Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, first appeared as a minor character in J. M. Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird. Intended as a bit, he galvanized readers and took on a life of his own in cultural consciousness, spawning a children’s book and play (both written by Barrie), and more film adaptations than you have fingers to count them on. Every generation has their Peter, be it Disney’s 1953 animated film, the 2003 live-action version, Steven Spielberg’s nostalgic Hook, or Joe Wright’s misfire of a prequel, Pan.
In spite of this story’s ubiquity, Benh Zeitlin manages a fresh take with Wendy. The title contains the secret to the film’s success: in this adaptation, Zeitlin, along with his co-screenwriter/sister, Eliza, shifts the focus away from Peter (Yashua Mack) and onto his counterpart, Wendy Darling (Devin France). At a glance, this decision appears like another lazy gender-flip remake, but closer inspection reveals that’s not the case here. Unlike so many of its cynical studio-driven counterparts, of which Ocean’s 8 and 2016’s Ghostbusters remain emblematic, Zeitlin’s decision to recentre around Wendy doesn’t stem from a disregard of the original story — it springs from a deep appreciation of it.
Peter Pan was always Wendy’s story. She makes the narrative-defining decision to reject eternal youth, leading the lost boys back to London. In that decision lies, perhaps, the ongoing appeal of Peter Pan: it’s a story that allows us to indulge in the fantasy of agelessness before reminding us that our existence is defined by change. By centering Wendy, Zeitlin only further hones in on this idea.
The decision to flip the centrality of the narrative onto Wendy ultimately proves to be the least bold choice in the film. Zeitlin strips Peter Pan down to parts and then rebuilds it in an image that plays more to his sensibilities; similarities between this film and his debut feature, the surprise hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, abound. Both films have gorgeous cinematography, with Sturla Brandth Grøvlen taking over duties from Ben Richardson. Beautiful also is Wendy‘s score, composed by a returning Dan Romer. Wendy narrates intermittently, but it’s the score that is the primary storyteller, carrying the audience from one beat to the next, adding to the film’s magical air.
The most surprising piece of shared DNA between the films is its setting in the Southern US. Beasts of the Southern Wild, while magical and abstract, was grounded by its relationship to place, the Louisiana bayou. Wendy starts in a small, rust-belt state town on the worse end of an economic boom. Trains pass through but rarely stop, and the people living there are afterthoughts in the national consciousness. The film opens on a small diner, run by the Darling family. A child, the son of a family friend, is angry at the prospect of having to become an adult, and runs away. He jumps on one of the passing trains and disappears. Years later a pre-adolescent Wendy, along with her twin younger brothers James and Douglas (Gage and Gavin Naquin), do the same and find themselves being carried off to Neverland. There the story of Peter Pan unfolds in a somewhat backward fashion, with familiar characters and plot elements being introduced in unfamiliar, and oftentimes surprising, skins.
The replacement of fairy dust with a freight train is indicative of the kind of reimagining Zeitlin is doing with Wendy. At every turn the fairy-like quality of the original story is pushed to a place that is brutalist in tone, the wonder remains but its edges are sharper. Classic aesthetics are ejected and replace with the contemporary. Zeitlin’s cast is mostly comprised of children with little-to-no formal training, and their authenticity adds to the realism. For long stretches, the film is not comprised of scenes per se, but collections of moments. The children scream and sleep and gallop across Neverland’s beaches. They swim through water into submerged caves where they are awed by stalagmites and stalactites.
Punctured, suddenly, are these moments by grim realities — like the sequence where Peter has to cut off another child’s hand to stop him from aging. As much as these children would like to stay eternally young, and thus distance themselves from adult worries, reality has a way of catching up.
Peter Pan was a product of its time; Queen Victoria had just passed, and England was struggling to adapt to the 20th century. Peter’s promise of agelessness then, was something of a balm, a way for the British public to linger in a by-gone era just a moment longer. Wendy aims to serve a similar function for our modern times. The desire to escape from our modern world for a life of unending childhood has never seemed so appealing.
The flightiness of childhood pushes and pulls with the earthiness of adulthood. How Wendy reconciles the two is sentimental yet emotionally honest. Zeitlin taps into the essential truths of Peter Pan that make it a bottomless creative well. Harness the desire we feel to return to yesterday, says Wendy, and use it to propel ourselves into tomorrow. We always have a little bit more growing up to do.