if Neverland is a place only children are allowed to go, no one has told Benh Zeitlin. His 2011 debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, immersed itself in the ramshackle bayou reverie of a scrappy little 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, and earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Eight years later, he returns with Wendy, another wild-things tale of a young Louisiana girl (newcomer Devin France) with a fierce gaze and an unquenchable sense of adventure.
This time, though, the myth is not of his own making but a meandering, dreamlike riff on J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan tale, updated to vaguely modern times. Wendy and her twin brothers (Gavin and Gage Naquin) live happily enough with their mother in a diner by the railroad tracks until one night, a train bearing Peter (Yashua Mack) — a grinning imp in a threadbare red blazer — lures them to a land where every day is playtime, and no one ever has to grow old. But what happens if they stop believing?
Zeitlin has a gift for casting vivid new talent, and for creating images that read like fevered visual poetry: gorgeously saturated tableaus of the natural world, all luminous light and color. But he also tends to strip away nearly every necessary aspect of plot and character development in his strenuous pursuit of whimsy. (There is no Tinkerbell here, but there is a Captain Hook — and a gentle underwater beast called Mother who looks like a sort of submarine-sized carp, with barnacles).
The lack of any real narrative structure — and the few odd surges of menace, one of which blooms into a moment of shocking physical violence — make it hard to imagine that a younger audience will follow. There is something beautifully all-ages about the movie’s kaleidoscopic score and firefly glow, but by the ninth montage of cliffs and shore and joyful screaming down a hill, it all starts to feel a little like a film-school reel. Every kid inevitably grows and turns toward something new; storytellers should too. B–