“Wendy,” the new film from Benh Zeitlin, opens with tender caresses and shimmers of radiant light. Much as at the start of his smashing feature debut, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the camera is trained on a young girl whose world is filled with wonder, strange rituals and phantasmagoric shocks. In “Beasts,” the girl was called Hushpuppy and she lived in a tumbledown paradise called the Bathtub. Here, the girl is Wendy and she lives in her own ramshackle utopia, one that borrows a little from “Beasts” and, more generously and unproductively, from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”
There are other similarities between Zeitlin’s two films, including sumptuous cinematography and a rousingly propulsive score, a rabble of charming children and nods at our environmental crisis. With its exquisite, near-cubistic close-ups of a toddler in a woman’s arms, the opener of “Wendy” suggests that Zeitlin has embraced abstraction even more boldly than he did in “Beasts.” Here, the child, a cherub with a halo of dark curls, comes into focus gradually. Like the pieces of an unsolved jigsaw puzzle, she appears in fragments — a downy arm, a prettily lashed eye, a face outlined by honeyed light — that sweetly suggest she’s very much a work in progress.
It’s a lovely start and for 50 minutes or so Zeitlin keeps adding more beauty, filling in the background and adding detail as the film pleasantly drifts. Even when Wendy grows older, becoming a rather sober 9-year-old (Devin France), the whole thing meanders, swirling rather than marching forward. Then one night Wendy and her brothers hop a train, coaxed aboard by a laughing boy called Peter (Yashua Mack), and the drift gives way to churn, to chugging wheels, driving music and skin-prickling momentum. Wendy is clearly off on an adventure, ready to take flight. But when the children arrive on a lush volcanic island, the film stops dead in its tracks.
The volcanic island is the film’s gloss on Neverland, the enchanted realm where children never grow up. In Barrie’s story this is where Peter reigns, flies through the air, fathers the Lost Boys, fights Captain Hook and provides material for countless hand-wringing treatises about men who refuse to grow up. This is also where Wendy assumes the role that she will embrace when she grows up, one that Peter describes with a deflating announcement: “Great news, boys,” he says. “I have brought at last a mother for you all.” In Barrie’s version, Wendy is soon cooking and caring for the boys, sidelined by the period conventions that Zeitlin thoroughly jettisons.
One problem with “Wendy” is that Zeitlin has borrowed both too much from Barrie and not enough. (Zeitlin shares script credit with his sister, Eliza.) He keeps the characters and the names, and underscores the idea of childhood as freedom. He also harps on storytelling and nods at proto-cinematic forms — hand-shadow puppets, wall drawings — but doesn’t give the kids much of interest to do or say. For the most part, he just cuts them loose. They run and shout and sleep. Every so often, the volcano blows its top and someone goes swimming, diving in caves where stalactites glitter and a creature named the Mother sings. There are old people, but they’re a drag.
The Mother — an iridescent, whale-like blob with the soulful mien of an elephant — effectively has the maternal role that Wendy assumes in Barrie’s version. It’s a shrewd, modernizing change that frees Wendy from the straitjacket of gender, allowing her simply to be a child rather than a surrogate mom or potential romantic foil. Notably, she and Peter read much younger than either Barrie’s or Disney’s characters, another revision that firmly grounds Zeitlin’s creations in the (false) safety of childhood. There’s also no Tinker Bell, for good and bad, and none of the sexualized jealousies that remind you that girls and women are rarely allowed to get lost.
Zeitlin tries to remedy that in “Wendy” by foregrounding the title character and nudging the boys, Peter included, to the side. Wendy has her moments, certainly, but she remains frustratingly undeveloped and uninvolving, despite the clamor and the score’s triumphalism. When the Mother is imperiled, I had hoped that Wendy would turn into Greta Thunberg, stop blabbing about growing up, and start a revolution or even a small riot. No dice. Instead, she and the others keep yelling and spinning their wheels as Zeitlin — who proves more sentimental about childhood than Barrie — keeps the parts whirring, casting about for meaning that never fully comes.