Movie Reviews

“Wendy:” A Peter Pan for modern America

By Lawrence Toppman

However cheerful the musical and animated versions may be, “Peter Pan” has a core of sorrow.

The title character can never form a lasting relationship; he jaunts from pleasure to pleasure, with a past he can barely remember and a future he cannot contemplate. The children who visit his Island of Lost Boys realize that responsibilities encroach on everyone else, hair turns gray, childhood thrills become half-forgotten memories that cannot be recaptured. “Real” life has compensatory beauties but also drawbacks, and you can’t escape those.

Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) has directed his second feature in eight years in “Wendy,” working successfully again with untried young actors. He updates the story to an unnamed Southern location – he shot much of the film in Louisiana, some in the Caribbean – and Peter (steely-eyed Yashua Mack) no longer flies into the lives of the Darling children. He arrives atop a steam-belching train, a stowaway encouraging them to run off from their dead-end town to a place where no one needs to grow up.

Wendy (intense Devin France) and her genial twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) take that ride and land in a place where kids play eternally. Inhabitants have limited magical powers, expressed mostly in partial dominion over their environment. (So did the young heroine in “Beasts.” Both movies insist happiness requires harmony between humans and Nature.)

The presence of an immense, glowing aquatic creature they call “Mother” keeps them young. Thoughts that bring discontent, doubt and fear make them old: Fail to delight in Peter’s process, and you become one of the aged wrecks rambling around the dusty edges of his green isle. Wendy decides to help both kids and crusty elders find happiness in the real world, but salvation depends on cooperation.

Zeitlin co-wrote the music with Dan Romer and the script with Eliza Zeitlin, his wife; she also handled production design. “Wendy” benefits from a low-key personal vision that’s long on concept and short on details, though we don’t really require them. Why Peter came to his tiny fiefdom and how he ascended to authority don’t matter; we need only to understand that no one can become a full human being without leaving it.

Scottish author J.M. Barrie wrote his play “Peter Pan” in 1904, three years after Queen Victoria died. The movement for Scottish home rule had stirred two decades earlier, so perhaps he was metaphorically urging Britain to grow up and abandon the idea of stomping around the world, doing whatever it pleased in its self-declared empire.

Zeitlin’s subtle interpretation arrives in a United States disunited by immaturity and selfishness. Could he be encouraging us to behave more like adults and less like spoiled brats for whom no day of reckoning will ever come?

Video: WENDY official trailer

Pictured: (Top, From L-R): Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Review: Pixar moves “Onward” with a comic tale of magic

By Lawrence Toppman

In the two years since John Lasseter left Pixar after sexual harassment claims, the animation studio has produced two features for Disney without its founder.

“Toy Story 4,” an excuse to revisit characters from a beloved franchise, won a nostalgia-driven Oscar without breaking any ground. “Onward” represents an attempt to go in a different direction. It’s a little more daring, more inclined to skirt the expected happy ending for a realistic one, if that word can be used about a story containing dragons and trolls. If it doesn’t rank with “Up” or “Frozen,” it’s refreshing in a dry Hollywood season.

Executive producer Pete Docter has assumed Lasseter’s role here. He directed the great “Inside Out” and knows that virtually every Pixar movie is about family: trying to find one, preserve one, rebuild or reunite one, create one from improbable connections. The definition of “family” has broadened over the years to include a lesbian Cyclops and a centaur in love with an elf, but we all pursue love where we find it.

Elf brothers Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) discover a spell that can bring their long-dead father back to life for one day, giving them a sense of closure with him. It goes half-right, leaving them with a pair of legs that provide most of the sight gags.

To complete his resurrection within the 24-hour deadline, they have to find a hidden gem. They’re assisted by their plucky mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) and a manticore, a creature with a human face, lion’s body and scorpion’s tail (Octavia Spencer, happily and aptly chewing the animated scenery).

“Onward” has magic aplenty to satisfy viewers weaned on video games and superhero movies. Ian and Barley suggest Frodo and Sam in “The Lord of the Rings,” one growing into adulthood as he reluctantly embarks on a mission and the other a burly, bullheaded sidekick full of good cheer. The goal, unknown to them, turns out not to be a reunion with their dead father but a union between the quarrelsome, oddly matched siblings. Spells protect and aid them, but love matters more than wizardry.

Director Dan Scanlon, who wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, creates a world where pixies have forgotten how to fly (and become shaven-headed bikers!), unicorns eat from garbage cans, and the manticore’s flaming breath broils meat in her family restaurant.

Magic exists, yet no one but Barley believes in it. (We don’t really learn why.) The metaphoric message – look for magic in your own everyday life – comes across clunkily at times: Finding wonder in a back-yard flower hardly compares to creating an invisible bridge across a bottomless chasm. But the filmmakers’ hearts remain in the right place, a place worth visiting.

Pictured: OH BROTHERS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian Lightfoot, and Chris Pratt as the voice of Ian’s older brother, Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. ©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.