The Peter Pan fairy tale has been told and retold by Hollywood storytellers for generations. There are animated versions, live-action versions, modern takes and some that even filter the tale through the eyes of the villains. How dare they?
The new film WENDY, though, finds a completely new way to present the beloved Peter Pan mythology, in a way that only director Benh Zeitlin can. Zeitlin earned an Academy Award® nod for directing his debut film, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. The nomination put him in a category with heavy-hitting legends of cinema, like Steven Spielberg, David O. Russell and Ang Lee. He didn’t win, but BEASTS announced Zeitlin as a director to watch, and his unique style is now being translated into WENDY.
The phrase that best describes Zeitlin’s approach to storytelling is "fantastical realism." He works hard to ground his stories in practical, everyday life, but allows his movies to drift along on the exaggerated imaginations of his adolescent characters — an approach that fits perfectly with a Peter Pan story.
But WENDY, as the title of the film suggests, sees this story through the eyes of Wendy Darling (newcomer Devin France), and it's her journey from childhood to maturity that takes us to Neverland in the first place. Like in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, Zeitlin starts us off in the Bayou culture of the Mississippi Delta, where Wendy and her brothers rebel against the concept of growing up. That sensation of standoffishness summons Peter Pan (Yashua Mack), and the kids are off on an adventure of exploration, with danger and thrills waiting over the horizon.
But Zeitlin wants to ensure that WENDY never drifts too far away from concepts that we can relate to, and so he chooses to film Neverland in actual locations instead of stylized green-screen sets. He casts kids, and then lets the story follow some of their whimsical decisions, even if they drift off of script. And he finds creative ways to introduce the staples of the Peter Pan narrative, even when you are least expecting them.
WENDY is an unexpected follow-up to BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, but it has a lot of the same adolescent whimsy and hyper-realized fantasy that helped power that movie to a Best Picture nomination back in 2012.
WENDY currently is playing in limited release, so grab tickets when it reaches a theatre near you and see "Peter Pan" as you have never seen the story before.