Story and photos by Gemma Handy
“All children grow up,” concedes the narrator during Wendy’s opening scenes. “But some, the wild ones, the ones with the light in their eye, escape.”
So begins Benh Zeitlin’s wildly reimagined version of the classic Peter Pan tale, partly filmed in Antigua and Barbuda and featuring young Antiguan actor Yashua Mack as Peter.
The raw, gritty scenes of the movie’s prologue – set in Wendy’s mother’s sweltering, grease-ridden diner – are a sharp departure from the tender ambience of JM Barrie’s 1911 hit novel.
This art house take on the oft-revisited story of the boy who never grew up comprises 112 minutes of striking magical realism – fairytale meets shaky-candid-video, if you will.
But, for local viewers, the real magic begins when the glistening waters of Antigua’s North Sound appear tantalisingly through the trees as the titular heroine and her siblings are transported to Peter’s mysterious island.
Kids and big kids alike struggled to contain their excitement when Mack’s silhouetted head first drew into vision on the big screen during Saturday night’s red carpet premiere of the eagerly anticipated film.
Residents flocked to Hodges Bay Resort for the event, despite the recommendation to avoid mass gatherings in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
The film is notable more for its visuals than its plotline. And the stunning cinematography does justice to everything from Antigua’s coral reef – as Peter and pals embark on their underwater adventures – to Barbuda’s caves and bird sanctuary. The magnificent frigates live up to their name in prismatic effect with a handful of glorious up-close shots.
Much of the movie was filmed on neighbouring Montserrat whose dramatic volcanic landscape of black sand beaches and smoking Soufriere Hills lends itself well to Wendy’s wild premise.
Both Mack and Devin France who plays Wendy are utterly engaging and demand the viewer’s attention throughout. Sharp-eyed locals will spot a number of familiar faces among the pirate-inspired elders who lament their stolen youth. Meanwhile, Wendy must fight to save herself and her siblings from the deadly peril of growing up.
Penultimate scenes show a fearless Peter fighting the dastardly Captain Hook atop Antigua’s coastal landmark Hell’s Gate.
Other local talents featured include the nation’s Film Commissioner Bert Kirchner who was Wendy’s unit producer and was responsible for introducing Zeitlin to Antigua. Kirchner’s son, celebrated cinematographer Shabier, was behind the camera for several of Wendy’s scenes.
The movie may have cost US$12 million to make but much of its charm lies in its ability to appear low-budget which was Zeitlin’s intention from the outset.
The Oscar-nominated director described creating Wendy as the “most difficult and rewarding experience of my life”. Addressing the audience after the movie ended, he expressed “immense gratitude” to Antigua and Barbuda and paid homage to the nation’s fledgling young star too.
“It was immediately obvious how talented and special Yashua was,” Zeitlin said. “He had to learn how to swim, sword fight and leap off three-storey platforms.”
Making Wendy took an incredible seven years from start to finish, a feat Zeitlin revealed “consumed him”.
Saturday night was the first time Kirchner had seen the movie in its entirety.
“I was waiting so long for this to happen and finally it’s out. I was there for most of the scenes so I knew what was filmed but of course I did not how it would be put together. It was fantastic, I am really pleased,” he told Observer.
Colin James, CEO of the country’s Tourism Authority, said he thought the movie was “excellent”.
“It really showcases the wonderful talent we have here and is a great opportunity to show the destination and some of its iconic images to the world. I was most impressed by the shots of the bird sanctuary,” James added.
Singer Drastic was also among the 300 invited guests.
“Yashua was brilliant; I look forward to seeing him in more major films,” he said.
Mack’s mother Aziza Roberts previously saw Wendy at its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.
“Every time I watch it, it gets sweeter and sweeter to me,” she said.