Those who feel as if Disney's remakes of its animated classics have generally been lacking in creativity and artistic drive might be interested in Wendy, a new adaptation of Peter Pan that is now technically a Disney movie because of the studio's purchase of FOX Searchlight. The first trailer for the long-awaited second feature from Benh Zeitlin, the Academy Award-nominated director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, has just been released, and the film itself comes out on Feb. 28.
Wendy has been in development for years, well before Disney purchased the FOX movie and television studios, so its production has nothing to do with Disney's current emphasis on reimagining its animated films in live-action and/or CG. Still, it's kind of ironic that the art house division might have cracked a story the main Disney studio has talked about redoing for a while but hasn't made progress on.
David Lowery, the acclaimed indie director who previously made Disney's live-action Pete's Dragon, has been attached to the Mouse House's official Peter Pan remake since 2016. Originally intended for a release in 2020, news on that production's progress has been slow. Lowery's been taking his time ironing out the screenplay; in a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he specifically cited challenges to the writing process including his personal decision to remove guns from the picture as well as dealing with the original story's racism.
The race issue is a big one when it comes to adapting Peter Pan. Stereotypical fantasy depictions of Native Americans were a big part of J.M. Barrie's original play. The 1953 Disney cartoon contains what might be the single most racist song in the studio's library, "What Makes the Red Man Red." More recently, Joe Wright and Warner Bros.' 2015 prequel film, Pan, cast white actors as the Native American characters to massive outcry -- just one of the many factors that contributed to the movie becoming a massive bomb that lost $150 million.
Zeitlin's Wendy seems like it can sidestep the racism issue through its general revisionist approach. This isn't a strict adaptation. It's removed from the story's traditional 19th century setting in England and focuses on a racially diverse cast of kids. Filmed in the Caribbean island of Antigua, the production is said to have involved a lot of local talent.
Of course, none of this means that Zeitlin's Wendy is guaranteed to be good or successful. It's surprising that the Oscar-nominated director of a critically acclaimed success took eight years to release his second film. And because the trailer looks so much like his first movie, worries of Zeitlin being a one hit wonder emerge. From the looks of things, it feels like this movie is either going to be a masterpiece or a career-killing disaster, with zero room in-between.
Regardless of which way it turns out, however, that extreme risk is far more exciting than yet another Disney remake that's simply content to be merely good enough.
Wendy, directed by Benh Zeitlin hits theaters Feb. 28, 2020.