October 28, 2005
What made author James M. Barrie such a brilliant fantasist is that he could see the world differently, as a child might and was not tied down by society’s stuffy conventions. Finding Neverland (2004) is based loosely on an account of how he wrote his most cherished work, Peter Pan. The film was something of a critical darling and connected with audiences but came up short of many awards that year. Miramax hyped it to the sky (along with The Aviator) but is it really all that good or a classic example of the Emperor with no clothes?
James M. Barrie (Depp) is an author and playwright in the early 1900’s whose recent plays have failed to impress audiences or critics. One day, while walking his dog in the park, he meets four boys and their mother, Sylvia Davies (Winslet). Three of the boys warm up immediately to Barrie but the last one, Peter (Highmore), refuses to use his imagination as the author encourages the rest to do. He charms the boys by dancing with his dog, telling them to pretend that he’s dancing with a bear in a circus.
Barrie soon becomes fast friends with the Sylvia and her boys, helping them use their imaginations to explore foreign worlds and have all sorts of adventures. Barrie’s wife (Mitchell) is a serious person who thinks only about how others view her. She has no time for her husband’s fantasy world. Barrie is also feeling pressure from his producer (Hoffman) to create a hit play. The more time Barrie spends with Sylvia and her boys, the more they inspire his imagination and his art. He starts to get ideas for his next work: about a boy who refuses to grow up, a world where people fly and the heroes are menaced by an evil pirate with a hook instead of a hand.
Director Marc Forster shows us Barrie’s imagination through scenes that illustrate his flights of fancy. They look okay but would have been even better through the eyes of a veteran fantasist like Terry Gilliam who can shift effortlessly between fantasy and reality as he did with The Fisher King (1991). These sequences lack any kind of interesting camera movements—they are too static, although Forster does loosen up the camera a bit later on.
Johnny Depp effortlessly essays another character who is a dreamer, like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. His take on Barrie is a man not tied down by the strict codes of conduct that govern society. He lives in it because he has to but he is able to create his own worlds in his mind and tries to, through his art, offer a window for others to glimpse and enjoy what he imagines. Kate Winslet is also good as the kind widow who cherishes Barrie’s friendship. The chemistry between her and Depp is excellent. She plays a very sympathetic character and has a naturally likable presence that is very endearing.
Finding Neverland is a good movie full of charm and one that gradually works itself through your emotions to a climatic payoff that is heart-wrenching and hopeful at the same time. It’s not a great film, hardly the Oscar heavyweight that Miramax hoped it would be. Voters must have realized this as well; it received very few statues on Oscar night. Still, one has to admire a movie that champions imagination in this day and age where everything is spelled out and shown to us in explicit detail. It’s about time that we celebrated creative dreamers like Barrie.
There is an audio commentary by director Marc Forster, producer Richard Gladstein and writer David Magee. Forster talks about technical details and the actors’ performances while Magee speaks about the evolution of his screenplay, pointing out changes throughout the movie. During certain scenes they talk about their significance or recount a filming anecdote.
“The Magic of Finding Neverland” is a standard behind-the-scenes featurette. The cast and crew talk about what attracted them to the material and gush about working with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.
“Creating Neverland” is a brief look at the film’s visual effects, showing how they pulled off one of the most ambitious shots in the production.
“On the Red Carpet” is a quick look at the various premieres that the cast attended all over the world with interviews as they make their way past the throngs of adoring fans and rabid media.
There are three deleted scenes with optional commentary by Forster, Gladstein and Magee. They don’t really add too much to the movie and were rightly cut.
Finally, there is an “Outtakes” reel of blown lines and silly takes, including a dinner scene full of rude noises that were created in order to get the kids laughing spontaneously.