Finding Neverland (2004)

My friend George Bailey and I came to a similar conclusion during a recent conversation. There are a handful of movies, usually released around this time of year, that are packed to the gills with awards hype and general goodwill. Then I see them and feel underwhelmed for whatever reason and I walk out and feel that I should like the movie more than I do (if I do at all). I don’t know what to call it, societal guilt, elitism, but this is exactly what I felt when I left Finding Neverland.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is in search of his next play. It?s 1903 London, and the financier (Dustin Hoffman) of his last play has taken a financial bath. Barrie’s also emotionally closed off from his wife (Radha Mitchell). One day in the park, Barrie stumbles across Sylvia (Kate Winslet), a widow managing four boys by her lonesome. Barrie takes a shining to her children and delights in spending long days with Sylvia and her boys. From his encounters with Sylvia and the boys, Barrie works up the inspiration to write a new story, called Peter Pan. Of course the public has its own gossip about a married man gallivanting about with a widow and her boys (think recent Michael Jackson scandals). Then there?s Sylvia?s mother (Julie Christie), who is set to put her house back in order starting with removing Barrie from their lives.

The message of the movie is about the need for adults to slow down, open their imagination, and become bewitched by the power of believing. Because it’s not like there aren’t any other Hollywood movies out there that teach us to loosen up and enjoy life. Thank you Finding Neverland, I never would have found this out by myself. The message of belief overpowering all is also a bit naive, but then it works into the whole cross-stitching of sap the movie is generating.

Not even Depp can save the film. Long established as one of the most versatile and exciting actors, Depp finds ways to disappear into his oddball characters. In Finding Neverland, Depp sports an impressive Scottish brogue, but, sadly, this is the most impressive aspect about his performance. There had been much talk about Finding Neverland being Depp’s next opportunity at finding Oscar, but it would be a shame if Depp won for such a lackluster, artificial performance especially when he’s been brilliant so consistently in other movies. J.M. Barrie was somewhat eccentric, but in Finding Neverland he comes off as mostly vacant. The film tries to show that Barrie didn’t really fit in, but instead of becoming a showcase for Depp’s acting it becomes a showcase for Depp’s silence. The performance is so subtle that it doesn’t even come off as a performance. If Depp stood in the background of a movie, it would be akin to this performance.

Winslet has also been a very versatile actor. Her role in Finding Neverland never really deepens beyond Disadvantaged Woman. She’s been hit by adversity, she’s beset by four rambunctious kids and an icy mother, but that’s about all the film does for her characterization. Winslet is a tremendously talented actor, as evidenced by her Oscar-worthy performance in this year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So why strand her in a role where her character’s greatest acting moment is coughing fits?

Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) has the frustrating habit of having two shot styles he shoots in. He decides between medium shots which usually involve two or three people, or large close-ups. While I was watching Finding Neverland I never once thought to myself that something was filmed in a visually interesting way. Some of Forster’s decisions seem unnecessary, like when he has to visually show us scenes of imagination instead of allowing the audience to, gasp, use their own imagination (hey, isn’t that the message of the movie?).

Finding Neverland tries so hard to be a three-hanky movie (and truth be told I heard a lot of sniffling in my theater during the last half hour), but what stops the film short is how unbelievably transparent everything is. Finding Neverland could have explored the rich complexity of an enigmatic figure like J.M. Barrie, but instead it settles for goopy sentimentality at every opportunity. Barrie becomes sugar-coated into an earnest father figure, and in the process key facts are sugar-coated as well. What do you mean? Well, Sylvia’s husband didn’t die until several years after Barrie wrote Peter Pan. Barrie’s wife didn’t have her affair until long after Peter Pan. Also, the original Peter threw himself in front of a train because of how upset he was about his connection to the famous character. I guess that’s why this is a biographical movie merely “inspired” by true events, much like Hidalgo.

The filmmakers rely on cloying tricks to make an audience care about its characters. The movie paints in very stark black and white tones, mainly “adults = shortsighted” and “children = special.” This is a film that is proud to take the easy road and makes little effort to cover its pride. It plays toward audience expectation and thus loses any long lasting magic.

Finding Neverland takes the easy road for audience-friendly sappiness. Barrie insists that 25 orphans be strategically placed around the theater on opening night of Peter Pan. Sure enough, the theater is full of old white men with monocles, and apparently they just don’t get the spirit of theater. The orphans laugh and squeal from the stage antics, and somehow this triggers all those old curmudgeons to learn to laugh once again. You see, all it takes is strategically placed orphans to make us laugh at life again.

When Sylvia is hanging laundry she starts to gently cough. If you’re smart, you’ll instantly figure out what trajectory is in store for her, but even if you miss this single cough don’t worry, because Sylvia will be doubled over with coughing later to spell it out for everyone. You can all but see the strings being pulled (the audience will cry… now!). All can be overcome in the end, those who didn’t understand will, and we’ll all be happier and live life to the fullest, in theory of course.

Finding Neverland wants to be Shakespeare in Love, another whimsical movie that shows how a writer utilized the people and events around them to pen a masterwork. Except in Shakespeare in Love there was a romance to fall back on, as well as some ripe comedy, but with Finding Neverland there isn’t anything to fall back on. It’s a Hallmark card mass-marketed to the largest possible audience.

Everything about Finding Neverland is disappointingly under whelming. The direction is shabby, the actors are marooned by their weak roles, and nothing is sacred in the film’s pursuit of that tearjerker ending. This is a movie for people that ask little of their movies, and yet I can reasonably see Finding Neverland becoming an audience favorite and riding good word of mouth all the way to awards season. Finding Neverland is a film that never takes flight because it’s too content to stay grounded by going the easy route.

[Nate’s Grade: C

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on November 20, 2004, in 2004 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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