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'Wendy' Mixes Poetry With Platitudes As It Riffs On 'Peter Pan'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 2012, Benh Zeitlin made an auspicious feature debut with "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," which took the Sundance Film Festival by storm, dazzled critics and earned four Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. Now Zeitlin is back with a new movie called "Wendy." It's a loose retelling of Peter Pan that premiered at Sundance in January and is now opening in theaters. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Even if you left "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," as I did, feeling more admiration than awe, you couldn't deny that it was the work of a powerful new voice in American filmmaking. Benh Zeitlin was in his late 20s when he made this wildly imaginative story of a 6-year-old girl in a Louisiana bayou, a mythic odyssey whose rough-and-tumble lyricism and poetic voice-over showed the clear influence of Terrence Malick. Zeitlin's relentless ode to childhood wonderment exhausted me nearly as much as it thrilled me, but it also left me eager to see what a filmmaker this gifted and gutsy would do next. Eight years later, we have the answer.

His new film, "Wendy," feels like a close companion piece to "Beasts," another magical realist adventure featuring nonprofessional actors and told from a young girl's perspective. It feels less like a step forward for Zeitlin than a step sideways, an attempt to recapture lightning in the same aesthetic bottle. The story is a modern day riff on "Peter Pan," which is fitting. You could say it's the work of an artist who, at 37, still stubbornly refuses to grow up. That's not entirely a bad thing. Zeitlin's style, like Malik's, can get repetitive, but at its best, it feels marvelously fresh and open, as if he were honestly trying to show you the world through a child's eyes. That child here is Wendy Darling, whose mother runs a whistlestop diner at a small town Louisiana train station.

Wendy, played by the remarkable newcomer Devin France, is restless and eager for adventure, qualities she shares with her rambunctious twin brothers, Douglas and James, played by Gage and Gavin Naquin. It's worth noting that the film itself is a sibling collaboration. Zeitlin wrote the script with his sister, Eliza Zeitlin, who also handled the inventive production design.

One night, the children look out their window and see a young boy running along the top of a passing train and, impulsively, they chase after him and climb aboard. The boy, played by Yashua Mack, is Peter, and he's leading them to Neverland, not with a sprinkle of pixie dust but atop a railway that simulates the glory of flight. That's part of the fun of "Wendy," watching how Zeitlin comes up with his own practical magic, how he finds a real-world basis for the fantastical details in J.M. Barrie's classic story. The stunning locations do their part. Zeitlin shot most of "Wendy" on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, home to an active volcano that looms over a bright blue sea and a lush green landscape.

Along with Peter and his small community of lost boys, the Darling children spend their days running and screaming through this vibrant wilderness, embracing the thrill of being young and alive. In one scene, Wendy gathers a handful of dandelion seeds and murmurs a message for them to carry home to her mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WENDY")

DEVIN FRANCE: (As Wendy) Tell Mama I'm just staying a little longer. And tell her that I'm being wild as hell. And that when I come back, I'm going to show her how. And tell her I miss her and I love her. Now fly home.

CHANG: Shot by the gifted Sturla Brandth Grovlen on rich 16 mm film, "Wendy" is virtually a stylistic copy of "Beasts." Once more, the camera goes barreling after the characters, accompanied by ruminative narration and mighty blasts of music. It's gorgeous to behold, but, frankly, a little of this a muppet montage goes a long way. What seems like poetry at first soon devolves into pushy platitudes about the power of the imagination. Peter starts to sound borderline dictatorial as he urges the other kids to believe in his magical abilities and basically do everything he tells them to do.

"Wendy" has a few clever twists up its sleeve. The inevitable emergence of Captain Hook is nicely done, but they aren't enough to keep your attention from wandering. At a certain point, I found myself resisting and even questioning the basic fabric of the story. I wondered why the movie, though attuned to the wild streak at every child's core, seemed so uninterested in childhood's other quieter dimensions. And although the filmmakers have cited reasons of local authenticity for casting Yashua Mack, a boy from nearby Antigua, as Peter, my mind couldn't help returning to the troubling stereotype of the magical black man. "Wendy" does try to complicate that stereotype by ensuring that this is Peter's story as much as Wendy's so that he isn't merely a device used to advance the story's white protagonists. Peter is at least no one-dimensional saint and his magic turns out to be far from foolproof.

But there is another source of magic here, too, and it's one of Zeitlin's better conceits. Swimming in the depths of the ocean is a giant bioluminescent fish named Mother whose benevolent spirit protects the children, ensuring that they will stay young forever. Her brief ghostly appearances have a genuinely otherworldly beauty that transcends the movie's occasional banality. "Wendy" never stops insisting that you believe, and in these moments, at least, you do.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about "Trump's "Deep State" Hit List." That's the headline of an article by Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for Axios. Swan writes about Trump's effort to root out people disloyal to him with the help of a list compiled by a conservative group led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB WILBER AND KENNY DAVERN'S "ROSETTA")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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