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Review: In Benh Zeitlin’s ‘Wendy,’ Peter Pan is secondary

In one of the most strikingly beautiful moments in “Wendy,” a movie that wants to consist of nothing but strikingly beautiful moments, a young girl dives into the ocean and stumbles on an otherworldly vision. Into the frame swims an enormous fish, as large as a whale and as translucent as a ghost, with a bioluminescent shimmer in her belly and a name, Mother, given to her by the children who live on the ground above. She is their guardian and sustainer, a veritable breathing, swimming fountain of youth who ensures that all who partake of her protective spirit will never grow up.

At times you may suspect that Mother’s spell has also fallen on the writer-director Benh Zeitlin, the 37-year-old purveyor of childlike wonderment behind this sometimes astonishing, ultimately enervating movie. The girl is Wendy (Devin France, a remarkable find), and the story she’s in, as you may have guessed, is “Peter Pan,” albeit “Peter Pan” refracted through an American art-film lens. Amid wildly galumphing camera moves and mighty blasts of music, here can be found a lush island at the edge of the world, a community of lost children, a rust-eaten pirate boat and a glaring Captain Hook, though he wields his makeshift extremity with less malevolence than sorrow.

Curiously, there is no crocodile, which may surprise you after the alligator that surfaced in Zeitlin’s debut feature, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It’s been eight years since that movie took Sundance by storm, earned four Oscar nominations and, for many, heralded the arrival of a new cinematic visionary. Set in a Louisiana bayou alive with real-world peril and homespun enchantment, “Beasts” leaned heavily on the power of two interlocking forces — a young girl’s unquenchable spirit and a filmmaker’s equally intense gaze — to triumph over the heartache of death, separation, poverty and a world on the brink of devastating change.

“Wendy” wants to do the same, more or less. And if it ultimately amounts to less — a lurching jumble of transporting moments, stylistic excesses and earnest intentions — there is nonetheless something admirable and affecting about Zeitlin’s desire to recapture lightning in the same aesthetic bottle. He is hardly the first filmmaker to face the mixed blessing of a rapturous Sundance reception, and to ponder his next move in an industry where the thrill of discovery often gives way to the letdown of compromise. And he has answered that challenge, years later, with a picture that feels less like a bold step forward than a stubborn reassertion of identity.

A scene from the film “Wendy.”

(Jess Pinkham / Searchlight Pictures)

Louisiana, which the New York-born Zeitlin now calls home, once again comes into focus in a rush of sweatily invigorating imagery. We are in a crowded whistle-stop diner where toddler Wendy Darling (Tommie Lynn Milazzo), the manager’s daughter, registers every sight and sound: the bacon sizzling on the grill, the customers chattering and laughing, the huge freight trains rumbling past every few minutes. And we briefly see what she sees when she peers out the window: a young boy (Yashua Mack), whom they don’t know yet is Peter, running along the top of a moving train.

It will be a few years before Wendy (now played by France) and her rambunctious twin brothers, Douglas and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin, respectively), see Peter again on the train one night. Restless and hungry for adventure, they impulsively follow after him and climb aboard. And so they’re on their way to the movie’s version of Neverland, not with a sprinkle of pixie dust, but atop a ramshackle railway that nonetheless manages to mimic the glory of human flight.

Much of the pleasure of “Wendy” lies in unpacking its weird imaginative logic, the real-world equivalents it finds for the fantasy elements in J.M. Barrie’s story. Tinker Bell may be absent, but Zeitlin invests heavily in his own practical magic. The scrappily inventive production design (the work of the director’s sister, Eliza Zeitlin, with whom he also wrote the script) does a lot of the heavy lifting, as does the location work: Neverland is played, gorgeously, by the Caribbean island of Montserrat, home to an active volcano that looms over lush green foliage and a gorgeous blue sea. It also becomes a second home for the Darling kids, joining Peter and his comrades in a child’s prelapsarian paradise. (The young actors include Ahmad Cage, Krzysztof Meyn and Romyri Ross, all appearing on screen for the first time.)

“It turns out there are rules here,” we learn in one of many passages of voiceover. “Never slow down, never think twice.” This is their recipe for never growing up, and Zeitlin appears to have adopted it as an aesthetic principle. Shooting on rich 16-millimeter film, the Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (“Victoria”) erases any distinction between the pictorial and the kinetic. Following the churning, unruly rhythms of Affonso Gonçalves and Scott Cummings’ editing and a nonstop adrenaline surge of a score (composed by Dan Romer and Zeitlin himself), the camera runs and dances alongside its pint-sized subjects, chasing them through the grass, into the water and into a state of pure, unbridled ecstasy.

Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the movie “Wendy.”

Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the movie “Wendy.”

(Searchlight Pictures)

All this rough-and-tumble lyricism, this exultation in the beauty of nature and the miracle of every drawn breath, has obvious antecedents in the work of Terrence Malick, among other great cinematic iconoclasts. Zeitlin’s formalism is more ebullient and more chaotic than Malick’s, in part because his subject is the exuberant wonder of childhood and the difficulty of letting it go. The irony, if there is one, is that this particular state of grace turns out to be no easier to sustain over nearly two hours on a movie screen than it is in real life.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” Spike Jonze’s hauntingly great 2009 film, somehow transformed this difficulty into a virtue, by reminding us, like Maurice Sendak’s book before it, that childhood is actually more than just a sustained rebel yell. “Wendy” attempts a similar richness of feeling — it has its passages of regret and melancholy — but even these quieter passages are blunted, and finally overwhelmed, by the clamor and monotony of the filmmaking. Your wandering attention may begin to fixate on other deficiencies: the flimsiness of the narrative scaffolding, the thinness of the characterizations and the filmmakers’ tendency to mistake platitudes for poetry.

“You have to trust me!” “Doubt yourself and you’re old already!” These and other forceful pronouncements account for what seems to be the entirety of Peter’s dialogue, recasting this figure of carefree merriment as something of a pint-sized dictator. The filmmakers have said that they cast Mack, a charismatic young performer from a Nyahbinghi Rastafari compound in Antigua, for reasons of local authenticity. But authenticity and fantasy can make troublesome bedfellows, and “Wendy” flirts a little too brazenly, for my taste, with the stereotype of the magical black man, the figure who props up and mystically empowers the story’s white protagonists.

Which is not to say that the movie is unaware of the stereotype, which I suspect it means to complicate and subvert: Peter is no one-dimensional saint, at least, and his magic turns out to be anything but foolproof. But he is also, pointedly, not the hero of this story. “Wendy” means to reclaim its title character — usually depicted as the well-mannered, responsible killjoy of the Neverland bunch — as her own restless, indomitable spirit, something that France conveys with uncontained physicality and piercing eyes that take everything in with an intensity that never seems cloying. You can reject much of the banality swirling around her, but somehow watching her never grows old.

‘Wendy’

Rating: PG-13, for brief violent/bloody images

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles

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