Wendy 

Escape this harsh reality with a trip to a unique Neverland in Wendy.

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The real world is feeling bleak and scary right now, which means it is a good time for some escapism. What story is more escapist than Peter Pan? J.M. Barrie's play, originally subtitled "The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up," premiered in December 1904. Today, the play is a staple of the holiday season. The climax in which the hero breaks the fourth wall to encourage the audience to save the dying fairy Tinkerbell with their applause continues to be a crowd pleaser.

In 1904, Barrie followed it up with a novel that expanded on the story and themes, called Peter and Wendy. It is this version of the story that filmmaker Benh Zeitlin takes as the jumping-off point for his new film, Wendy.

Tackling the Peter Pan mythos seems like a natural fit for Zeitlin. His feature debut, 2012's Beasts of the Southern Wild, tells the story of a Katrina-style natural disaster from the point of view of a 5-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who cannot tell fantasy from reality. Made for $1.5 million, the film earned a Best Picture nomination and made its star, Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest actress ever nominated for an Academy Award.

click to enlarge Second star to the right and straight on till morning — Devin France (above) stars in Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy.
  • Second star to the right and straight on till morning — Devin France (above) stars in Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy.

Like Hushpuppy, Wendy Darling (Devin France) lives in poverty in rural Louisiana. She and her two twin brothers Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin) help out their mother Angela (Shay Walker) in the little cafe she runs by the railroad tracks. But Wendy dreams of a bigger world, and one day, she gets a call to adventure from a mysterious figure riding the rails. Perhaps on a whim, or perhaps heeding a more mysterious and magical force, Wendy and the boys leap from their upstairs window onto the moving train.

Peter (Yashua Mack) is ever a trickster. Via a circuitous and scary route, he leads the Darling children to Neverland, a mysterious volcanic island far from land. There, Wendy and her two brothers meet the Lost Boys, Peter's followers, who have found the secret to eternal youth. But there are others on the island as well, a group of older people who have somehow lost their youthful immortality. Buzzo (Lowell Landes) leads the group trying to regain the secret, and their youth, by hunting a glowing underwater creature Peter calls Mother.

In the play, Wendy is the voice of reason and a bit of a spoilsport whose function it is to balance out Peter's wildness. Zeitlin and France make the character much more curious and daring, even if at times she seems a little disconnected from the wonders around her. Wendy was shot for $6 million in Louisiana and the island of Montserrat, site of one of the few active volcanoes in the Caribbean.

The film is an absolute feast for the eyes. As in Beasts, Zeitlin is at his best wringing beauty from desolation. Scenes with Peter and Wendy hiding from marauding adults in beach hotels half buried by pyroclastic flows are as beautiful and mysterious as anything you'll see in a film this year. Zeitlin makes the most of his limited special effects budget by delivering some trippy underwater imagery.

But along the way to visual brilliance, the director sacrifices story. It's reasonable to assume, at this point, that everyone is at least passingly familiar with Peter Pan. But if you're not, you're going to have a hard time figuring out what's going on once the action moves to the island. Better to just sit back and let the beauty of Wendy flow over you, and escape to Neverland for a few precious minutes.

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