Miramax // 2004 // 101 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // April 25th, 2005
"Children know such a lot nowadays. Soon, they don't believe in fairies anymore." -- Peter Pan
Audiences and readers have been fascinated by the story of Peter Pan for a century now. It's a tale of imagination, but even the most imaginative stories need to be rooted in truth. Finding Neverland explores the life of author James Barrie and the Victorian times that he lived in, seeking these truths. While the result isn't always plausible, this story is every bit as wonderful and full of imagination as the story it produces, making this a delightful counterpoint to the best tellings of Peter Pan.
It's just after the arrival of the Twentieth Century, and James Barrie (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands) is attending the debut performance of his latest flop. It is a dry play for dry people, intended to be funny but completely failing to touch his audience. His marriage to his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell, Man on Fire) is starting to break down because he is more engaged in his writing and living life than he is in rising up in London's high society. His dreams are answered when he meets the young children of a widow who inspire his new play, something that captures the imagination and creates a fantastic world on stage. His friendship with the boys causes serious problems for both James and their mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). These events become the story of Peter Pan, as James Barrie chooses once again to be a child, and the young Peter must take his first few steps as a man.
Our society is obsessed with the psychology and sociology behind stories. We are fascinated by the relationship between the story and its author, wanting to understand how each detail of the story somehow flows out of the author's experience and history. This is not necessarily a problem, as an understanding of an author's life often does bring deeper meaning to a story. The stranger the story is, the deeper we want to dig into an author's mind. The brilliance of Finding Neverland is in the way it both uses and undermines this idea. It plays to the fascination that we have with authorial experience, promising to deliver the true story of the man who wrote Peter Pan. What we actually get is something completely different, and something much more magical. Reality and the imagination continually flow into each other, and by the end of the film it's hard to tell what is real and what is not, if anyone is still trying to do so by that point.
In creating Peter Pan, James Barrie taught London that they had been supporting dull plays they didn't like for too long. The joys of theater are the joys of a child, the pure wonder of an innocent look at a fantastic new world. Finding Neverland has a similar message for us. We are drawn to this film by the promise of learning the truth behind the Peter Pan story. As it turns out, that journey to a wonderful world of imagination is truer than anything that may have happened in James Barrie's life. By the end of the film, it isn't what actually happened in the lives of these characters (and I have serious doubts about the accuracy of numerous "facts" presented), but rather the possibility that people can truly touch each others' lives in a way as beautiful as this. I'm not sure how close to actual events this film is, and I honestly don't care. I think this story is probably better than the "real" one, and a good deal more entertaining.
Each of the performers does an exceptional job handling the script. Johnny Depp puts in some of his best work as James Barrie, using all of his considerable screen presence to create a personality that's both entirely believable and much larger than life. It would be easy to play James Barrie's relationship with the children as a little creepy, but Depp avoids that so much that it seems bizarre when accusations about his conduct are raised. Kate Winslet is as reliable as ever, creating a real person in what could have easily become a "disease movie of the week" role. Most impressive, though, are the children. Freddie Highmore holds the film together as Peter, the boy who inspired one of the most famous young characters in literature. The supporting roles are equally good, with Julie Christie putting in a delightful performance as the boys' grandmother and Radha Mitchell hitting all the right notes as James Barrie's wife.
Fortunately, the DVD is a wonderful medium for this journey. The video transfer is consistently solid, with cinematography that makes brilliant use of the 2.35:1 frame. Colors are rich and clear, with a broad palette. The rich reds of the stage are captured without bleeding, and they contrast wonderfully with the earthy greens and browns of London. The detail levels are high, only weakened by a noticeable amount of grain and a bit of haloing. The sound transfer is much stronger, with clear vocals and rich use of the surround channels. It's an immersing track, effectively designed to completely lift the heart and bring tears to the eyes (which happened to me more than once).
The disc has the requisite collection of extras. There is a short production featurette, exploring the ideas that inspired Peter Pan as well as this film. Another short production featurette highlights the visual effects in the production. Visual effects in Finding Neverland are both subtle and impressive, drawing us into a world of imagination. There's also a self-congratulatory series of talking head moments from the various premieres, and a few brief deleted scenes. It's best that they weren't included in the final cut, but they are interesting and could have been a part of the film. There are outtakes as well, which are quite amusing. The commentary track featuring director Marc Forster, producer Richard Gladstein and writer David Magee is production centered, but they are pleasant enough to listen to.
I'm normally underwhelmed by films that are based on a true story. Finding Neverland is one of the best films from last year, though, and it's an absolute delight to experience. It's a perfect companion piece for the 2003 version of Peter Pan, a coming of age story and a re-evaluation of imagination. It's a very safe bet for fans of the original story, but it comes highly recommended for everyone else as well.
This film is completely innocent of all charges, and remains true to its source material.
Review content copyright © 2005 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Filmmaker Commentary
* Production Featurettes
* Deleted Scenes