Is there an actor today as delightfully diverse and eccentric with his roles as Johnny Depp? In the last two years alone, he's memorably offered us the charming Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean), oddball CIA agent Sands (Once Upon a Time in Mexico), and tormented novelist Mort Rainey (Secret Window). And in 2005, he'll re-team with director Tim Burton for what will surely be a typically whimsical performance as Willy Wonka in a new adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Depp portrays yet another eccentric in Finding Neverland, though it's also his most well-adjusted character in years. Celebrated Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie is best known as the man who wrote Peter Pan, which was in a sense the Harry Potter of the early 1900s. But there's also an emotional and heartfelt tale underlying the creation of this beloved children's play and book. Directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball), Finding Neverland is "inspired by true events" and based upon Allan Knee's play The Man That Was Peter Pan, which in turn was inspired by Andrew Birkin's book J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys. The film was pushed back from late last year to avoid colliding with Universal's 2003 remake of Peter Pan. Miramax's insistence on releasing this in the final two months of the year indicates their high Oscar hopes.
We begin in 1903 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London for the premiere of Little Mary, which puts the audience to sleep and proves a flop for Barrie and his producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, who also played Captain Hook in Steven Spielberg's Hook). The playwright nervously watches his work from the wings of the auditorium, though it's not as if his livelihood completely depends on it. He and his aristocratic wife Mary (Radha Mitchell, Man on Fire) live in a high society townhouse in London. Barrie's concerns reflect an artist who longs to connect with the hearts of his audience, yet finds himself without spirit or inspiration in both his work and his marriage.
While taking one of his daily walks with his dog and working on his journal in the park, the disheartened writer encounters the Llewelyn Davies family: widow Sylvia (a luminous Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) with her four boys George, Jack, Michael, and of course, Peter. They quickly form a friendship by playfully appealing to their sense of imagination and childish wonder-all except Peter (Freddie Highmore), the skeptic of the bunch. Will Barrie win a place in the reluctant boy's heart? Do fairies fly?
And so we joyfully learn how two sets of suffering souls find comfort in each other. After losing their dad to cancer, the boys gain a playful and willing father figure with "Uncle Jim." In turn, the childless Barrie finds the sons he never had while also rediscovering the power of imagination, which of course fuels the creativity to write his greatest work. With Sylvia, he discovers a kindred spirit who also wishes life weren't so uptight among London's upper class, and someone who can relate to the loss of a loved one from Barrie's youth.
Ah, but what would the neighbors say? Indeed, murmurs of adultery and pedophilia quietly circulate among the social circles, placing more stress on Barrie's already strained relationship with his wife-as depicted in the film, the two slept in separate rooms even before the Llewelyn Davies family entered the picture. Nor does Sylvia's mother Emma (Troy's Julie Christie) approve of her grandsons parading around like pirates and Indians, or her daughter inadvertently creating the impression that she is no longer looking for a new husband.
Some literary experts claim that Barrie was in fact guilty of some indiscretions, but Finding Neverland never gives the impression that he was less than honorable in his intentions. It's the portrait of a man who genuinely cared for his neighbors as if they really were his family, and it's sad how society even today can assume the worst in random acts of kindness. Yet can society really be blamed for thinking it inappropriate for a married man to spend so much time with another woman and her family at their country home?
This is a movie that forces us to examine the difference between priorities and responsibilities in our own lives. At what point does it become inappropriate to do good? There are no easy answers in this particular situation, and it's easy to quickly form a black-and-white opinion, only to find that there's a lot of grey. Under the restrictions of the society that he lived in, was it possible for Barrie to maintain his marriage and remain a surrogate father to the boys?
Additionally, we have a movie about the power of imagination. The film portrays Barrie as a revolutionary for his time, a man who loosened up London (and the world) by reminding adults to wonder, not to rob themselves of their childhood. And yet, the film also teaches that adulthood is inevitable-we can't forever pretend we have no responsibilities.
Unlike other films about writers, Finding Neverland beautifully offers a glimpse into the mind of James Barrie, using similar fanciful cinematic techniques as the vaudeville acts in the movie musical Chicago or the tall tales of Big Fish. Like Shakespeare in Love, we see how everyday life inspires writing, both fact and fantasy. The inspiration for Tinkerbell is found while flying a kite. The idea of a hook for a hand is humorously revealed as the boys are scolded. And when the brothers get into a pillow fight before bed, the writer visualizes them flying out their window with nothing but pure joy to keep them afloat. It's fun to see fantasy blend with reality in the mind of an artist, only to become reality in the form of the classic play.
There's much beauty and charm to the film, and much of its strength is due to the actors. Winslet gives her second fine performance of 2004 (Eternal Sunshine was the other), reminiscent of a young Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. Both Christie and Mitchell deserve credit for making the most of difficult roles, allowing the characters to become likeable and sympathetic despite their frustrating shortsightedness and cold demeanor. But it's Depp that holds the film together, balancing a gentle personality with a child-like playfulness that is almost Chaplin-esque. What fun to see him working with kids-his chemistry with Freddie Highmore (who plays Peter) is so strong, he helped the boy land the title role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
That said, Depp may earn an Oscar nomination, but the film probably won't earn any major trophies. (It was, however, recently given the Truly Moving Pictures Award of Excellence at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.) Depp's performance isn't as deep or flashy as his previous work (or Jamie Foxx's performance as Ray Charles this year), and Finding Neverland seems too lightweight and flawed to earn the highest acclaim. It never adequately explains why Barrie and his wife grow apart, or why they never had children of their own. Another thirty minutes would have been welcome to address the film's nuances. Also, no theater producer would ever invest so much into a play without knowing the logistics of what would happen on opening night. And likewise, we all know the cliché of what happens to a pretty woman when she starts violently coughing, right?
But that's the adult in me noting that Finding Neverland is a glass ¼ empty. The more emotionally driven inner child can't help from being swept up in the spirit and imagination expressed in the movie, a charming and dramatic tearjerker that's sweet without resorting to syrup. Though the content is wholesome enough for the whole family, it's really geared for adults seeking to recapture the lost wonder and innocence of youth. It just might inspire you to re-examine the world around you with younger, more whimsical eyes-and also revisit a literary classic.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What is the distinction between doing what is appropriate and what is right? How is this applicable to the life of a Christian? Can you think of examples where the public perceptions of society should supercede our own moral compass?
- Many leaders have sacrificed time with family in order to serve others through their occupation or their community service. At what point does someone sacrifice too much? Discuss the difference between responsibilities and priorities.
- In what ways was Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family inappropriate? In what ways was it perfectly appropriate? How might Barrie have lived beyond reproach, saving his marriage while still maintaining his friendship under the constraints of 1903 London high society?
- All of us have to grow up at some point, but can we still retain some of our childhood innocence and wonder, or must that fade with the passing years? In your life, what were your earliest events that were pivotal to your rite of passage into adulthood?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Finding Neverland is rated PG for brief language and mild thematic elements that deal with the subject of adultery, divorce, and death in the family. It is a generally wholesome movie, suitable for family viewing, but kids will probably be bored by this fanciful biopic. Instead, rent Peter Pan for the kids. Finding Neverland is a more mature work for adults and teens looking to recapture the dreams and imagination of youth. It's also just a good biographical drama.
Photos © Copyright Miramax Films
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/18/04
Johnny Depp is winning praise and calls for an Oscar nomination for his performance as J. M. Barrie, the famous author of Peter Pan, in Finding Neverland, a new film by director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball).
Finding Neverland sprinkles fiction over the facts in its focus on Barrie's failing marriage and his relationship with a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), who is raising four sons. The mix strikes most critics as inspired.
Not Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films). He praises Depp but concludes, "In the end, Finding Neverland falls back on imagination and metaphor in the face of death itself. Thus a character is told that someone who has died has 'gone to Neverland,' and that to visit the departed in Neverland one need only 'believe.' It's a word that, between this movie and The Polar Express, has been taking a beating lately. No one loves play, fantasy and imagination more than I do. But there's a time for playing pretend, and there's a time when we need to face whatever it is that we actually believe about reality. No matter what that may be, the death of a loved one is no time to be clapping your hands and believing in fairies."
"The film takes many liberties with the facts, embellishing them to the point of sheer fantasy," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Somehow, we just know that Barrie would approve. Forster has found the perfect touch for expressing the fancy and fantasy at play within Barrie's mind."
Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "We get an inkling that the idea of Neverland … was a part of Barrie's emotional survival after the death of an older brother. It was his imaginary escape when things were too hard to bear. Neverland is, of course, only in the imagination. Is it better to escape to the imagination or to face reality? No doubt a combination of the two is necessary. When we allow ourselves to believe in such a place as Neverland (or perhaps the Kingdom of God), we open the door to a reality that is beyond us."
Micah Foster (Relevant) raves about the film as a "tearjerker" that will "soften the hardest of hearts. For those … who have recently lost a loved one or haven't fully faced the death of someone they loved, this will cause you to own up to your feelings. Finding Neverland is this fall's most pleasant surprise. Nothing short of genius, it will make you a believer in a land where growing up just isn't an option."
Depp and Forster have enchanted most mainstream critics.from Film Forum, 11/24/04
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a beautiful and affecting addition to the 'Peter Pan' filmography. While not entirely adhering to the facts, the fictionalized approach taken by screenwriter David Magee … is acceptable, and feels true enough in spirit to overlook the inaccuracies. This story of creativity and the power of imagination is a winner. But bring your tissues; you'll need them."
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) offers criticism, calling it "a glass ¼ empty," and praise, saying he was "swept up in the spirit and imagination expressed in the movie, a charming and dramatic tearjerker that's sweet without resorting to syrup. Though the content is wholesome enough for the whole family, it's really geared for adults seeking to recapture the lost wonder and innocence of youth. It just might inspire you to re-examine the world around you with younger, more whimsical eyes-and also revisit a literary classic."from Film Forum, 12/02/04
Finding Neverland: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Stories this inspiring and well-told don't come along too often, and, thankfully, this one is aided by its excellent ensemble cast. All of them can have Oscars as far as I'm concerned." Referring to the film's emphasis on the importance of stories, he adds, "Indeed, stories are important. They can provide us with encouragement and healing, and then send us back into the real world with fresh wisdom and strength to face whatever challenges this world may present us. Finding Neverland does this and much more. It's a world of magic and joy, and one that I hope to visit again very, very soon."
Elliott Ryan (CBN) writes, "Overall, this is a well-acted movie that may go on to become almost as beloved as Barrie's play."from Film Forum, 12/09/04
Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In) says the film "does a masterful job of illuminating the creative process. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet more than earn their keep here, delivering deep and enchanting performances. But what makes this film so engaging and fascinating—and keeps it from turning into yet another by-the-numbers biopic—is its nuanced attention to the way small decisions can so radically change your life."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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