Sundance 2020 Film Review: “Wendy” (Searchlight Pictures)

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again, but this time it happened in the deep south of the United States. A shabby train depot diner is the home of the Darling family where an over imaginative young Wendy creates her own wild stories and shares them with her twin brothers. In Searchlight Pictures’ Wendy, Director Ben Zeitlin’s first film since his award-winning 2012 debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, the classic story of Peter Pan gets reimagined like never before.

This pixie-dust free adaptation has some of the basic elements of the J. M. Barrie classic, but replaces period London charm with more modern American conveniences. It essentially strips the enchanted island of its title, which goes unnamed until the very last scene. Also missing is a lot of the magic you’ve come to expect from the story. No flight, no fairies, no crocodile, no mermaids, no natives, and barely a pirate to be found.

For all the absence of classic story elements from your childhood, it adds in a magical sea creature that lives beneath the less-tropical island. The meaning of Wendy is not presented at face value, but rather as metaphorical elements that require some level of deep thinking to develop any real emotions about the piece. Peter and the boys call the monster “Mother” and like to play with her. It’s a device you might expect to find in ABC’s Lost and it ignites a spark in viewers to think about what the term “Mother” means to them. It also felt a little derivative of James Cameron’s Avatar, with the boys treating the creature like the Eywa Tree and even having to engage in a battle to save her.

In this version, Peter is a wild child who runs around in a maroon blazer and appears to be younger than Wendy. Since there’s no flight in the film, Peter uses practical means of getting Wendy and her brothers to his island, a train and a boat. For Disney fans, the train element won’t be lost on them. However, it feels like it was more of a coincidence rather than any attempt to incorporate Walt-isms into this very un-Disney adaptation of Peter Pan.

One classic element that remains is the concept that kids on the island never grow up… sort of. When viewing Peter Pan as an adult, it reveals some very poignant themes about the evolution of life that were lost on you as a child. Wendy brings these same themes to the forefront but adds into the mix that some kids have to grow up faster than others. To say much more would venture too far into spoiler territory, but it gets weird.

The biggest highlight of the film for me was Wendy herself, charmingly played by newcomer Devin France. She steals every scene and holds the picture together remarkably for a young actress in her film debut. She has the most believable eyes of any child actor I’ve seen in the past decade and you can’t help but be captivated by her breakout performance.

Wendy premiered at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its February 28th release. It’s the film I was most excited to see at the festival and the one that disappointed me the most. I’m in the minority as the film is already receiving critical acclaim, but if you’re a big fan of the Peter Pan story and previous stage, screen, and written adaptations, you’re like to find Wendy to be “Absolute poppycock.”

I give Wendy 2 out of 5 bowls of train diner gumbo.