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Paul Asay

Movie Review

The world is filled with strange, wonderful places. But there’s no land like Neverland.

Some say you have to fly to get there. But Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas and James, took a train. They hopped on it in the dead of night, leaving behind their mother, their friends and all they ever knew. It didn’t take them all the way to Neverland, of course: Neverland’s an island, silly. But it took them partway there—until a strange little boy they met on the train shoved ’em out the door and into the river below.

A boat floated nearby, manned by a slightly cranky ferry girl. “They don’t stand a chance,” she sighs dismissively. But Peter—the kid who pushed these little Darlings into the water—seems to think they’d make out just fine in Neverland. And there, they renew an old acquaintance of theirs: a neighbor kid who disappeared years before on his birthday. And while his hair is a little longer and his attitude a little wilder, he looks just the same.

You never grow up in Neverland, Peter promises—as long as you follow the rules: Move constantly. Reflect never. And if you ever feel the least bit sad, force those thoughts straight out of your head—through your mouth, nose, ears, however you have to. Because if sadness or regret ever overtake you, they’ll swallow you up whole and regurgitate you into a wizened, wrinkly mass of adulthood.

Ironically, the thing that may make all this eternal youth possible—the entity that imbues the island with all its adventure and mystery—is pretty wizened and wrinkled and impossibly old in her own right. She’s a creature of the deep waters—a whale of sorts, but one with big cow eyes and covered in a tapestry of coral and barnacle. And underneath it all, her heart glows warm and yellow with life. Peter just calls her “Mother,” and she cares for her eternally young children as tenderly as any mother might.

But Neverland hides more secrets, and darker ones. And as much as Wendy and her brothers love it there, Wendy’s thoughts inevitably sometimes drift back to home, and to the mother they left behind days or months or years ago.

They say that you never grow up in Neverland. But does it mean that you can never go back, either?

Positive Elements

Wendy is a strange, bittersweet fable of sorts—of what it means to grow up and grow old, what it means (and what you give up) to stay forever young. But to find our first real role model here, we have to leave the island and go back home: to Wendy, John and Douglas’ mother, Angela.

The Darlings (and there’s actually no concrete proof that this is their last name, though Angela seems to co-run the Darlings’ Diner near the train tracks) live in a poorish part of the South. And the diner the kids have grown up inside seems to be a beloved local hangout, filled with old-timers and comfortable friends. Angela and an older woman who runs the diner clearly work hard, and their lives seem sequestered to a few acres of dirt. For Wendy, the train that stops there represents freedom and adventure—both things that Angela seems (at least to her children) to have given up long ago.

When they ask their mother what her dreams are now, she says simply, “Taking care of my tribe. Making sure I don’t screw you up too bad.” That’s a cop-out, her kids believe. But Angela simply says that dreams change. All parents worth their parental salt know that to be true.

The Mother of the island seems to embrace the title, too. Peter promises that Mother will never let any harm come to her children on the isle, and her level of dedication to them is indeed impressive and even sacrificial.

Wendy, oscillating between these two “mothers,” becomes something of a guiding mother herself. Even though her brothers are older than she is, Wendy’s often the voice of reason—the one who sees that, sometimes, adults can be pretty helpful and useful. And you know what? It might not be so bad to become one. “There’s nothing wrong with being old!” She says in a huff.

Spiritual Elements

Mother, the living, swimming embodiment of Neverland, is clearly meant to be an animistic, spiritual totem animal—not far afield from many mythical creatures throughout history and story. And Peter’s relationship with her can feel akin to that of a shaman communicating with the spirit world beyond. He gestures and shouts and sings, and the island seems to respond: The volcano belches smoke and soot, the ground itself explodes in small bursts of energy.

But Peter’s “magic” and power on the island is also largely dependent on a kind of faith, too, just like the original Peter Pan: Believe in something strongly enough and passionately enough, and you’ll see that it comes true. But unlike J.M. Barrie’s original creation, this Peter’s magic doesn’t always work, no matter how fervently he seems to believe. Flying isn’t just a matter of faith and hope and trust (with a little bit of Pixie Dust). Sometimes the “magic” of gravity is just too strong.

Sexual Content

We see a grown man and woman kiss.

One child takes off his pants and whips them around while standing, in his underwear, in the middle of a set of train tracks.

Violent Content

Someone’s hand gets chopped off. We see, very briefly, the bloody stump, along with a pool of blood. The wound is heavily bandaged for most of the rest of the film.

A character bumps his head against something while swimming underwater. His cohorts see some blood in the water, but don’t see him; they finally worry that he died.

Peter pushes Wendy and her brothers off a train and into a river. Someone nearly drowns. A kid playing pirate plunks another character on the head with a tiny club and makes some oversized threats. People pretend to swordfight (including mock acting some tragic injuries and deaths). A harpoon pulls a hunk of burning flesh out of a creature. We see the island’s volcano explode and witness mini-explosions across the place at times—acting a little like landmines might.

No one is hurt by this seismic activity, but we do see evidence of destruction elsewhere. Much of the island is filled with ash and dust from the volcano, and someone tells Wendy that the ashy ground they’re walking on is (at least partly) the remains of those left behind. We see destroyed settlements, and there’s a suggestion that many people—perhaps including some of the kids’ own parents—died in a cataclysmic volcanic blast.g

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word (spoken by a child off-camera and some distance away). Two s-words are also uttered, along with “crap,” “d–n,” “h—” and two misuses of God’s name. We also hear some swear-word stand-ins such s “Jeez,” “Gol,” “freaking” and “dang.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

None, though when Wendy is serving pretend drinks to some patrons of a pretend café, she gives one customer a blueberry drink “with a pinch of margarita.”

Other Negative Elements

Obviously, the film does not intend to encourage children to hop on trains and leave their mothers and fathers. This is, after all, a fable with a better message at its core. Still, the pull of adventure and the unknown feels pretty strong in Wendy, and many a child does become a pint-size hobo here … adventures that in real life, could easily come with some disastrous consequences. Indeed, children engage in a bevy of dangerous activities, and as a dad there were times when I nearly shuddered.

We hear a joke or two about flatulence, along with some crude, childlike banter.

Conclusion

Director Benh Zeitlin has always been fascinated with the magic—real and imagined—of childhood. He exploded into the moviemaking world with 2012’s acclaimed film Beasts of the Southern Wild, which became a surprise Best Picture nominee for the Academy Awards. It, too, focused on a young girl and incorporated elements of fantasy and fable: Six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, must deal with a flood, mortality and the advance of the terrible aurochs (think massive, bloodthirsty, prehistoric pigs) who’ve become unthawed.

But in Beasts, the real and the fantastical blend into one dreamlike whole (as seen through the eyes of Hushpuppy). Here, reality and fantasy seem imperfectly bifurcated, with one of each of Wendy’s feet planted in each world.

Wendy is an imaginative and, I think, moving rumination on youth and age, dreams and grief. And, like Barrie’s original Peter Pan (and, of course, the Disney version that we’re probably most familiar with), it suggests that youth isn’t as much a matter of chronology, but a state of mind; it tells us that sometimes children can make some surprisingly mature decisions, and that the oldest of people still have the ability to remember the song of childhood.

It’s an interesting dichotomy that the Bible also ruminates on, too—even as Paul exhorts us to put away our “childish things,” Jesus reminds us that to enter heaven we must “be like little children.” There’s a place for both innocence and maturity in God’s kingdom, for both “boring” logic and wide-eyed wonder on our way to reach it.

Perhaps we should expect that Wendy embraces both—and not always in positive ways.

Maybe the biggest issue we must at least mention here—and families who decide to go should figure out how they want to navigate—is just the fact that lots of kids here run away from home and do really dumb things. In the context of the movie, it makes perfect sense. But children sometimes see movies as more aspirational goals than adults do, so that’s something to consider.

Then there are the story’s spiritual, animistic components to navigate as well. We also hear some spurts of surprisingly bad language (mostly from children) and see some spurts of blood, too.

That said, this film feels aimed more at adults than children, anyway—a thoughtful, dreamlike meditation on the beauties of childhood and the more subtle joys and rewards (and fears) of parenthood.

In the opening few moments, a child munches on bacon and syrup for his birthday breakfast as an adult jokes with him about growing up and becoming her “mop and broom man.”

“I’m not gonna be no mop and broom man,” he huffs. He wants to be a pirate. And before you know it, he disappears.

Wendy reminds us that, as children, we all might’ve preferred the job of pirating, or sword-fighting, or princessing or any number of fantastical jobs we dreamed about. Few of us realize those dreams. (And even if we do, like Meghan Markle can tell you, the reality doesn’t quite match what we’d imagined.) But we exchange those dreams for different ones. And that’s the way it should be. We set aside our childish things. We grow up.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t see the world with childlike joy at times. We can still hear the train whistle and find a piece of ourselves wishing to jump aboard.

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Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.