Cinematic Releases: Wendy (2020) - Reviewed

Wendy is a new spin on Peter Pan, taking the famous story about the boy who never grows up and using it for a very on-the-nose take on childhood fears about getting older. It looks good, with some solid filmmaking, but that is where the energy ends. It jettisons most of the sources of excitement in the original story, leaving a long, largely plotless production, with an obvious theme that fails to gain intrigue. It is difficult to tell exactly what director/cowriter Benh Zeitlin and his team were aiming for. The result is dull and purposeless, despite some good technical work.

The Wendy of the title is of course Wendy Darling, who followed Peter to Neverland, leading to all sorts of adventures. Here, Wendy and her twin brothers hop onto a train with Peter, joining him and other runaways on an island where you stay young, as long as you believe. Many parallels to J. M. Barrie’s original tale pop up here. However, adventure and fantasy are not used to house the metaphors. 

The kids trying to ignore the real-life anxieties intruding on their worry-free playtime is made more literal here. Zeitlin establishes the idea, then never actually builds on it. We see them play, then worry, then worry about worrying. There is no emotional connection moving any of this along. It opens by showing a boy running away after being taunted with the very real possibility that he would wind up in a dead-end job; that his dreams will not come true. It then brings us to the island where these kids live their dreams, avoiding the potential disappointment of growing up. The problem is Wendy says this so plainly and leaves it at that, neglecting to give us a meaning with its message. 

There are two aspects of Wendy that did keep my attention. One is the way the camera moves, especially during the scenes where the kids run and jump around the forest. It rolls and leaps with them, giving us the impression that we are there, too. Peter and his gang are living forever in the now. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen captures the freedom of those moments perfectly. Those are the only times the passion Zeitlin seems to have for the material pays off in something substantial.

The visuals on the island are also fitting for the story. The most spectacular is the volcano that is its centerpiece. It feels both far off and immediate, with steam threatening to engulf everything. The sequence where the kids mess around with it, conducting its eruption, contains a magic the rest of the movie lacks. The filmmakers created a distinct look for the forest the kids play in, green and filled with life, and the barren sandy area they refuse to enter. It is always clear where they are, which is important since it is not always clear what they are doing.

For a movie without a strong narrative to work, it needs something else to pull it forward and keep the audience engaged. There just is not enough here for that to happen. Wendy shows, tells and hints for nearly two hours, but never does anything interesting with the characters or ideas it introduces.

--Ben Pivoz