Finding Neverland – 2004
This was a sweet movie. Sweet, but dull. There was nothing at all wrong with it that a little shot of caffeine wouldn’t fix. It is a story based on the author of the play Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, played by Johnny Depp. The movie was based on a stage play called The Man Who Was Peter Pan. Then, following the success of the film, a stage play was produced called Finding Neverland. Here, they turned it into a musical.
But really, though the film was good enough, I don’t see what all the hubbub is about. The story moved slowly, the plot was predictable, and the acting was lackluster. So why was it nominated for Best Picture? I think the movie had two real saving graces. The first was the great art direction by Gemma Jackson and Trisha Edwards, and the second was its wonderful score which gave composer Jan A. P. Kaczmarek the film’s only Oscar win out of seven nominations.
The movie seemed to take after the 1998 Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love. In similar fashion, Finding Neverland followed the author of Peter Pan, arguably one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time, as he is writing the original play. We are shown how the events in his life influence different elements of the story. Depp’s portrayal of Barrie was typical of Depp’s style of acting. I have always found him to be competent, but nothing to get too excited over. He has a low-key and subdued air about him which, I’m sorry to say, often translates onto the screen as low-energy, unengaging, and passionless. This is especially evident when he is trying to do a serious drama, as compared to some of his more bizarre character portrayals like Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka, or the Mad Hatter.
Though in a way, I suppose one might consider this role par for the course for the actor. Depp seems to have a knack for playing the man-child archetype, adults with a strong connection to, or at least the emotional capacity of, their inner children. Fortunately, as Barrie, this worked to his advantage. Peter Pan could only have been written by someone who had not lost touch with the spirit of youth and its love for fantasy and magic.
Playing opposite Depp are three women and four young boys. First, there is his wife, Mary, played by Radha Mitchell. Over the course of the film, we see their marriage dissolve as he spends more and more time with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, played by Kate Winslet. She is a widowed mother of the four boys, George, Jack, Peter, and Michael, played by Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, Freddie Highmore, and Luke Spill. Sylvia’s overbearing mother, Emma du Maurier, who sees the childish Barrie as a detriment to her daughter’s future prospects, is played by Julie Christie. Throw in a ridiculously miscast Dustin Hoffman as Barrie’s producer, Charles Frohman, a man who is supposed to be British, but has a distinct American Bronx accent, and you have yourself a movie.
So, because of a chance meeting in a park, a wonderful friendship develops between Barrie and the Davies family. As Barrie falls in love with them, he falls out of love with his wife. The more time he spends with them, the more make believe games he plays with them, the more we see how their imaginary play inspires his new play. But the first time I heard Sylvia cough, I knew she was destined to die, which, in the end, she did. It was just the poignant tragedy the plot needed to give the movie some emotional content and keep it grounded in the real world.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. There was the sub-plot concerning Peter. The death of his father seemed to be more damaging to him than to anyone else. The seven-year-old boy seemed to have lost his sense of imagination and thought of all make-believe as silly. In his efforts to help Peter, Barrie seems to form a special emotional bond with him, going so far as to name the main character in his new play after him. But just as Peter seems to be coming out of his shell, His mother dies, and he seems to retreat back into it.
I don’t know. The movie was well-produced, but sappy. It was interesting, but predictable. It was fanciful, but lacked energy. And the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that the real interest in the film is one of nostalgia. Everybody loves Peter Pan. The tale of the boy who never wanted to grow up is a great story. It can’t help but conjure up memories of childhood and innocence. And it was that well-loved play that kept my interest, not the weepy death of Peter Llewelyn Davies’ mother. I wanted to see more of the in-movie play, Peter Pan, in which Peter was played by Kelly Macdonald.
And I have to make mention of one little tidbit of information, that, while not really related to the movie, I found interesting. The real Peter Llewelyn Davies actually had a rather tragic life, himself. He hated the notoriety associated with what he called “that terrible masterpiece.” In response to other unrelated tragedies in his life, he became an alcoholic and eventually committed suicide by throwing himself under a train. Wow! Who knew?