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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archives: "Finding Neverland" (2004)

Last year, Universal Pictures released a version of Peter Pan that broke a major rule in casting: They had the nerve to cast a young, male actor in the leading role! The movie also expounded on the notion of Peter Pan as a tragic and saddened hero, one who was doomed to a life without romance or spiritual connection in return for staying young forever. Marc Forster’s new film, “Finding Neverland,” offers even further insight into the makings of this seemingly simple character and finds that we all have a little Peter Pan—that youthful spirit—within us. Some are more in touch with it than others. It can be a curse or a blessing, depending on how it works for you, but it usually stems from the pains of growing up.

“Finding Neverland” loosely tells the true story of J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), author of Peter Pan, and his inspiration behind composing it. His muse comes in the form of single mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), and her four sons—Nick, Jack, Peter and Michael—who live with her and their Grandmother (Julie Christie). Barrie, whose last play flopped, seems at a loss with how to follow up his latest work, but also seems to have imagination to spare. As Barrie talks to the kids, he speaks to them at their level, without talking down to them. The kids respond to his passion for imagining a world bigger than their eyes can see.

But it can’t be as simple as Barrie-hangs-out-with-kids-and-writes-Peter-Pan. The first half of the movie sets us up for serious melodrama. Sylvia has an illness and has had a stubborn disdain for hospitals ever since the death of her husband. When her kids hear of her illness, the youngest, Peter (Freddie Highmore), thrashes about and insists that he doesn’t want to hear anymore lies about “where she’s going.” It’s an overplayed, over-coached scene that should have played out more subtly and reserved.

However, it does add something crucial to the arc of the story. Barrie has been involved in a failed relationship with his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), who realizes their marriage is over thanks to his interest in the Davies family. They couldn’t make it work. Now, Barrie has set his sights on Sylvia and her family, another relationship with no future. Peter, the most “grown-up” of the four boys, becomes something of a kindred spirit for Barrie. One man has just lost a woman he once loved and will soon lose another. One boy has just lost his dad, will soon lose his mother and has no idea why he should believe any adult will stick around.

No wonder when the movie depicts the magical opening night of Peter Pan it feels celebratory. Barrie’s producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, who loses his accent after the first five minutes), has no idea what Barrie has in mind for his next creative offering. Why is there a man in a dog suit on stage? Why do we need fake water? What adult wants to see a play about kids and pirates? Exactly.

“Finding Neverland” at least knows what its own audience wants and serves it to them generously. The movie plays out a bit stiff, over-written and melodramatic in its early stages, but it gradually won me over. It truly comes alive when it dives headfirst into Barrie’s brain to see the colorful world he has stored in his cranium. The rest of the movie plays out as one would expect, eager to win our hearts. It does so mainly by staying true to its story about an author and his muse, but not the muse you think.

It also helps that Depp truly believes in the material and it suits him as well as anything he ever did with Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. He remains one of the most flexible actors out there. Kate Winslet continues to make amends for “The Life of David Gale” by adding another wonderful, natural performance to her impressive resume. I mentioned before about a scene involving Peter’s fits of rage being overplayed. It is, but the actor, Freddie Highmore, also has some genuinely good moments and can certainly hold his own when sharing a scene with Depp.

Between this and last year’s “Peter Pan,” we get our share of the boy who could fly and the inner-workings of a psyche trapped in adolescence flying around with fairies while fighting off Captain Hook and being unable to fall in love, all born from a boy who lost his father and mother at a young age. Peter Pan sure makes for a fascinating headcase. I suppose we’re no different. In “Finding Neverland,” the stage Peter Pan is played by one of my favorite Euro-babes, Kelly MacDonald, who is incapable of not being cute…even in a Peter Pan suit. Now, what does that say about me? Don’t answer that.

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