By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Jubilee Hernandez
If you’re wondering why yet another retelling of the original Peter Pan play has been made into a film, you’re not alone. The general appeal of Benh Zeitlin’s 2020 film, “Wendy,” seems to be its reinterpretation of the classic tale in a quirky, Sundance-y kind of way — which is understandable, given that the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Though successfully giving the classic story a new look, “Wendy” does little to update the thematic and emotional content of “Peter Pan,” at least not in an interesting way. Little in the film has not previously been conveyed by other filmic iterations of “Peter Pan.”
You know the story: young Wendy (Devin France) meets a young boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) who takes her and her two brothers on an adventure to a magical island far from home. Accompanied by Peter’s friends, they spend the film roaming the island — a place where you never grow old — enjoying the carefree adventures it has to offer.
“Wendy” is a Sundance movie if there ever was one, and it should not come as a surprise that this film is produced by Searchlight Pictures (recently acquired by Walt Disney Studios), as it features all the bells and whistles of hit films typically produced by the studio. “Wendy” has the indie music, the indie cinematography, and the general indie style that commonly graces the films out of Searchlight Pictures, but it lacks the heart which is essential to many Sundance darlings — think “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006), “500 Days of Summer” (2009), and, from this year’s festival, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020).
Sure, the whimsical cinematography and a few impressive practical and computer- generated effects make the visual style of “Wendy” exciting enough. However, many of the purely fantastical elements of the original Peter Pan play and subsequent films are replaced with overly conceptual and under-developed world building. Give me copious swashbuckling, give me a flying pirate ship, give me a crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly — the Peter Pan story needs blasts of colorful flavor instead of the “Essence of Fantasy” LaCroix approach taken by Zeitlin. Most of “Wendy” simply consists of characters walking and talking around the island in an oddly realist style.
“Wendy” is not extraordinarily bad, but this is not a movie you’ll be thinking about far into the future, and not being able to see it in a theater doesn’t help its case. In light of COVID-19, most major theatrical releases are being delayed for either later in 2020 or to 2021. However, with relatively few new movies being dropped on streaming services, maybe “Wendy” will find an audience on iTunes or Amazon Prime simply because there isn’t anything new to watch. If you’re desperate to experience a 2020 movie, then watch this during family movie night. Otherwise, there are a number of older Peter Pan films available to stream on subscription services like Amazon Prime and Disney+ that are at least equally entertaining as “Wendy.”