Drama-fantasy, rated PG-13, 112 minutes, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
Kudos to director Benh Zeitlin for taking Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie’s stage play and novel Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and giving it an engaging new spin while still being true in spirit to the source material. This version, an unassuming blend of real life and pure fantasy, follows the adventures of runaways Wendy Darling (Devin France) and her twin brothers Douglas and James, played by real-life brothers Gage and Gavin Naquin.
Wendy’s mother, Angela (Shay Walker), runs a noisy, grimy eatery in an unnamed town along the Eastern Seaboard and lives on the premises with her three children. The kids all dream of getting more from life than the shabby inheritance they seem destined for as future proprietors of the local dive. When Angela tells them, resignedly, about her own abandoned dreams, they escape one night on a passing train, beckoned by a mischievous laughing child onboard who invites them to “sneak away into the night.”
Soon this story’s Peter Pan, himself once a member of a loving family whose fate is never really explored, leads them to the open sea, and they reach, by boat, a mystical island that suggests Neverland but is never referred to as such. It’s a wild place of erupting volcanoes and great shooting geysers of steam. Peter (Yashua Mack) is the hero/leader of a tribe of children, all of whom have vowed that they, too, will never grow up. It’s not long before the twins, who Peter refers to collectively as Two-boy, are making the same vow.
On this island, they have all sorts of adventures and engage in perpetual play. As in his critically acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Zeitlin invests the film with a sun-dappled, fiery sparkle, and an impressionistic joie de vivre that would make even a jaded adult envious for long lost youth.
Only Wendy seems to understand that they’ll have to go back someday. She has dreams of her mother’s sorrow and knows that Angela must miss them terribly. She learns that the children’s youth is maintained through the love of a great sea beast named Mother, who’s marvelously and convincingly conceived (in a feat of technical prowess) as a barnacled, tentacled, whale-like creature that glows bright with bioluminescence.
Things turn ugly when Douglas disappears and is thought to be drowned. James’ despair is so great that he starts aging rapidly. It affects one of his arms first, and he removes it with a machete, replacing it later with a hook — and you can see where that’s going. He soon learns that the far side of the island is inhabited by others like him: old folks, shunned by the children, who lost their youthful spirit when they let the sadness in. Led by James, who grows ever more cynical as the story advances, the adults kidnap the children, using them as bait to lure Mother in a misguided plan to capture her magic, which they believe will restore them to their former selves. It’s up to Peter and Wendy to save Mother and rescue the other kids.
As Wendy, France is all business as the confident leader of her familial band, and she handles the role, which gives her the majority of the screen time, with pluck, embodying Wendy’s adventurous spirit. But the Naquin brothers really shine, turning in affecting performances that reach sophisticated levels of emotion, particularly Gavin as the conflicted James, a role that requires tremendous nuance.
This isn’t a story about why growing up is so dreadful but, rather, why it’s so special. Wendy comes to learn that real magic isn’t just here on this island, but everywhere, even in being an adult — if you just believe. That’s no better realized than in James’ transformation into Captain Hook, which he learns to embrace with relish, engaging Peter in swashbuckling adventure, but in a spirit of make-believe.
Aimed at children at about the same age as the kids in the story, Wendy is still engaging and dramatic enough to lure in the adult audiences. Even Peter learns a lesson or two about growing up.
Wendy is a glorious, hopeful, life-affirming tonic. You’ll be humming Dan Romer’s lively musical score long after the credits roll.