Stories aren’t created, they’re recycled. At least, that’s how it feels in the modern era. Against the increasing flow of remakes of animated classics and re-tellings of fairy tales, it seems like there’s little room for originality. But what if there was room for originality in re-imagining? Wendy shows us what happens when you find what makes a classic story relevant and build everything else from the ground up. Simply put, it can make a beloved tale even better.
The beloved tale this time is J.M. Barrie’s endlessly retold Peter Pan. We’ve seen the worst-case scenario of filmmakers attempting to modernize the narrative in 2015’s Pan. What that colossal misfire lacked was any sense of wonder or any exploration of the theme of never growing up that lied at the center of Barrie’s original text. But thanks to writer-director Behn Zeitlin and co-writer Eliza Zeitlin, that very theme is at the heart of Wendy.
As one can surmise from the title, this isn’t the story of Peter Pan. It’s the story of Wendy (Devin France), a curious, bored girl who longs to get away from her small-town life of helping out at her mom’s diner. One day, adventure calls, as a mysterious boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) appears to her on a train outside her window. Not to mention, he beckons Wendy and her twin brothers, James and Douglas (Gavin and Gage Naquin) to join him. Seeing her opportunity, she takes her brothers onboard the train, as they’re whisked away to a magical island where the children never grow up.
In a visual and auditory sense, Wendy is flawless. Instead of drawing on Peter Pan‘s familiar imagery, the Zeitlins give director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen a new canvas. The rustic grit of small-town Americana transforms into the wild splendor of the island. Rather than the idyllic safe haven of the original story, this is a raw, untamed wilderness literally built on a volcano. Thanks to shooting on the Caribbean islands, Grøvlen finds a majestic beauty in its unpredictable nature. With the help of Dan Romer’s swashbuckling, chaotic score, the natural world turns into something mystic and inviting.
On this island, pretty images contain a story that’s likely to resonate with many. The Zeitlins create new lore, where a fish-like creature known as “The Mother” bestows magic to the children. Furthermore, this is where those who lose their innocence rapidly age. Instead of fighting the pirates, the children get to experience what growing up really means. As the film progresses, the characters learn vital things about themselves, which offers vital lessons to the audience. Unlike the original story, it’s not an adventure, but an introspective journey.
Wendy wouldn’t truly be what it is, though, without its cast. Benh Zeitlin showed his impeccable gift with working with child actors in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Wendy furthers that gift. Yashua Mack is the ultimate Peter, an unpredictable character who exudes fun and the true spirit of childhood imagination. He dances through the frame, dragging the audience along with his pleasure-seeking ways. Gavin Naquin, conversely, is compelling as a character who is forced to reckon with rage following unspeakable grief.
The best of all them, though, is Devin France as the title character. France, in every way she can, tells a story of her own within Wendy. She goes from thrill-seeking to jubilant to confrontational all in a minute’s span. Towards the end of the film, she develops a maturity of her own that’s spellbinding. She, and every other member of the cast for that matter, are playing real, flesh and blood humans here.
As it hits its ending stretch, Wendy brought tears to my eyes. It’s rare to see a film where every element comes together to make something so perfect. It’s a fairy tale with relevance to the lives of everyone who watches it, universal and specific at the same time. By exploring themes that Barrie’s text merely mentioned in passing, Wendy surpasses the text in ways no previous adaptation has done. The end result is a true masterpiece and arguably the definitive Peter Pan adaptation to date. – James Preston Poole
Wendy is now in theaters.
The film stars Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage Naquin, Gavin Naquin, Ahmad Cage, and Krzysztof Meyn.
If you’re still on the fence about the film, check out the trailer below: