Variety‘s Peter Debruge, filed from Park City, on Benh Zeitlin‘s Wendy: “Eight long years after Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin brings that same rust-bottomed sense of magical realism to the legend of Peter Pan, reframing J.M. Barrie’s Victorian classic through the eyes of the eldest Darling.
“Wendy, as the indie-minded, not-quite-family-film is aptly titled, re-envisions its title character as a working-class kiddo raised at a whistle-stop diner, who witnesses one of her young friends disappearing on a passing freight train and a few years later decides to follow it to the end of the line, where runaway urchins don’t age and the Lost Boys live like The Lord of the Flies.
“Although the director’s feral energy and rough-and-tumble aesthetic make an inspired match for a movie about an off-the-grid community doing everything it can to resist outside change (that was essentially the gist of Beasts as well), cinema has hardly stood still since Zeitlin’s last feature.
“What felt so revolutionary in 2012 is no less visionary today, but packs a disappointing sense of familiarity this time around, like tearing open your Christmas presents to find … a huge stack of hand-me-down clothing. Or else, like watching a magic trick performed a second time from a different angle.
“While it’s a positive thing to get a more progressive Peter Pan story — with Peter as a Caribbean child and Wendy as a more proactive protagonist — the movie’s a bit too intense, and more than a little too arty, to suit young audiences.
“In the time since Beasts, Zeitlin’s co-writer Lucy Alibar has gone in another direction, cooking up the relatively mainstream, misfit-kid comedy “Troop Zero” for Amazon Studios. That chicken-fried, Little Miss Sunshine-esque crowd-pleaser plays like something the newly rebranded Searchlight Pictures might have made in its heyday, whereas Wendy (which Zeitlin scripted with his younger sister Eliza) will prove a trickier prospect for the now-Disney-owned specialty division to market.
“Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival should help, but only if audiences respond to a film about aging delivered in a style that hasn’t necessarily matured.”