“Be Prepared” in The Lion King, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in The Little Mermaid, “Hellfire” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame — in most Disney animated musicals, the villain gets the best song. Usually, this isn’t a problem, as there’s never any question as to who we ought to be rooting for. Wendy, a new, nonmusical adaptation of Peter Pan from Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin, also gives its most interesting beat to Captain Hook. The problem is that it never quite recovers from that shift; the pirate remains the most fascinating part of a story that is, for once, supposed to belong to Wendy.
In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin used the lens of magical realism to tell the tale of a young girl prevailing over hurricanes, erosion, and rising sea levels in her Louisiana bayou community. He takes a similar approach with Wendy: Instead of an ageless boy named Peter Pan whisking Wendy Darling and her two brothers to the magical island of Neverland, where Peter’s crew, known as the Lost Boys, cavorts with mermaids, fairies, and pirates, the gang hitches a ride on a train to a remote island seemingly untouched by man. The magic that occurs on Neverland also isn’t supernatural in Wendy — there are no mermaids or fairies — so much as it’s super and natural. Peter and his cohorts, all of whom are other children who ran away, “fly” by jumping from great heights into water, and pay their respects to a glowing fish they call Mother.
However, beyond its ties to J.M. Barrie’s original story, and its focus on Wendy (Devin France) as the main character, the film doesn’t have too much to offer; there’s little character development or justification for retelling this well-worn tale. Much of Wendy’s runtime is filled by whimsical, Terrence Malick-esque footage of the children running amok on the island, screaming and laughing as they get muddy.
For a while, the simple beauty of the imagery, in combination with the whimsical score by Dan Romer, is enough to keep viewers captivated. Zeitlin and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen have a knack for capturing picture-perfect images, from children dancing amid giant shadows to golden slivers of sun in the grass. As the children yell, they summon explosions from the earth, with Peter actually causing the island’s volcano to bellow smoke. That loveliness makes a later transition to the more barren part of the island even more striking, given the region’s melancholy, rather than malevolent, adult inhabitants.
But man cannot live on beauty alone, and the story underneath the film’s beauty is ultimately thin. This version of Wendy runs away from home over her fear of becoming stuck, as she sees it, like her mother (Shay Walker). Her mother seems happy, but admits she had to give up her more adventurous dreams when she had children, and she constantly has to work to support them. Wendy’s compulsion to follow Peter seems to be a promise to leave that kind of compromise behind.
The question of how much of adulthood is compromise and acceptance of responsibility gets lost in the wild rumpus, then becomes the burden of the adult characters, who are deeper simply because more has happened to them. Wendy diverts from Barrie’s story in how they arrived on the island, and the reveal of Captain Hook’s origins constitutes the film’s biggest twist. Hook becomes fascinating and sympathetic because of how Zeitlin has rewritten his story, and scenes with his motley crew are the precious few that are free of Wendy’s Hallmark-card-esque spurts of narration. (“Remember the voice you heard, the one that said, ‘Sneak away’?” she asks, in an early scene. “This is where it came from.” It’s just a touch too saccharine, especially when the feeling that dialogue is trying to invoke is already evident in the dreamy, wistful imagery.) The adult characters feel more fleshed out and thought through, and their reason for hunting Mother is easy to understand.
Wendy’s racial dynamics complicate any universal theme Zeitlin hopes to convey, especially as he doesn’t seem to register them as problematic. Wendy and her brothers are white, and Peter and all but one of his followers are black, and the result is a mix of “magical black man” tropes and an all-too-familiar white savior narrative. Wendy is always meant to be more mature than Peter, but it reads badly here, as a white girl scolds a black boy for being irresponsible and explains to him how his world actually works. The film’s primary focus on building a sense of aesthetics makes these flaws that much more glaring.
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wendy is stunning to look at, but Zeitlin’s debut had a developed set of main characters, whereas his follow-up leans a little too heavily on the framework left by Barrie’s story. He doesn’t seem to have learned the central lesson that these characters are meant to learn: that living means more than running, yelling, and playing. Hook and his gloomy crew best illustrate that, even though they aren’t furnished with the first-person narration Wendy has. Instead, the magic around them is largely unexplained, which just makes them more fascinating. They have the best song in the movie.
Wendy is in theaters now.