Wendy, a spin on JM Barrie’s Peter Pan myth, takes all the chaos, noise and lack-of-focus of director Benh Zeitlin’s earlier picture Beasts of the Southern Wild and amplifies it. The 2012 surprise hit, which went from Sundance discovery to four Academy Award nominations, got a tremendous amount of mileage from its peculiarity of place and heartfelt father-daughter relationship. That’s very much missing here. What we’re left with is something like Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are without the adorable creatures. Wendy is undoubtedly self-assured and in-your-face, and the gorgeous location photography certainly has an impact. But it’s wrecked by chapters so lengthy they become simply excruciating.
We begin with a tense scene in a greasy spoon diner loaded with crusty characters inches from a train yard hauling freight. After a child totters off and disappears, we cut years later to three pre-adolescent siblings (friends of the missing kid), children of the restaurant’s hardworking but loving single mom owner. From the window of her bedroom, Wendy (Devin French) spies a kid on the roof of a passing train and takes a leap of faith. Her twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) follow. In time (and via many methods of transport) they arrive in a mystical land where unaccompanied minors are free to stomp around, yell and never grow up.
Peter (Yashua Mack) is anarchy incarnate, and his attitude to the newcomers swerves between indifference and welcoming. The only rule seems to be to never grow up, and we’ll eventually see the sad sacks who did (one with a hook for a hand!) and now live on the dreary side of the island. This leads to some defections, rescues, fights and revelations, all to the cacophony of kids with limitless, high-volume lungs.
But here’s the thing: is there no independent film-maker whois honest enough to say that kids want to play video games, not romp around with sticks? Where, in real life, are these return-to-Walden youngsters so beloved by Brooklyn-based storytellers? All I see are kids addicted to their phones.
The film’s sequences of extreme youthful vigor continue at interminable length, and I suspect even the most whimsy-prone will grow tired of it. There are some half-baked environmentalist lessons, in case anyone is worried Wendy may inspire copycat crimes of childhood disobedience to no higher purpose. These come from a new-to-the-Peter-Pan-franchise character called Mother, a sea creature who is the living heart of the island and who toots out explosions from volcanos. This all looks great, proving absolutely that Zeitlin does have acuity for creating individual moments. But it goes on and on and on.
To be fair, the picture ends with quite an emotional thrill which, to my great surprise, I found sincerely moving. The tightly edited final sequence is an effective admixture of movie magic and it sends one out of Wendy with chills. It might even be enough to make some reconsider the discomfort of the rest of the film. But I can withstand such lures: Neverland, never again.