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“Wendy” Sees Benh Zeitlin Finally Put Forth A Sophomore Effort

Back in 2012, a young filmmaker by the name of Benh Zeitlin burst on to the scene with Beasts of the Southern Wild. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie blew away audiences, going on to be a darling of the awards season, even scoring four Academy Award nominations. Zeitlin himself picked up a pair of Oscar nods (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay), firmly entrenching him as someone to watch out for. What would he do next? Well, it took until Sundance 2020 for his follow up to arrive, and now Wendy hits theaters this week. Unfortunately, while his unique aesthetic is still very much in evidence, there are diminishing returns this time around. Overly familiar, unfocused, and grindingly repetitive, this is very much a misfire from Zeitlin.

The film is a retelling of Peter Pan, with the gritty and grounded, yet fantastical, approach that Beasts of the Southern Wild also employed. Here, we have Wendy (Devin France), as well as her brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin) headed to a magical place. Years before, a friend of theirs jumped on a mysterious train and vanished, never to be seen again. When the train comes again one night, with Peter Pan (Yashua Mack) on top, they jump aboard, eventually shuttled to an island where the passage of time are not as they appear. Children remains children forever, as long as they follow the rules. As Wendy goes from joy at being here to a desire to get home, events show her that all is not as it seems. Zeitlin directs and co-writes with Eliza Zeitlin, while Sturla Brandth Grøvlen handles the cinematography. Supporting players include Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn, Shay Walker, and more. Dan Romer composes the score and is honestly the highlight here, above all.

Despite Benh Zeitlin’s best efforts, there just isn’t that much “there” there. His visuals remain engaging and the score Dan Romer composed is one of the year’s best, but beyond that? It’s kind of a wasteland. Ponderously long, due in part to a bloated running time of nearly two hours, and in part to poor pacing, a sense of minutia kicks in quickly. The first act has its charms and the ending is more or less what you’d like it to be, but the middle section is quite rough. Beasts of the Southern Wild had Zeitlin’s creativity, but it also had strong performances to latch on to (especially Quvenzhané Wallis, who scored a Best Actress nom). Here, he lacks that, even if Devin France has some nice moments, so the deficiencies in the story become clear. Taking a grounded approach to Peter Pan may be interesting in theory, but the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired.

Wendy somehow sucks a lot of the magic out of Peter Pan. Now, Zeitlin is going for something different, that’s for sure, but it winds up rather hollow. Other efforts to tinker with the classic story, be it Pan or a handful of other titles over the years, have largely failed, so perhaps the material just needs a certain fantastical treatment? Whatever the case, this flick, despite the promise of its creator, can’t improve upon the legend. Instead, its deficiencies are merely exacerbated. A strong score and stirring visuals alone just don’t cut it.

Come Friday, anyone who has been waiting almost a decade for Benh Zeitlin to make another film will be able to check Wendy out. Whether you find it compelling or a let down remains to be seen, but I unfortunately reside in the latter camp. There’s still plenty more to come in his career, and it’s certainly possible for Zeitlin to return to Oscar glory, maybe even winning an Academy Award one day, but this is a bump in the road. Wendy, despite a wonderful score and some stunning visuals, has a story that can’t keep pace. Narratively lacking, it ultimately winds up as a disappointment, without a ton to offer beyond the its curiosity factor…

Wendy is in theaters this weekend.

(Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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