Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"Wendy makes an important point about children’s connection to nature." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

“When the first child laughed for the first time, the sound broke into a million glowing pieces, and the Mother rose up from the centre of the earth to watch over them. She was always here and always will be. As long as you believe in her, you will never, ever grow up.”

A number of things are striking in this quote, which features prominently as origin story in Benh Zeitlin’s free-range take on JM Barrie’s classic story. Is the child’s laughter giving birth to its own mother? Who has always been there? Is Mother watching over the laughter pieces or the children? If time and logic appear a bit loopy, so they are in Wendy, Zeitlin’s first film since his multiple Oscar-nominated Beasts Of The Southern Wild eight years ago.

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You may also think of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen and the devil’s mirror that broke into countless shards, which, caught in your eye, make you numb and heartless. Could the children of Neverland be the antidote?

The Zeitlins’ version (his sister Eliza Zeitlin is the co-writer and production designer) has Wendy Darling (Baby Wendy Tommie Milazzo, later played by Devin France) living with her single mother (Shay Walker) and twin brothers James and Douglas (Gavin Naquin and Gage Naquin) above the diner they run right by the railroad tracks in rural Louisiana.

One night, the three kids hop on the roof of a freight train (replacing the flying around Big Ben in Disney’s version from 1953, but no less miraculous a feat), lured by the unchanging shadow of a mysterious boy Wendy noticed many moons ago, when a neighbouring kid disappeared. Together with Peter (Yashua Mack), for that is his name, they reach the volcanic island of Neverland, where the Lost Boys roam and a sparkling sea creature they call Mother (with kind, sad eyes and an amorphous body) presumably keeps them young. No need for Wendy to be their mother, as the original play and several previous movie versions suggest.

Zeitlin’s Wendy shares with my personal favourite rendition of the story, the silent Peter Pan from 1924 directed by Herbert Brenon, moments of tremendous physical exuberance. Children (and the St. Bernard nurse Nana, played by the original theatre cast member, the animal performer George Ali) express the boundless energy and joy of being alive - after all, the original spark of Peter Pan is said to originate from the death of JM Barrie’s older brother David, who died as a boy. His mother drew solace from the fact that her favourite son would never grow old.

Peter Pan is about survival, too, and the creature of Mother, as in Mother Earth and Mother Nature, is under attack in 2020. Even when the running wild can be a bit exhausting to watch, as it is in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women as well, Wendy makes an important point about children’s connection to nature. It is fading.

While Bruno Bettelheim in the 1970s still could state in his Uses Of Enchantment that children have a stronger connection to animals or trees than adults do, technology has put a stop sign to that. Singing and clapping your hands might help to revive Tinker Bell or Mother. Making movies like Wendy is another. All our dreams are changing and that should be taken very seriously.

If you wait for Nana, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, or the Crocodile, they have all been dropped or incorporated into Mother or others. As for Captain Hook - well, you’ll see for yourself.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2020
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Lost on a mysterious island where ageing and time have come unglued, Wendy must fight to save her family, her freedom, and the joyous spirit of youth from the deadly peril of growing up. The classic story of Peter Pan is wildly reimagined in this ragtag epic.
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Director: Benh Zeitlin

Writer: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin

Starring: Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Shay Walker, Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Stephanie Lynn Wilson

Year: 2020

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: US


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