Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Wendy (2020) dir. Benh Zeitlin

Benh Zeitlin's first film in eight years tries and fails to say anything new about Peter Pan


Eight years is a long gap between films, especially if you’re a director whose first film gets you Best Director and Best Picture nods at the Oscars. Benh Zeitlin finally returns to cinemas with Wendy, his follow up to 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Unfortunately, Zeitlin hasn’t learned a single new trick or technique in the interim – Wendy is a reheated Beasts in nearly every way, except for the aspects in which it is far worse. An attempted retelling of the Peter Pan story from the perspective of Wendy, the film can barely manage – the plot is non-functioning, the wide shots grainy, and the young cast dreadfully obnoxious (though that’s not their fault when their direction seems to just be “scream on this hill”). Wendy is a total failure that makes one question the praise for Beasts of the Southern Wild, my own included.

Transplanted to Zeitlin’s beloved New Orleans, Wendy begins with the Darling children living at their mother’s cafe, dreaming of adventure. Wendy and her twin brothers, James and Douglas, get their wish one day when a magical train sweeps them up and takes them to a volcanic island where a group of ageless boys play and scream all day. This needs to be addressed immediately: the Darling children are white, while Peter Pan and the majority of the Lost Boys, who are presented as dirty and nearly feral, are black. Zeitlin seems to be totally unaware of the optics here, having Wendy admonish Peter for acting like an animal and generally talking down to him. It is a deeply uncomfortable dynamic.

Though this island location is truly gorgeous, we barely have time to admire it. The camera moves like it’s in a blender, and any wide shots are strangely grainy. The underwater sequences are murky and dark. We can barely follow the action, which is mostly just kids running and screaming. The film is nearly two full hours when it should be 85 minutes. The score is a ripoff of that of Beasts, adding nothing new. Every decision made is an incorrect one. Though I’ve not seen 2015’s Pan, it’s hard not to wonder if that film has more to say about the Peter Pan story.

There could be something interesting in the way this film portrays the origin of Captain Hook, but it doesn’t get there. The antagonists being sad old people could be interesting, but we’d need a competent script to figure that out. By the end of the film, I wanted Wendy to nuke the island from orbit just to be safe.

Perhaps a Peter Pan story was fitting, as Benh Zeitlin clearly hasn’t grown up.

Dir. Benh Zeitlin
112 min

Opens at Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema Friday, 3/6

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