Wendy Soars as a Modern Retelling
March 16, 2020 | Written by Calvary Dominique, Illustrations by Jessica Chin
“All children, except one, grow up,” is how J.M. Barrie famously introduces his novel Peter Pan. With these six simple words, Peter Pan’s mythology was forever enshrined in our culture, becoming a symbol of the optimism of childhood and the refusal to sacrifice joy, adventure, and passion. The story of “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” has stood the test of time through its many, many adaptations precisely because its themes are universal and, well, timeless.
Wendy, directed by Academy Award-nominated director Benh Zeitlin, contains much of the same heart and soul as the classic Peter Pan story, but it is unique in tone. Instead of telling the story from Peter’s perspective, Zeitlin works from Wendy Darling’s point of view. This iteration of Wendy (Devin France) is all at once free-spirited, passionate, wild, and fierce, and she is full of genuine kindness and heart.
Illustrations by Jessica Chin
Wendy is an 11-year-old girl who dreams of adventure, but for now, she is stuck in an impoverished home over the diner where her hardworking mother (Shay Walker) toils. Wendy’s mom has given up on the dreams she once had as a girl, settling for a life of quiet unease in order to care for her children, and this saddens her immensely. “Dreams change,” she tells her daughter. But Wendy refuses to accept this. And so, she vows to everyone who will listen, including her two twin brothers Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin), that she’ll be different.
Rather than its usual Victorian England setting, the film is set in rural Louisiana, giving it a grittier and more current feel. Early on in the film, years prior to the main action, Wendy’s young cousin Thomas (Krzysztof Meyn) boldly announces to the room that he’s going to be a pirate when he grows up, but gets sharply rebuked. “You’re going to be a mop and broom man,” his grandma says, matter-of-factly. But Thomas will have none of it. Muttering to himself a denial of her words, he runs outside when no one is looking, jumps aboard a moving freight train, and disappears. Signs are put up all over town, but no one can find him. Wendy has no idea where he has gone, but the audience can feel her wanderlust; she envies him for having escaped. It’s not until years later, when the train makes another appearance, this time to take Wendy and her brothers away, that the truth is revealed. He has been living in Neverland as a pirate, and he hasn’t aged at all.
This movie took seven years to make because Zeitlin thrives on the unorthodox. Detailed in a piece by IndieWire, he discovered the boy who would end up playing Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) in a Rastafarian compound in the forest, and this casting decision came only after his team had spent a year auditioning 1,500 kids, none of whom fit his vision. Rather than portraying Peter Pan as a British kid “who’s just sort of prancing around this imaginary Caribbean landscape,” he explains, “our Peter had to be able to navigate this terrain with such a level of knowledge, agility, and fearlessness that we were never going to be able to bring someone who hasn’t experienced this before.” He shot most of the movie on the island of Montserrat and remained committed to his vision even as things grew more chaotic on set.
Even though this is a movie about kids, it’s not really a film for kids. It’s most effectively viewed with wiser eyes, by those who have already grown up, looking back on a childhood they’ve lost. For a movie based on the Peter Pan mythos, there are no fairies, mermaids, bumbling pirates, or ticking crocodiles. Yes, there’s certainly magic in this movie, but it’s less “fantastical” in nature and more grounded in realism. The movie gets incredibly dark and heartbreaking, and as an avant-garde, arthouse film, it might confuse younger audiences. In that regard, it has much in common tonally with Spike Jonze’s moody adaption of Where the Wild Things Are.
Wendy is a wild, untamed, and intentionally unpolished movie. Unlike most Peter Pan adaptations, this film is significantly less plot-driven and more focused on emotion and feeling. The brilliant colors and the vibrant cinematography combine with an incredible score to form a truly impressive, albeit imperfect film. It’s bizarre, but it works. There’s a rawness and vibrancy to the performances of the young actors that feels true, and that this is their start towards bright futures in film.