Review: Finding Neverland

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  November 12, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

James Barrie (Johnny Depp) is a man that seemingly had it all. A celebrated playwright living in London's West End, he had a constant backer for whatever play he chose to pen, a beautiful home complete with servants-a-plenty, and a wife (Radha Mitchell) " even during his most uncreative period. However, his latest play has flopped and he's flat out of interesting ideas, a point that frustrates his wife as he spends many-a-day in a nearby park just sitting and looking for inspiration for his make-it-or-break-it production. As it so happens one day, he comes across a small child by the name of Peter (Freddie Highmore) who is lying under his bench hiding away from his elder brothers George and Jack, who have placed him there in their little game. James takes an immediate liking to the young boy and begins a discussion with him that leads to a fondness and sort of kindred spirit-type relationship. Soon after their meeting, James is introduced to their mother Sylvia Lewlyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow who just so happens to be the daughter of Mrs. du Maurier (Julie Christie), a powerful and important societal figure and patron of the arts. Inspired by his meeting with Peter, James throws himself head first into writing a story about a boy who just refuses to grow up. Spending all this time with the Davies family adds friction to his already falling apart marriage, and when Sylvia becomes ill things change for the worse. Not to mention the fact that Mrs. du Maurier doesn't want him to have anything to do with her daughter or her family. Meanwhile, James' backer Charles Bronfman (Dustin Hoffman) is skeptical about his latest work, as on the surface a story about a boy who never grows up does not have the makings of a hit play. Just where will James' relationship with the boys and their mother go, and does "Peter Pan" have the makings of a hit? Find out, as together they find Neverland.

I've always enjoyed the story of "Peter Pan", but by no means would I consider myself an aficionado of the various different incarnations. I enjoyed the Disney cartoon, and the ride at Disneyland remains to this day one of my favorite at the park, but the stage musical didn't interest me much, nor did last Christmas' big screen Peter Pan feature film by Australian director PJ Hogan. So, while the high-profile aspect of the cast and talent involved with this film interested me, it certainly wasn't that high on my must-see list. Johnny Depp gave a solid performance in Pirates of the Caribbean, but his Secret Window should have remained hidden. So unlike my female companions to the screening, I was in no immediate rush to see the movie. I quite easily could have waited until the film was screened locally as opposed to going three hours south of the border and spending the entire day/night in a car to see a movie. Now, there was a bit of an incentive for me, as the film's director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) was doing a question and answer following the screening and the nearly 3-month window prior to the film's wide release certainly didn't hurt either. After all, I do like to see movies as early as possible so I don't get too back-logged during the busy seasons. So I decided to venture down to Seattle and check out the film. Was the movie worth the trip? Yes and no.

Finding Neverland is a very different type of motion picture for Marc Forster. Forster, whose previous two features were more independent in nature and dealt with much darker subject matter, has gone more mainstream with this light, whimsical, and family-friendly motion picture. Finding Neverland is not a biographical picture on the life and times of James Barrie, but more so a look at a fictional version of some of the events that led to the creation of one of the most famous children's stories of all time. Working once again with an all-star cast, Forster has created a brisk-moving, beautifully-shot tale about the real life Peter Pan and the man behind him. Although the film does cover some darker adult themes such as cheating, sickness, and death, it does so very much in a kid-friendly manner, in that nothing too questionable is ever seen on screen and is only briefly discussed. Working off a screenplay by first timer David McGee, very little actually occurs in terms of plot and story. Instead, the film is centered on the relationship between James and the four Davies children, including the youngest, the inspiration for the title character of Peter Pan. McGee's screenplay is fine in that it does a qood job with the interpersonal relationships, but it never really gets going. Forster and his team have created a beautiful portrayal of a semi-modernized London and the production design by Gemma Jackson is lovely and inspired, as is the art direction by Peter Russell. There's no doubting the artistic aspects of the film.

One of the problems I had with Finding Neverland was the fact that, although I was consistently engaged throughout the film's 99-minute running time, nothing really happened. I wanted to be taken on a magical journey and really learn something about the man and the story. Instead, all I got was a simple story with strong performances and some breathtakingly beautiful scenery that vanished from memory not long after the final credit had scrolled off the art house theater's screen. This isn't really the fault of Marc Forster, as the subject matter was well-handled. It just never really captured my heart or left me with a warm feeling inside. I guess I just wasn't expecting this type of film from the director of Monster's Ball.

It's hard to say a bad thing about the performances in a film when you have Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Dustin Hoffman appearing all together in the same movie. It's also hard to imagine how, with such an A-list cast, that the film is anything less than spectacular. Finding Neverland is a well-cast film with the often outstanding Johnny Depp taking a complete 180-degree turn from his Captain Jack Sparrow. Here, Depp is restrained for the most part, though a number of scenes with the child actors allow him to let loose a bit and show a more fancy and carefree side. Depp, whose last film Secret Window was a step in the wrong direction, gives yet another strong performance here. Equally impressive is Kate Winslet, who after Titanic hadn't been seen on the screen as much as in the past. Here she makes her second big-screen appearance of the year after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and while I enjoyed her performance in that far more than in Neverland, she does hold her own with both Depp and the young children. Dustin Hoffman is strong in a supporting role, proving that any film is elevated by his mere presence. All of the young children in the film, especially young Freddie Highmore, give good performances. Look for Highmore to reunite with Depp in the remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Depp will be playing Wonka and Highmore the role of young Charlie Bucket.

Finding Neverland is a film that's been delayed a couple times by parent studio Miramax Films. Originally set to come out during the winter of 2004, the film ran into some rights issues, with the aforementioned Universal release Peter Pan beating this movie to the draw. In their infinite wisdom and in hopes of possible Oscar nominations, they delayed the film from the summer to the fall, and are now set to release the film in a platform release in select cities in early November before going wide on the weekend of November 19th. Ultimately, I think this is a smart move, though with the multiplexes jammed back with family-oriented movies around this time the movie might get lost in the shuffle. Finding Neverland is a family motion picture from a director whose last two movies have been anything but. It's a change in tone for Marc Forster and in all regards a well-put-together little motion picture. It didn't click with me as well as it did with the other members of my group, but then again I tend to prefer things on the darker and edgier scale. Here's hoping Forster returns to the more bleak side of things with his next feature, Stay. Still, there's nothing really to fault about this movie.

Reviewer Note:
After the screening and the Q&A period, I had a chance to meet and talk to director Marc Forster about the film and his upcoming project Stay featuring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. The film, currently in post production and aiming for a 2005 release through 20th Century Fox, promises a return to the darker subject matter I so dearly missed while watching this film " a film Marc Forster assured me would be much more to my liking and similar in tone to Monster's Ball.

Special thanks to Warren Etheridge and The Warren Report for holding this special screening.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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