After eight years, director Benh Zeitlin has followed up his wondrous Oscar-winning debut Beasts of the Southern Wild with a sophomore effort: Wendy, a much less wondrous film that nevertheless retains its Beast-ly vibe. It opens Friday in select area theaters.
Zeitlin's observant regional portraiture is reminiscent of the early work of director David Gordon Green, who looked to be a distinctive voice in American cinema with such gems as George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003) before he shifted course. He has lately taken over the Halloween franchise, and has shown promise there, but moviegoers must never forget 2011, in which Green helmed two of the worst comedies in the past quarter-century: Your Highness and The Sitter.
Zeitlin's magic-infused bayou in Beasts and rustic diner in Wendy are both full of the sensory details that bring places to life, here the American South. The opening 10 minutes of Wendy, in fact, which capture the buzz and intimacy of a ramshackle railway diner and the family who lives and works there, are among its best.
By the way, Wendy is a retelling of Peter Pan, a story that seemingly gets new cinematic treatment every six to eight months. In Zeitlin's version, Wendy and her twin brothers Douglas and James are children of a single mother. They've grown up at a diner and long for adventure. Instead of flying to Neverland with a magical visitor who refuses to grow up, they hop aboard a magic train with an urchin who guides them to a mysterious island with a sentient maternal spirit. There, they play around for a while and encounter a few dangers. The movie unexpectedly becomes an origin story for Captain Hook.
Overall, it's a cross between Kings of Summer, Where the Wild Things Are and The Polar Express. And despite its visual achievements — Zeitlin deserves credit for transporting an audience to a fully realized fantasyland without the use of gaudy CGI — the narrative limitations become oppressive. Substantial portions of the movie are just kids dashing though island foliage and so forth, and the familiar Peter Pan plot lines never quite cohere. It feels like it's about six hours long. Moreover, Peter Pan is supposed to be an exuberant paean to youth, but this version is often extremely somber.
In spite of the story's weaknesses, Zeitlin remains an interesting cinematic talent. What's quickly becoming a trademark is his ability to cast mesmerizing young actors. Beasts' Quvenzhane Wallis is here succeeded by Devin France (in the titular role) and Yashua Mack (playing Peter). Both children, with their probing eyes, feral hair and abiding sense of mischief, light up the screen.