Finding Neverland (United Kingdom/United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If it's Disney (or its subsidiary, Miramax), it must be "inspired by true events." Or maybe it just seems that way. Those words, which appear in a caption at the beginning, are chose with care (more care than the similar preface to Hidalgo). Finding Neverland uses strands of historical fact to weave a story that is largely fictional. Yes, J.M. Barrie did write "Peter Pan," and, yes, many of the characters in the film existed, but this is predominantly a soft-ball approach to the inspiration that led Barrie to write his most famous play. For one thing, it almost completely ignores sex, which was certainly a fundamental element in Barrie's life. (The issue of pedophilia, which has dogged Barrie's reputation for a century, is briefly mentioned, then quickly dismissed, as if it isn't worth contemplation.) Still, even considering the liberties taken with the known record (and I have often said that movies should not be constrained by the same rules that govern history books), the end result is compelling and life-affirming.

The story is a nice mixture of drama, fantasy, romance, and tragedy, with no hints of some of the ugliness that marred the real J.M. Barrie's reputation. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is at the nadir of his creative powers, having just bombed with his latest play, when he encounters Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys: Peter (Freddie Highmore), George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), and Michael (Luke Spill). Barrie strikes up a quick friendship with the Davies family, and soon is viewed by the boys as a favorite uncle. Suspicious of his new relationship with the children and their mother are Barrie's wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), and Sylvia's mother, Mrs. Du Maurier (Julie Christie). This association frees the block on Barrie's creativity and he begins to develop "Peter Pan," which would be his most successful stage production.

Finding Neverland contains some stock elements, but almost all of them are done well. There's the platonic relationship between Barrie and Sylvia - something that, under different circumstances, might have developed into a deeper interaction. There's the give-and-take between Barrie and the boys (Peter in particular), as they release his creative energy and he gives them lessons in living. And there's the bitchy Mrs. Du Maurier, whose intense dislike of Barrie allows her to come as close as the film has to having a villain. She wants the writer out of her daughter and grandchildren's lives.

The manner in which director Marc Foster (Monsters Ball) mingles fantasy and reality is a little disappointing. Perhaps a comparison to something like Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures is unfair (although Kate Winslet's appearance in both makes it a natural contrast), but there are times when the interfacing of England with Neverland is prosaic. Neverland rarely seems otherworldly. The fantasy sequences (which are sometimes just playtime between Barrie and the children "amped up" by imagination) are only occasionally imaginative. There are a number of excerpts from "Peter Pan" (with Kelly Macdonald in the title role), but the lack of context might cause some confusion for those unfamiliar with the entire story.

If it sounds like I'm being overly harsh to Finding Neverland, I don't mean to be. It's a fine fictionalized bio-pic, and it hits all the right buttons. Plus, there's enough bitterness in the ending to avoid the happy sense of closure from becoming cloying. Dustin Hoffman, as Barrie's producer, Charles Frohman, gets his share of laughs with a droll performance. And, while Depp isn't nearly as flamboyant as he was in Pirates of the Caribbean, he nevertheless brings a lot of energy and a weird accent to his portrayal. Kate Winslet, who has suddenly become a rarity at the cinema, is solid as usual as Sylvia, a character whose complexities are only hinted at. Of the boys, the standout is Freddie Highmore, who does an excellent job with the difficult part of a boy who is having trouble dealing with grief and its associated guilt.

Finding Neverland is best described as a "safe" movie. It does what it sets out to do, but never attempts anything risky. It is by turns tender, humorous, and touching, but it never attempts anything that would elevate it to the next level. This is solid but unspectacular entertainment, and most who see it will leave theaters satisfied, although not overwhelmed. Finding Neverland deserves a recommendation because it works on an emotional and, to a lesser degree, intellectual level.

Finding Neverland (United Kingdom/United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2004-11-12
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1