’t quite get the message of what the kids are thinking while running around — some scenes feature voiceovers of Wendy’s thoughts, which at times seem random and unnecessary.
It becomes apparent to the kids that Peter is the leader of the island because he’s the one most in tune with the Mother, a sea creature who protects the kids with her glowing magic— and what the film alludes to in a broader sense as Mother Nature. In the times of today’s environmental and climate crisis, Zeitlin makes the message clear that we must protect Mother Nature at all costs. If we believe in the Mother, all will be good in the world (and on the island for these kids).
The cast of kids’ acting ability outshines the plot and dialogue, and it’s refreshing to have the narrative of a young girl with her own ideas at the front and center of a film. Wendy defies what Peter instructs her to do at times, and tends to march to her own drum — a narrative especially important for younger audiences. The diversity of the cast is also a welcome approach, compared to past Pan-themed adaptations.
Once we get past the climax of the film is where the plot begins to fall a little flat. During the somewhat predictable ending, some of the film’s messages are lost, and some questions go unanswered. What Wendy realizes as her inevitable fate at the end of the film, is this: to grow up is a great adventure. I just wish we were able to see more of those adventures played out, and less of her time running around the strange island that is a mere story and memory to her now.
Photos: Searchlight Pictures