Biopics are notoriously difficult to make work on the silver screen. The reason
is simple — people's lives don't follow a plot outline easily adapted
to 90-minute or two-hour outings. Individuals who have lived endlessly eventful
lives have far too much excitement to fit into the confines of a motion picture,
and those who are known for essentially one thing often turn out to be pretty
boring beyond that. In the hands of a good author, either type of subject can
sustain a solid, novel-length biography, allowing for diversions and tangents
as the story requires. But film is much more restrictive. Often filmmakers rely
on invented facts to hold the tale together, or rearrange key events to portray
a sort of progression in the person's life.
I don't claim to be an authority on James M. Barrie, the famed author of Peter
Pan. I knew he was a fairly well respected novelist and playwrite prior
to the first performance of Peter Pan in 1904, and that he later turned
the story into a book titled Peter and Wendy. I didn't know that Peter
Pan is first mentioned in Barrie's 1902 novel The Little White Bird about
a wealthy bachelor's relationship with a young boy.
While that novel isn't mentioned in Finding Neverland its presence is
felt in almost every frame as Barrie (the irrepressible Johnny Depp) befriends
the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Kate Winslet) and her five boys,
leading the family on backyard adventures filled with pirates and crocodiles,
cowboys and indians, and all manner of fantasy and magic. The film focuses on
the year or so leading up to the first performance of Peter Pan as Barrie
draws upon his growing relationship with the children and the widow to create
his masterpiece. As he becomes more engrossed in his work, his own marriage
crumbles, and he finds himself alone in the world, childlike, with only the
Davies children for companionship.
As a film, Finding Neverland is a beautiful, involving experience that
seamlessly blends fantasy and reality. Marc Forster's direction tugs the heartstrings
a bit too hard on occasion, but on the whole he blends the possible with the
impossible with a skill reminiscent of Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton in their
more subtle moments.
Depp again displays his chameleon-like ability to seamlessly assume any role,
complete with a smooth, unassuming Scottish brogue. Kate Winslet has matured
into a very fine character actress, able to find dignity in even the most melodramatic
of coughing fits that are the universal film shorthand for "This character shall
Most remarkable, however, are the boys playing the Davies children, Peter,
Jack, George and Michael. Unlike so many Hollywood films, these boys are neither
insufferably sassy and precocious, nor are they cloying and cute. They're troubled
and rambunctious and hopeful and scared — in short, they are real characters.
As a movie, Finding Neverland is beautiful and moving, but as history
it's about as accurate as all the other biopics out there. Based on the book
The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, the film takes big liberties
with the source material. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies isn't widowed at the time the
film was set, and her husband, Arthur, was threatened by Barrie's relationship
with his family. Barrie's own marriage didn't fall apart until almost a decade
after the events of the film, and the Davies boys — there were five in
real life — didn't live happily ever after with Barrie, their devoted
guardian. Their lives were tragic, with Michael drowning at Oxford, George being
killed during World War I, and Peter — the original inspiration for Pan
— committing suicide.
The filmmakers can be forgiven, I suppose, for wanting to make an upbeat movie
about a timeless, happy play. They've succeeded admirably, and as a work of
fiction Finding Neverland is more than worth its Academy Award nomination
for best picture. But reality is — as is so often the case — far
more complex and interesting.
The bonus features on the disc contain what the world has come to expect in
the way of bonus features. The commentary audio tracks contain the standard
scene-by-scene analysis and trivia from Forster, producer Richard Gladstein
and writer David Magee, never venturing too far into abstract discussion but
occasionally offering up interesting tangental anectdotes.
The deleted scenes are a great letdown, as the three included on the disc are
fleeting and inconsequential. If this represents the majority of what was left
on the cutting room floor, Magee has earned my respect for writing an uncommonly
tight and flawless script. The outtakes also fall somewhat flat when compared
to blooper reels from other films, but the feature is worth watching if only
for the finale at the end, when Depp and Forster secret a remote controlled
"fart box" beneath the table for the big formal dinner scene. The reactions
of the unsuspecting actors when flatulence suddenly interrupts their lines is
The disc also features three documentaries: "On the Red Carpet," "The Magic
of Finding Neverland" and "Creating Neverland."
"On the Red Carpet" takes viewers to the world premier of the film, with stars
arriving to the theatre decked out for their obligatory opening-night interviews.
It's all somewhat superficial, but the excitement and enthusiasm is infectious.
The only disconcerting element is the fact that Senator Hillary Clinton appears
in so many scenes with so many of the actors, the viewer starts thinking back
on the film, wondering if she had an uncredited supporting role somewhere.
"The Magic of Finding Neverland" is surprising in that while fairly
short for a standard making-of documentary, it goes out of its way inform the
viewer about the lead actors' backgrounds. There's a good bit of Captain Jack
Sparrow footage from Pirates of the Carribbean for Depp, as well as a
dose of Edward Scissorhands, and for Winslet not only is there the obligatory
Titanic reference but also scenes from Iris and the magnificent
Finally, "Creating Neverland" is a short documentary outlining how technology
was used to blend the fantasy and reality into a seamless whole. The green screen
process used for special effects is pretty much familar to everyone who pays
attention to moviemaking, and while the end product is impressive, the element
of mystery has long since faded. What was truly impressive was how computer-controlled
camera work was used to create scenes where the special effects pass unnoticed.
The final theatre crowd shot, where the camera swoops over the audience as if
it is held aloft by wires — a la the actress portraying Peter Pan onstage
— and comes to rest on Peter Davies' face in the crowd is a wonderful
piece of camerawork, which would be well nigh impossible without the digital
tools working behind the scenes.
Ultimately, Finding Neverland is a fine film, inspirational in all
the right ways, well-directed and boasting some truly outstanding acting performances.
But when you get right down to it, the film is just as much a fantasy as the
mythical Neverland of Barrie's invention.
The Movie Itself: 8 out of 10
The DVD Features: 7 out of 10