Fascinating re-reading of Peter Pan or a tiring New Age tale? The new Benh Zeitlin has divided our editorial staff
Where had Benh Zeitlin gone? Eight years have passed since the triumph of Beasts of the wild south and the time was beginning to seem long. Information taken, he was simply busy refining this rereading of Peter Pan, a bigger project, in terms of budget, than the previous one, but in its exact aesthetic continuity. Because there were indeed already quite a few Peter Pan in The beasts…, film at the height of a child, portrait of a community out of the world crossed by bursts of magic. Wendy seizes on the fable imagined by JM Barrie to give it a feminist breath (the character of Wendy Darling having been, according to Zentlin, systematically mistreated by the different versions of the story) and inventing an unprecedented Neverland (shot on an island of Antilles), extraordinarily “real”, alive, rocky and organic, fiercely refusing soulless CGIs and junk magic. Wendy, a little girl from New Orleans, finds herself in a magical place where a tribe of lost children lives …
You know the story, but you’ve never seen it like this. There is something exciting to see land Wendy a few months after Pinocchio by Matteo Garrone, who was working to wrest Collodi’s imagination from Hollywood to bring it back to Italy, and give it back a sensitive, tactile dimension. As if filmmakers, scattered around the world, from Rome to Louisiana, were suddenly leading a rebellion against the galloping disney-ization of imaginaries. There is slag in Wendy, the friction that Benh Zentlin seeks in it between the harshness of reality and spiritual flight is a tightrope walking exercise, which sometimes prevents his lyricism from unfolding fully. But he nevertheless confirms his status as the inventor of magnificent worlds. We can’t wait to continue watching him grow.
Beasts of the Wild South carried by his apocalyptic fantastico-ecological impetus had bluffed his world beyond reason obtaining the golden package (First prizes at Sundance, Cannes and Deauville) Reason would indeed have prompted more caution, so much the chiadée staging of Benh Zeitlin, under the pretext of the story at the height of a child, poured abundantly in an emotional overflow a suspicious tics, Malickian tics as a bonus.
In eight years, however, we have not forgotten the chubby face of Hushpuppy Doucet and the name of the promising Zeitlin (only 30 years old at the time of the events). Here come Wendy and its promises of maturity. The journey that takes him to us is a little less interesting (no major trophy in his bag). If the moving and agitated camera continues its work of physical embedding, the magic operates less. From the first moments, the feeling of confinement, however synchronous with the desires of a young heroine trapped in a daily life without perspective, annoys more than it arouses the desired empathy. The story seems indeed nipped in the bud and the heroine’s journey to an island where her dreams of emancipation are very quickly threatened, in fact seems stingy in promises of openness. These original doubts will never be denied. The fabricated and overplayed film very quickly withdraws into itself, wallowing in the certainties of an author crushed by influences. Zeitlin offers a patchwork of references where Peter Pan would cross Her majesty of flies and some extravagance by Terry Gilliam. In the midst of this too readable mess, we end up wondering where the filmmaker’s place is. And when emotions finally manage to extricate themselves from the story, the tone borders on sentimentality and is diluted in the shapeless magma of this tiring new-age tale. For the rest, Benh Zeitlin should aspire to more simplicity and try, like his Wendy, to free himself more.
From Benh Zeitlin. With Devin France, Yashua Mack, Gage and Gavin Naquin… Duration 1h51. Released on June 23, 2021