Wendy (Devin France, far left) and Peter Pan (Yashua Mack, far right) in Wendy (Photo: Searchlight)

WENDY
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Benh Zeitlin
STARS Devin France, Yashua Mack

The strain of “magical realism” that informed writer-director-composer Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, 2012’s lyrical Beasts of the Southern Wild, never fully takes hold in Wendy, a retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan from the POV of its leading lady.

Accidentally but interestingly, Zeitlin’s sophomore effort shares basic story strokes with a recent critical and commercial underachiever. Both are set on an island powered by a living orb of light which grants visitors their wishes before turning them sour. Yes, it’s Fantasy Island, too.

Wendy gets off to an intriguing start as the title character (Devin France) and her twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin), living in a small Louisiana town with their hard-working single mom (Shay Walker), spot a mysterious boy named Peter (Yashua Mack) riding atop a passing freight train and elect to join him. After an interesting travel trajectory, the siblings find themselves on a volcanic island already populated by other small children. It’s now that the movie’s magic can really flourish.

Instead, what follows is a rambling, muddled and occasionally dry story that spends an awful long time on the kids’ carefree cavorting before switching gears to focus on the tension between these youths and the adults — former lost boys (and girls) who grew up against their will — relegated to the other side of the island. Zeitlin (co-scripting with his sister Eliza Zeitlin) himself gets lost trying to find something new to add to the tale’s conflict of never growing up versus the need to accept adult responsibilities — consequently, his conclusion is a jumble of mismatched ideals and emotions.

The character of Peter Pan is particularly problematic. In most interpretations, the lad has always been something of a brat, but that quality is tempered by his wide-eyed innocence and a pitiable misunderstanding of how the world works. This Peter seems less an enchanted innocent and more a bad seed with a nasty streak — one doesn’t want to see him fly as much as one wants to see him locked in a bedroom for a lengthy time-out.

The manner in which this film adds Captain Hook to the narrative is clever, but those looking for Tinker Bell will be disappointed that she’s a no-show (ditto Tiger Lily, Nana and that ticking crocodile). No matter: In the original text, Tinker Bell is brought back from a near-death experience by the enthusiastic clapping of children. Alas, not even a standing ovation from Neverland devotees could pump life into this torpid undertaking.

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