From origin stories (“Finding Neverland”) and midlife-crisis comedies (“Hook”) to Disney animated classics and P.J. Hogan’s faithful 2003 live-action adaptation, Hollywood has never outgrown its fascination with J. M. Barrie’s turn-of-the-20th-century tale “Peter Pan.”
Not only is the Mouse House planning a new live-action version called “Peter Pan & Wendy,” but promising filmmaker Benh Zeitlin makes his long-awaited return with “Wendy,” his distinctive take on Barrie’s iconic tale.
But Zeitlin’s sophomore cinematic effort fails to take flight, as an unshakeable sense of having seen this story grounds an interesting film that boasts some indelible moments. Surprisingly, that “been there, done that” feeling doesn’t stem from Zeitlin’s retelling “Peter Pan” as much as from the sense that he has rebooted his memorable 2012 breakout “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with Barrie’s familiar mythology as a framework.
A four-time Oscar nominee, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” used mostly untrained actors to tell a visceral modern-day fable of a fearless wild child navigating poverty, family drama and climatological disaster. Zeitlin and his sister/co-writer Eliza Zeitlin swap out the flooded bayou where Quvenzhane Wallis’ 6-year-old Hushpuppy lived in “Beasts” for the ramshackle whistlestop diner that 10-year-old Wendy (captivating newcomer Devin France) and her family call home, but they’re essentially rehashing the same narrative and themes with a now-familiar brand of gritty magical realism.
Afraid of growing up like her mother, Angela (Shay Walker), whose rodeo dreams have given way to nonstop toil in the greasy spoon she lives above with her three children, Wendy is intrigued one night when she spots a small, shadowy figure dancing atop a passing train. She quickly convinces her younger brothers – twins Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) – to hop on the train with her.
Peter (Yashua Mack), the giggling cloaked imp riding the rails, escorts them to his volcanic island home, a magical, untamed land where an enchanted fishlike creature named “Mother” ensures he and his ragtag band of lost boys and girls stay perpetually young. At first Wendy and her brothers enjoy their carefree cavorting with the other children, but they soon learn Peter and the island have their dark secrets.
Although it is wild enough to stay interesting, Zeitlin’s “Wendy” flows sluggishly with shallow characters, muddled storytelling and a murky mythology that fails to capture the magic of Pan.