Once, long ago, I was driving around with a friend, listening to French electronic music group M83. “I could sell Coca-Cola to this” my friend said wryly, because she worked in advertising and she spent a lot of time thinking about how to sell Coca-Cola. I say this because Benh Zeitlin’s new film Wendy—which reimagines the popular J. M. Barrie play/children’s story Peter Pan in New Orleans instead of London—feels like a two-hour M83 music video. And not everyone will love that. But I did!
Like his last film, 2012’s Beasts of Southern Wild, Zeitlin’s Wendy is bright and suffused with magic. Even at the train stop diner, where we first meet Wendy Darling (Devin France) and her family, close-up camera work by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen uses light, dust, and the red of the nighttime train-crossing signals to both submerge Wendy in a warm, happy home and introduce the irresistible mystery of what lies further down the tracks.
Riding those tracks is a boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) who speaks authoritatively and doesn't explain what he means. When Wendy hops onto a train he's riding, he informs her: "This isn't a budget [train]. There are no stops!" Then, after a beat, he adds: "Just kidding! Not kidding! Kidding! Not kidding," trailing off.
Zeitlin's Wendy approaches Peter's magic—and the mysterious island Wendy and her twin brothers, James and Doug (Gavin and Gage Naquin) follow Peter to—with more close-in camera work, letting audiences wonder if Peter is flying, but it's just outside the frame. "Come on," Peter says, in one scene, as he resolutely hops off a cliff.
As with Beasts of Southern Wild, Zeitlin works here with nonprofessional actors. And while casting Mack as Peter employs the trope of the magical Black character, Mack is also, hands down, the best Peter Pan in cinema up to this point. In the original story, Barrie wrote Peter Pan as a capricious force of nature with sometimes sinister practices; the book implies that Peter Pan murders the Lost Boys that break his rules and grow up. Where previous cinematic Peter Pans have interpreted the character as jockish and bullying, Mack's Peter feels like someone from outside our society who is barely interested in us. That feels far more accurate to Barrie's vision.
But it's not always necessary to keep with the vision a 1900s author. For instance, France's Wendy is successfully reinvented: Though the social responsibility of the character is still central, this Wendy has more wanderlust than either of her brothers and more than enough imagination to save the day. Wendy also swaps out the idea of fairies and Tinkerbell with a mysterious, glowing sea creature that the Lost Boys call their mother.
If the emotive soundtrack (from Zeitlin and his frequent collaborator Dan Romer) and Wendy's luminous images of people running across beaches feels clichéd—if, at times, Wendy is reminiscent of a soda commercial—I'll happily argue that the problem is more with soda commercials co-opting our language for joy and adventure, rather than the practice of running across beaches being clichéd. No, it's not. It's lovely.