This is one of those movies that I was about to see in March 2020, until the pandemic shutdown curtailed its theatrical run and my weekly matinee habit. Still, the four months it took me to finally catch Wendy on VOD are nothing compared to the eight long years it took for Benh Zeitlin to deliver a followup to his astonishing debut Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Was it worth the wait? Not really.
Wendy is Zeitlin's riff on Peter Pan. Opening in the rural south, the story follows the three Darling children – Wendy, Douglas, and James (why not John and Michael?) – as they sneak away from their home above their mother's diner one night, hopping atop a freight train that roars by within literal jumping distance. They are lured by a boy named Peter, who in this case is a Rastafarian child with long dreadlocks and a tattered school uniform. He then takes them, via rowboat, to a volcanic Caribbean island that's not explicitly named Neverland.
For its first half, Wendy is a tiring, "isn't childhood awesome?" indulgence in showing kids behaving like "kids", with lots of shouting, playing, running around, and risking danger. It doesn't feel authentic to childhood, though – but more on that in a minute.
Things pick up in the film's second half, once we learn that Peter's island has a dark side, where instead of never growing up, you might grow up too fast – becoming elderly in a manner of days. How? Why? What's the message here? I'm honestly not sure. Someone mentions something about how growing up isn't so bad, but it hardly plays out like the film's central thesis.
Wendy is the sophomore effort you'd both expect and not expect from Zeitlin. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, it combines the gritty with the ethereal, marrying handheld camerawork and rusty, decaying sets to mystical imagery and a lush score. So why does Beasts feel special, and Wendy not so much? Well, I'm certainly not going to criticize the work of young children, but the casting does make a difference. Quvenzhané Wallis, the six-year-old star of Beasts, was a real force of nature. Watching that film, you get the sense that Zeitlin just let Wallis run loose and followed along with his camera as he could. But with Wendy, the seven kids in the principal cast look like they're trying very hard to follow Zeitlin's direction and recite his humorless dialogue (cowritten by Zeitlin's sister Eliza, who's also the film's production designer), and as a result they seem stifled. It doesn't help that Wendy throws in a self-serious, Terrence Malick-esque voiceover by its titular character. It all makes the film feel rather aloof and preprogrammed, where it's supposed to feel magical and free.