As confirmed by 2003's umpteenth, albeit delightful, remake of "Peter
Pan," the fairy tale of a boy who refuses to grow up is timeless,
refusing to die out as multiple versions seem to be made for each
new generation. Directed by Marc Forster—a far cry from his devastating
2001 breakthrough, "Monster's Ball"—"Finding Neverland" is not a direct
adaptation of "Peter Pan," but a whimsically sentimental drama based
on the true story of how author J.M. Barrie came to write his seminal classic.
Set in 1903 London, playwright/author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is
acclaimed by others for the plays he puts on, but feels as if he has
yet to approach the quality he is capable of. That very groundbreaking
work that has eluded him comes to an end when J.M. Barrie, something
of a child himself, meets kindly widower Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet)
and her four young children. The six of them form a simple and genuine
bond, with J.M. encouraging the kids to act their age and use their
imaginations. His experiences with Sylvia and her sons, most notably
the serious and withdrawn Peter (Freddie Highmore), gradually pave
the way for what becomes "Peter Pan."
If the Academy chooses "Finding Neverland" to relegate its annual
Miramax love upon with a flurry of nominations, it will not be because
the film deserves it, but because it is inoffensive, moralistic, and
emotional without being saccharine. The picture also happens to be
based on actual events, which is always a plus when it comes to garnering
respect, and features some heavy-duty talent in front of the camera,
with Johnny Depp (2004's "Secret Window"), Kate Winslet (2004's "Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), Dustin Hoffman (2004's "I ? Huckabees"),
and Julie Christie (2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban")
all being previous Oscar winners and nominees. Likewise, director
Marc Forster's "Monster's Ball" was the deservedly acclaimed film
that won Halle Berry her statuette. The pedigree may be there in spades,
but, like Barrie's own frustrations in his attempt to create a watermark
work, "Finding Neverland" never makes it past the level of slight, yet likable.
Those looking for an in-depth biography on J.M. Barrie are bound to
walk away disappointed, but anyone with an appreciation for "Peter
Pan" and little knowledge of its author will find enough dramatic
rewards and flights of fancy to make the 106-minute running time worthwhile.
Set in the actual world of 1903 but apt to waver into unexpected fantasy
sequences to juxtapose how reality has a major hand in influencing
fiction, "Finding Neverland" is unforcedly ironic and, by the end, significantly poignant.
The plot machinations creak more than a few times on its road to this
climactic high point, no more so than in the way a person's cough
in one scene blatantly telegraphs the rest of the film's tragic-cum-uplifting
trajectory. What raises this development above disease-of-the-week
status is in the way the dying character marches forward with a brave
face to benefit those around them. It additionally helps that the
illness is intentionally never labeled, proving the point that it
doesn't matter why he or she is sick, only that it will hold a marked
impact on a number of loved ones and cannot be cured.
In the constant talk of a place called Neverland and a subtle suggestion
that pedophilia is suspected (but immediately denied) in the relationship
between Barrie and Sylvia's young sons, "Finding Neverland" regretfully
brings about thoughts of Michael Jackson and recent accusations toward
him concerning child molestation. It is all the more a shame because
the film is gloriously, refreshingly innocent and has not a mean bone
in its body. In fact, one of the major themes present in "Finding
Neverland," mirroring J.M. Barrie's belief that childhood is a time
to be cherished and held onto, goes against these unwanted but inevitable
real-life allusions and remains totally pure of heart. The friendship
between Barrie and Sylvia, as well as the one between Barrie and Peter,
are tenderly portrayed and affecting, and the frequent steps from
reality into fantasy are gorgeous to behold and humanely relevant
rather than cloying and cute.
The simple, unadulterated joy captured on the faces of the children
and, later, adults as they watch a stage version of "Peter Pan" tells
more about the man behind the work than "Finding Neverland" ever manages
through dialogue and exposition. The film, then, becomes more about
the general expression of innocence in a world where children are
forced to grow up too fast than a clear-cut or satisfying biography
of J.M. Barrie. The fine performances by Johnny Depp, as the idealized
J.M. Barrie; Kate Winslet, as the stubborn but loving Sylvia Davies;
and newcomer Freddie Highmore, as Peter, as well as the movie's keen
mixture of whimsy with reality, and adulthood with childhood, aid
in smoothing out the kinks. They cannot, however, save the work of
Radha Mitchell (2004's "Man on Fire"), who sleepwalks through her
role as Barrie's ignored wife, Mary, speaking in such hushed tones
that she is a chore to watch, and Dustin Hoffman, instantly forgettable
as Barrie's producer, Charles Frohman.
Viewers may not learn much of substance about the late, great J.M.
Barrie from "Finding Neverland"—he is more of an enigma than a three-dimensional
character—but the essence of "Peter Pan"'s morals and ideas, still
as timely today as they were 100 years ago, remain largely and affectionately intact.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman