Eight long years after “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin brings that same rust-bottomed sense of magical realism to the legend of Peter Pan, reframing J.M. Barrie’s Victorian classic through the eyes of the eldest Darling. “Wendy,” as the indie-minded not-quite-family-film is aptly titled, re-envisions its title character as a working-class kiddo raised at a whistle-stop diner, who witnesses one of her young friends disappearing on a passing freight train and a few years later decides to follow it to the end of the line, where runaway urchins don’t age and the Lost Boys live like “The Lord of the Flies.”
Although the director’s feral energy and rough-and-tumble aesthetic make an inspired match for a movie about an off-the-grid community doing everything it can to resist outside change (that was essentially the gist of “Beasts” as well), cinema has hardly stood still since Zeitlin’s last feature. What felt so revolutionary in 2012 is no less visionary today, but packs a disappointing sense of familiarity this time around, like tearing open your Christmas presents to find … a huge stack of hand-me-down clothing. Or else, like watching a magic trick performed a second time from a different angle.
While it’s a positive thing to get a more progressive Peter Pan story — with Peter as a Caribbean child and Wendy as a more proactive protagonist — the movie’s a bit too intense, and more than a little too arty, to suit young audiences. In the time since “Beasts,” Zeitlin’s co-writer Lucy Alibar has gone in another direction, cooking up the relatively mainstream, misfit-kid comedy “Troop Zero” for Amazon Studios. That chicken-fried, “Little Miss Sunshine”-esque crowd-pleaser plays like something the newly rebranded Searchlight Pictures might have made in its heyday, whereas “Wendy” (which Zeitlin scripted with his younger sister Eliza) will prove a trickier prospect for the now-Disney-owned specialty division to market. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival should help, but only if audiences respond to a film about aging delivered in a style that hasn’t necessarily matured.
Wendy scarcely seems old enough to crawl when we meet her (played by Tommie Milazzo at age 3), cracking eggs on the griddle of the small-town Louisiana diner where her single mom (Shay Walker) entertains a gallery of Normal Rockwell-worthy regulars. Actually, Zeitlin’s reference point is once again Emir Kusturica, with his child’s-eye view of reality, which transforms grubby, run-down locations into fantastical palaces of tetanus-shot splendor. Terry Gilliam also comes to mind, although Zeitlin is a more competent, but perhaps not quite so original, filmmaker.
There are no name actors among the amateur cast, but Zeitlin has a proven gift for finding unknowns with great faces and expressive features, and getting the performances he needs from them (as evidenced by the best actress Oscar nomination “Beasts” discovery Quvenzhané Wallis earned for that film). His strongest asset here is Devin France, who plays Wendy at age 10, a girl in whose alert blue eyes audiences can sense the independent woman she’s bound to become. That’s important, since she’s the character, as in Barrie’s play, who insists on returning home at the end.
Zeitlin wasn’t as lucky when it came to casting Peter (Yashua Mack), choosing a young black actor with an expressive face (cherubic at times, and downright devilish at others) but a nearly unintelligible voice. When Peter speaks, it’s hard to make out what he’s saying — and that’s despite the fact the exuberantly folksy score (which Zeitlin co-wrote with “Beasts” collaborator Dan Romer) isn’t mixed quite so loudly this time around.
From the beginning, Barrie recognized both the allure and the danger of Peter’s forever-young arrangement, and “Wendy’s” precocious young heroine senses that paradox as well. Her adventure begins Early on, she spots Peter running atop the same train that takes one of her childhood friends. Several years later, she decides to follow it, hopping aboard with twin brothers James and Douglas (Gavin and Gage Naquin) as far as the ocean, where Peter rows them to the movie’s version of Neverland: a volcanic island where time stands still and a child’s imagination can control nature (i.e., make the mountain erupt on command).
It’s thrilling to discover how “Wendy” reinvents the particulars of a fairy story audiences know so well, and which Disney has so strongly codified for nearly everyone alive today — although the omission of Tinker Bell and the other fairies will likely be a let-down. While the Louisiana-set framing device certainly feels original, the movie’s tropical setting (it was filmed on Montserrat, an island in the Caribbean) actually reaches back to the iconic Francis Donkin Bedford drawings that accompanied the first edition of “Peter and Wendy.”
In lieu of a crocodile, the film serves up a great big bioluminescent sea creature, which the kids call “Mother,” and whom the island’s adult pirates believe to be the secret to reversing time. The plot, which was stitched together by a loose kind of logic to begin with, starts to unravel after the children go swimming with this glow-fish. Douglas goes missing, and James decides (at Peter’s suggestion) that he must cut off his hand to recover his brother, or stop from aging, or both.
Wendy is horrified by the idea, which is strange, since later, once James has aged and replaced his hand with (you guessed it) a rusty hook, Peter tells her, “You’re not like him. You know how to believe.” (But didn’t James believe chopping off his hand would stop the aging, and wasn’t she the skeptic in that situation?) Things get increasingly confused once the kids are taken captive by the grown-up Lost Boys, and troubling questions come to mind, such as: If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you? And when Peter interprets the resulting plunge as “flying,” was he right? By this point, the movie’s whimsical sense of surrealism no longer makes sense.
“Wendy” is fun for a while, but as it drags on, it becomes harder to follow — and worse, boring. The magic wears off long before the characters decide to leave Neverland, and while there are some lovely visual touches (a mix of practical and CG effects make Mother glow, for example), it’s not clear what Zeitlin’s trying to say. “Growing up is a great adventure,” the movie offers, after making it seem like quite a drag. Will Zeitlin’s next film feel quite as recycled as this one does? And if it takes eight more years to make, would it be so wrong to speed up time?