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Finding Neverland

Buena Vista/Miramax Home Video

Starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet

Written by David Magee
Directed by Marc Forster

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Finding Neverland (2004) takes on the story of J.M. Barrie, the famed playwright who created "Peter Pan." The faux-biography is oh-so-loosely based on true events — Barrie did, indeed, write "Peter Pan," and he was friends with a woman on whose children he based the play's characters and, well, he was Scottish. Beyond that, Finding Neverland is pretty much all fiction. Which isn't, as they say, necessarily a bad thing. The Hollywood biopic has a long, rich tradition of taking the scarcest threads of a famous person's life and weaving a rich, two-hour tapestry of colorful hogwash that can delight the movie-going audience. And there are certainly those who found Finding Neverland to be every bit as magical and as deeply moving as the film was advertised to be — it did, after all, receive a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.

Finding Neverland is, admittedly, a lovely picture on its surface. It's beautifully photographed and it has two of cinema's finest, prettiest actors at its center. Both make it difficult to dislike the film, which works so very, very hard to be everything that it promises to be — magical and romantic and charming and heart-tugging. Unfortunately, the machinations employed by screenwriter David Magee (based on Alan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan) and director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) are so trite and mawkish that everything that begs to be delicately sentimental just comes off as treacly drivel.

It's 1903 and Barrie (Johnny Depp) — the most famous playwright of his generation, although his non-"Pan" works have dwindled into obscurity today — is coming off a flop, but his producer (Dustin Hoffman) insists that they can salvage their investment by mounting a new play as quickly as possible. As movie luck would have it, Barrie stumbles upon a charming widow named Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her adorable brood of sons, all of whom offer the writer ample opportunity for flights of fancy… which, naturally, turn into bits of "Peter Pan." Never mind that Barrie's married, and that his sexually neglected wife (Radha Mitchell) is resentful of the time her husband spends both on his writing and with the pretty widow's children. Barrie pays her concerns no mind, just as he ignores admonitions that he may be damaging Sylvia's reputation by paying so much attention to her family — with ugly rumors starting to spread about both his intentions towards Sylvia and (far less explored in the film) towards her boys.

None of his selfish behavior matters, however, because he's Johnny Depp. We love him because he dresses up like a pirate or an Indian chief and entertains the kids — why, he's just a big kid at heart himself! He can make us believe that his dog's a dancing bear, or that the back garden's a ship on the high seas. It's adorable! As long as, you know, you don't really think about the toll its taking on his own marriage too much. (Scenes showing Barrie and wife occupying separate bedrooms — as well as the Barries' childless marriage — infuriatingly hint at, perhaps, Mr. Barrie's rumored impotence, but it's never explored.) Meanwhile, the production of "Peter Pan" starts rehearsals, with the actors understandably hesitant about mounting a play featuring ticking crocodiles and fairies and children who fly. The behind-the-scenes action is far more entertaining than the main story, actually — would that Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy hadn't already ventured into this area with such finesse, the making-of-"Pan"-as-play movie could have been everything that this film is not.

Forster and Magee teeter perilously on the edge of the overly precious throughout Finding Neverland, occasionally succumbing entirely to sticky-sweet clunkiness. What with the painfully obvious imagery that supposedly inspires Barrie's writing — like Sylvia's overbearing Captain Hook-like mother (Julie Christie) or Barrie playing pirates with Sylvia's children — and with Sylvia's lapse into that old standby illness, Mysterious Movie Coughing Disease (whenever a film heroine starts to discreetly cough into her handkerchief, you just know she's doomed), the film is overwritten from the old Screenwriting Clichés 101 textbook to the point of belligerent stupidity. No nuance is so unimportant that it can't be hammered on several times, no bit of symbolic imagery so notable that it shouldn't be beaten into the pavement until the audience says, "All right… we get it!" Scenes that should be memorably charming — like Barrie dancing in the park with his dog, Porthos — are shot by Forster with such hamfisted awkwardness that they fall completely flat. Then, when the story lapses into yet another inevitable fantasy sequence, there's so little difference in his creaky directorial style that what ought to be deliriously magical (in the manner of, say, Tim Burton's Big Fish fantasies) is pedestrian and dull. And all of it is accompanied by a syrup of thick, manipulative music courtesy of Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, serving as the audio version of flashcards to cue the apparently brain-dead viewer as to precisely what emotion each scene is intended to inspire.

The thing that makes all of this tedious drivel so exceptionally unfortunate are the genuinely fine performances by Depp, Winslet, and Mitchell. Winslet turns an essentially vapid, uninteresting character into someone genuinely likable by sheer force of personality — there's really not much on the page for her to work with, playing what's really just another pretty woman in a pretty dress in a pretty period picture. But she's Kate Winslet, and her amazing beauty, brains, and screen presence are what keep us from being bored by the one-dimensional role she's taken on. Mitchell, as Barrie's wife, does a similarly excellent job, bringing complexity to the rather overtrod territory of complaining/neglected spouse — her scenes with Depp are rich with subtext as the actors' performances alone are what clue us into the path that has brought these two lonely, disconnected people to this point in their marriage.

And, of course, there's the always reliable Depp. How much he's like the real-life Barrie is questionable. A tiny man, only about 5'3", Barrie was, in many ways, the "boy who never grew up" that playwright Knee saw him as. The rumors about Barrie's relationship with Sylvia's sons have persisted well past his death, although the boys always insisted that there was nothing untoward in attentions (one notable change in historical fact is the role of Sylvia's husband in all of this — he was not, in fact, dead when Barrie befriended Sylvia, and was very unhappy about the attention Barrie paid to his wife and children). However accurate or inaccurate Depp's portrayal, this role is, of course, a naked grab for an Oscar nomination at the center of a patently award-hungry film — and it's a role custom-written to the actor's most crowd-pleasing aspects. By turns winsome, playful, and melancholy, Depp (perhaps inadvertently) references his performances in far better films when he plays dress-up with the boys, at one point costumed as a pirate (cf. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean) and at another as a Indian chief (cf. Bill Blake in Dead Man). Depp has made few genuinely bad films, and even in those he's extraordinarily watchable — given his work here and the potential of the story at hand, the good work he does all feels rather wasted.

A segment towards the film's end hints at what Finding Neverland might have been. With Sylvia housebound and dying from her Edwardian Lady Movie Sickness, Barrie arranges for the cast of "Peter Pan" to put on the play in the living room and garden of Sylvia's home. As the back wall of the house opens up and the garden literally turns into Neverland, Sylvia's hard-edged mother is overcome by the play's magic and claps her hands like a little girl, and the audience is, finally, swept into Barrie's imagination. The moment offers the sort of genuine, heart-gripping emotion that is again missing in the scenes which follow, in which Forster hollowly ends the film on a by-the-book note which artificially demands — and fails to achieve — feelings that the previous scenes so effortlessly inspired. Had there been more of that sort of fairy dust in the film, it might have actually deserved that Best Picture nod, rather than just being a beautifully dressed-up disappointment.

*          *          *

Buena Vista/Miramax's DVD release of Finding Neverland offers the film in a lovely anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that beautifully captures the impressive cinematography. The picture quality is often quite soft, but deliberately so, and the rich colors are nicely reproduced. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix is impressive — if you actually like Kaczmarek's score, you'll appreciate the representation is receives here. Extras include a commentary track with director Marc Forster, producer Richard Gladstein, and writer David Magee that is chatty, friendly, and reasonably informative; a promotional featurette, "The Magic of Finding Neverland (21 min.) with soundbites from the producers, director, and primary actors and other actors talking about how swell Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet are; "Creating Neverland" (24 min.), a nice featurette on the visual effects; "On the Red Carpet," (26 min.), another promotional self-congratulation showing clips from the film's multiple premieres; three deleted scenes — including a very good one that helps illustrate the Barries' marital difficulties that would have been a helpful addition to the final film — with optional commentary by the filmmakers; and the apparently requisite 34 minutes of outtakes, the best of which involve Depp attempting to act with the dog and a giggly dinner-party scene whose mood was enhanced by director-supplied fart sounds.

— Dawn Taylor

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