Back in the “before Coronavirus times,” Wendy was the latest movie I had planned on seeing. The story of Peter Pan—like Robin Hood or Batman—is a story that Hollywood seemingly thinks needs to be told over and over again, every five to ten years or so. After the fever dream that was Pan (2015), I was convinced that there was nothing any movie could do that would revitalize my interest in the story.
Then I saw the trailer for Wendy. It was a new setting, an unknown cast, a more artsy feel, a more modern time period, and a new focus on Wendy. I was [H]ooked. (Haha, see what I did there?)
Instead of taking place in Edwardian England, the story is set in the deep South of the United States, a little closer to our own time. Instead of Peter flying and listening to stories at Wendy’s window, he is aboard a “haunted” train that travels right next to the Darlings’ home and restaurant. Neverland is an island that they can travel to by boat. It takes the more whimsical parts of the classic story and makes it feel more grounded and realistic. You would think that the Rural South and the lush island of Neverland would lead to some gorgeous cinematography, but I found it really uninspired.
Near the beginning of the film you would assume that this movie would be an almost entirely grounded story with none of the fantastical elements of the original Peter Pan. There’s no flying, no Tinker Bell, no offensive stereotypes of Native Americans, and no mermaids; everything seems to be grounded in our reality. However, once they arrive in Neverland, they in fact do discover that no one grows old there because of a magical glowing whale/fish that lives in the ocean, which Peter calls “the Mother.”
Not only do the children not age, but it is revealed that the children who allow negative or mature thoughts to enter into their minds age rapidly. These elderly lost boys and girls, whom Peter call “the Olds” live on the other, less lush, side of the island.
It’s really confusing that a movie that starts out so grounded in our reality will suddenly have an unexplained magical phenomenon that wasn’t part of the original lore, and even abandons key parts of that lore. Tinker Bell and the ability to fly were not only the highlights of the original stage play, but also highlights of most of the movies after it. Heck, Tinker Bell is even integrated into the Disney logo (She’s the spark that flies over the Disney Castle)! It seems super weird that Wendy would ignore two of the most integral parts of the Peter Pan mythos.
I had really hoped that the more realistic nature of the film would allow for more intimate connections with the characters—especially Peter and Wendy. Sadly though, all of the characters’ motivations are really vague and don’t let us connect or emphasize with them at all. What makes it even more frustrating is that the script lays all the groundwork for a really profound look at the way children view, understand, and process growing into adulthood. But the film never delivers on what it promises. We are left with the standard “I don’t want to grow up” line and are expected to be satisfied with that. Peter Pan (2003) (which I believe is the best film adaption) gives the explanation that the kids didn’t want to grow up because it meant having to conform to societal norms and lose a part of their identity. Wendy gives us hints that all the adults in children’s lives seem poor and overworked, but on the other hand, they were loved by their parents. There was no inciting conflict between the Darling children and their mother to give them a reason to leave with Peter. (Side tangent, taking the Darling father out of the narrative also disrupts the symbolic themes of the story since the father and Captain Hook are meant to be shadows of each other, often portrayed by the same actors on stage and on screen.)
There is also a weird power struggle between Wendy and Peter that I would have liked to have seen more fully fleshed out. In other versions, Peter either looks up to Wendy and defers to her as a motherly figure, or as a love interest. In this version, the age difference between the two is more drastic, and they seem to struggle for leadership over the lost boys. There’s one moment where I thought Peter was going to show the cruel streak that he exhibits in the novel, but then the moment passes. None of the lost boys are particularly interesting either.
One positive aspect that the film does bring to the characters is the relationship between Peter, Wendy, and the character who eventually becomes Captain Hook. The events, actions, and emotions that lead up to the characters taking on their more iconic roles was the best part of the film for me. However, this only constitutes the third act of the movie and also drastically impacts the main characters’ home lives, but the movie completely ignores it.
I really wanted to like Wendy. I really thought it could bring something fresh and new to a story that people keep bringing back. We’ve seen so many different incarnations and this one actually looked like it could stand out. Sadly, it was just as forgettable as most others. It looks like we might have to wait until some horror director discovers Gerald Brom’s The Child Thief , or Disney cashes in on Peter and the Starcatchers before we get another truly unique and good Peter Pan adaptation.
It feels like the writer had the setting and the dynamic between Wendy, Peter, and Hook in the forefront of his mind when penning this film, but didn’t know how to fill in the space around it. What we are left with is a reimagining that changes or subtracts everything that made the original not only iconic, but also narratively and symbolically cohesive and satisfying. It offers up some good ideas, but lacks the fairy dust to make it soar.
Recommendation: SKIP IT