Sundance Review: WENDY - Okay NOW Can We Be Done With Peter Pan Movies?

Benh Zeitlin‘s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD follow up is beautiful but will be divisive.

There are some stories I’ve just seen enough for one lifetime. Anything about Robin Hood, for instance. A Christmas Carol adaptations. Even Hamlet and Macbeth feel pretty well exhausted to me.

And then there’s Peter Pan, who people simply cannot stop making movies about for some reason. There are two at this year’s Sundance alone. 
Nevertheless, Benh Zeitlin feels strongly enough about this story to make his first film since 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild yet another take on the boy who wouldn’t grow up. This time from the perspective of the girl who wouldn’t take any of his shit.

It’s a tricky prospect. I don’t want to see this story again but I can’t just miss Zeitlin’s long-awaited Beasts follow-up. And as that conundrum might indicate, there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is the film is wild, melancholy and beautiful. The bad news is I don’t think anyone is going to see it.

Wendy is a kids film that likely will not appeal to children. One or two might stumble upon it and fall in love here and there, but the film is much too weird and long to expect mainstream whippersnappers to sit through. It’s filled with the kind of swearing and menace that makes future cult films but not box office hits. 

Peter Pan is a strange story anyway. When you’re a kid, I suppose you’re attracted to the idea of living forever without parents telling you what to do. The meaning mutates with age, however. You begin to see the flaw in endless childhood the more you learn and realize kids are fucking stupid. Get a little older than that and the whole thing becomes incredibly sad. 

Zeitlin’s film hangs a lot on this sadness, indicating a point of view geared toward adults, most of whom aren’t likely to care about another Peter Pan movie. There is a very narrow audience of parent/kid combos who will just adore this film for different reasons, but it strikes me as quite narrow.

That’s a box office issue, however, and not how we should rate a film’s quality. I absolutely love Wendy. I was captured and mesmerized by it from its opening moments. I love the adorable intensity children just seem to have in Zeitlin films. I love how the wildness portrayed feels truly wild and not cushioned at the last moment (Peter straight up amputates an arm without moral struggle). And I found myself incredibly moved by the unflappable Wendy and her journey.

Many people will not get so hooked, and for them, the film is going to be laborious and annoying. I’ve been hearing this opinion a lot and I can’t argue against it. You’re either into this or you’re not. It is long. And it can be slow. For me, it was worth it. Each new scene showed me something I wanted to see.

Without much setup, the film follows Wendy and her twin brothers as they simply hop a train, beckoned by the intense boy Peter, and take a trip to a remote island where there are no adults except for exiled sadsacks who rapidly age as a result of sadness and hopelessness. Once there, they have fun for a while, but it doesn’t take long before the lawless land’s many rules begin asserting themselves. This leads to a conflict that engenders the origins of many Peter Pan tropes, all pushed forward by the rebellious and strong Wendy who does what she thinks is right despite all of Peter’s bullshit. It’s her movie, after all.

Wendy is so stripped down for Zeitlin’s edgy (surreal) realism, you don’t expect any main Pan hallmarks to appear at all. Halfway through, this assumption proves false. And the more Wendy allows itself to hit those beats, the more I appreciated what it was doing. It’s one thing to cut out words like “Pan” “Lost Boys” and “Neverever Land” in an effort to gain credibility among modern audiences. But doing that while also delivering the fairy tale goods within that aesthetic injects them with new life. As such, I found myself thrilled with this old story in a way I never would have predicted. 

And now I think I can truly say I’m done with Peter Pan. Speaking personally, it’s just not going to get better than this. For those who dislike the film, there is still hope for a third Zeitlin movie that can bring us all back together. I just hope it doesn’t take another eight years. And I also hope it’s not about Robin Hood or something.