Benh Zeitlin can’t remember a time when he didn’t know about the boy who wouldn’t grow up, and like every kid, the adventures of Peter Pan came alive in his imagination.
Now an adult, the director of the 2013 Oscar best picture nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is putting his dramatically different vision of Neverland onscreen in his new fantasy “Wendy” (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding through March), which Zeitlin co-wrote with his sister Eliza.
Several movies have adapted J.M. Barrie’s characters and magical landscape, from Disney’s classic 1953 animated movie to Steven Spielberg’s 1991 retooling “Hook” starring Robin Williams as Peter. “Wendy,” however, has a stronger connection to real life as Wendy Darling (Devin France) and her brothers James (Gavin Naquin) and Douglas (Gage Naquin) travel from the apartment above their mom’s Louisiana diner to a mysterious island filled with Lost Boys, where time and aging are far from normal.
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“We didn’t want to lean into the escapist notion of the adventure, that you run away from the world, have a good time and then go back home,” Zeitlin says. “We wanted to dig into the deeper and darker themes of the story.”
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She was the one character Zeitlin wanted to “tear straight out of the myth and completely reinvent,” the filmmaker says. Historically, “Peter Pan” looked at gender as “adventure is for little boys while girls wait at home and watch from the sidelines.” But this Wendy is “powerful, funny, weird, complicated and wise, and we wanted to give her a strength that wasn’t as simple as giving her a sword and having her fight Captain Hook.”
In “Wendy,” the title character’s power comes from her heart, and she participates in the adventure, plus is able to “unravel the trappings of Neverland and save her family and her friends from all the ways that trying to stay young forever can actually destroy.”
While often portrayed on stage and screen as a pre-teen boy – and the occasional adult woman – Zeitlin went a very different direction for his Peter (Yashua Mack), a wild and uncontrollable 6-year-old child of color. “Our story takes place in real nature,” the director says. “We needed to find a Peter for whom nature was his playground, who loved to play outside and was fluent in navigating what would be incredibly difficult, treacherous landscapes for another kid.”
This Peter also needed to be young because Zeitlin felt that “he always was this kid who sort of gets trapped in a way. Peter is in some way free, but he’s frozen at this moment where he doesn’t really know how to love and how to care.”
Fairies and mermaids pervade Neverlands we’ve seen before, but the island in “Wendy” focuses more on a magic that comes from the natural world and feels “tangible, like it could actually happen,” Zeitlin says. (Sorry, Tinker Bell fans.) It’s reflected in the transportation as well: Rather than Peter flying Wendy and her brothers to a wondrous place, the youngsters of “Wendy” hop on the train that rumbles past their bedrooms to begin their journey.
“We thought about what it would be like to be this little girl, who doesn’t have a bad life but who is being put to work too early and facing never having gone on a wild adventure and never been free,” Zeitlin says. The trains would be this mythic thing to her: They go by her house, but where do they all go?”
Zeitlin’s idea in repackaging the classic villains of “Pan” lore “flowed out of our exploration” of Barrie’s text and came out of a need to ground aspects of the reinvention in emotion and feeling. “We wanted to sort of think about how do the pirates become the pirates: What is it they lose that makes them become so destructive?” he says.
“In this film, when you go to Neverland, you stay young forever, but only so long as you believe and have faith and stay connected to your joy. When you lose it, you age incredibly rapidly. This loss of freedom, this loss of childhood, this loss of joy is something we wanted to contextualize.”
One personal aspect Zeitlin introduces into the “Peter Pan” myth is an underwater “goddess of momhood,” a humongous underwater creature who looks after Peter and the Lost Boys. “She not only brings you into the world, but when you have a mother who protects you, it allows you to experience this freedom,” says Zeitlin, who says The Mother is a celebration of his own.
For the record, Zeitlin’s mom has seen “Wendy” and understands she’s represented by a 30-foot-long sea monster. “She knows us well enough to not be insulted by the comparison,” he says with a laugh. “So much of our attachment to ‘Peter Pan’ and stories like this about adventure come from gifts that our mother gave us.”