“Beasts of the Southern Wild” was the surprise hit of 2012. At age 29, director Benh Zeitlin impressed so much with his feature film debut that he was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. His lead actress, only six years old, was nominated for acting as well.
Movie lovers eagerly anticipated his follow-up film, which has taken eight years to be made and released. Part of the reason for the delay is Zeitlin stuck a deal with the movie studio that he wouldn’t be rushed during the filmmaking process. He would take as much time as he needed to get the film just right. An encouraging sign for audiences.
His sophomore effort would be a reimagined take on the story of Peter Pan. The end result is “Wendy,” a mix of fantasy and realism with extraordinary performances from child actors, something that Zeitlin has proven to an a pro at.
The movie has beautiful visuals and music and some real poignant lines spoken, but unfortunately the overall end result is harmed by three things: an unfocused plot, high expectations for Zeitlin’s follow-up and source material that’s been on the silver screen many, many times before.
Peter Pan has been turned into so many movies, most famously in the animated Disney classic and the Robin Williams vehicle “Hook.” In the past 20 years, two ambitious versions have dropped as well. In 2003, director P.J. Hogan took on the story with a psychologically complex version called “Peter Pan,” with Lucious Malfoy himself Jason Isaacs chewing some scenery as Captain Hook. In 2015, amazing director Joe Wright (“Hanna,” “The Darkest Hour,” “Atonement”) took on an origin story of Peter Pan in “Pan,” with an excellent cast of Hugh Jackman and Garret Hedlund. Some criticized the whitewashing of the Native Americans in this version and the heavy reliance on CGI action scenes.
In Zeitlin’s take on the story, he focuses on Wendy, a rebellious young girl who sees her mother wait tables in a diner and regret growing up. So she follows a mysterious boy on a train and runs away to a volcanic island. It feels more like “Lord of the Flies” at times and there’s a manic, beautiful energy to the loosely plotted story. There are some interesting concepts explored, including aging because you stop believing. The creation of Captain Hook is done well here too. But overall the story feels like a collection of ideas thrown at the wall rather than a cohesive plot. It’s certainly “about something” but maybe there are too many different themes explored.
“Wendy” is currently rotten on the Web site, RottenTomatoes.com, with most reviewers expressing disappointment at Zeitlin’s follow up. Some think that he should have made a better movie given the time spent on it. But I think that’s unfair. Much of the criticism is coming from high expectations but if you rewatch “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” many of the flaws in “Wendy” can be found in his debut as well. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a meandering movie with no real plot but had great acting and visuals.
Perhaps, “Wendy” isn’t as bad as some critics are making it out to be. It’s a nice film, but not amazing. And perhaps “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was a little overrated when it came out. Again, a nice film, nothing amazing.
Expectations are a crazy thing, but I understand it. Zeitlin was a young filmmaker (he still is at age 37) when he made his first movie so the flaws were excused. He showed promise and potential. But for good and for bad, this movie is just much of the same. No real growth.
Just like the Lost Boys in Neverland, it seems like Zeitlin hasn’t grown up as a filmmaker.