Monday, November 08, 2004

Movie Review: Finding Neverland

United States/United Kingdom, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 11/12/04
Running Time: 1:40
Rated: PG (mature themes and brief language)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, Freddie Highmore, Radha Mitchell, Luke Spill, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud

Director: Marc Forster
Producer: Nellie Bellflower, Richard N. Gladstein
Screenplay: David Magee, based on the play by Allan Knee
Music: Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
Studio: Miramax Pictures

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Over the past century, J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” has been rehashed on stage, video, and screen a myriad of times. On the other hand, a look at the story behind the author of this magical tale has only been done on stage in Allan Knee’s play, “The Man Who Was Peter Pan.” It wasn’t until Miramax decided that the story of James Barrie and how he was inspired to write his greatest work held just as much cinematic and thematic value as “Peter Pan” itself, that Knee’s play then became a motion-picture. However, a slight hiccup held the film from finding its way into theatres.

Initially slated for a December 2003 release date, Finding Neverland (then titled J.M. Barrie’s Neverland) was a picture set to be in Christmas-season competition with P.J. Hogan’s big-budgeted, live-action version of Peter Pan. Once Miramax realized that the motion-picture market would then contain two entirely different interpretations of Peter Pan and Neverland, Miramax pulled the plug and pushed Finding Neverland back to November 2004. Fortunately, for its impeccable cast and crew, Finding Neverland now doesn’t have The Lord of the Rings to contend with come February. Finding Neverland is one fall film that will be undoubtedly harvesting some early Oscar chatter.

The year is 1904, and playwright James M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) just cannot seem to produce a play that his audiences enjoy. After producing flop, after flop, Barrie knows that he must create a crowd pleaser or face the possible collapse of his career. Consequently, under the financial backing and moral support of Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), an American stage producer, James realizes that for his next play he needs a major muse to elevate him to the level of success.

Searching for inspiration, Barrie meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her intriguing four young boys—Jack, Michael, George, and Peter. Captivated by Sylvia’s children (in a non-perverse way—despite accusations), James begins to spend every waking hour with the Llewelyn Davies family and away from his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell). Disregarding both the angst of his wife and the anxiety of the boys’ grandmother (Julie Christie), James establishes a friendly relationship with all of the children and their mother. James takes a particular interest in the eight-year-old boy named Peter (Freddie Highmore) and starts writing his next play around him and their adventures together.

Due to a few fantastical parallels, it is safe to say that if you enjoyed Big Fish, then Finding Neverland will most likely strike your fancy. It shares a subtle mix of fantasy and reality, and has the potential to hit you emotionally to the point of weeping. Without a doubt, many will walk out of the theatre with their hankies in hand. In fact, if this story, and its faultless blend of an amiable biopic and a mesmeric drama, doesn’t bring you to the brink of welling up – where you can feel your heart turn to mush – then you truly need to be institutionalized.

Johnny Depp, one of Hollywood’s most talented and versatile actors, takes hold of his character with unbridled assurance; his Scottish accent is right on the money. As for Winslet, she pours on the emotion—making Sylvia her second noteworthy role this year, alongside her portrayal as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dustin Hoffman (who ironically played Captain Hook in the "Peter Pan" adaptation, Hook) also adds his droll yet distinguished role of Charles that provides an ideal amount of comic relief. However, none of these main players match the single-most significant performance of the film from twelve-year-old Freddie Highmore. Freddie’s portrayal as Peter is one that will surely stay with you for a lifetime; the audacity and emotion that this young boy exhibits will certainly cause you to, at the least, shed a tear. Highmore is unquestionably the highlight actor of the film--not to demean any of the other actor’s praiseworthy presentations.

In addition to an impeccable cast, the direction, screenplay, cinematography, and score all deserve accreditation. Forster does a noble job in both following up his superb direction of 2001’s Monster’s Ball and displaying his capabilities behind the camera. Also, David Magee, a first time screenwriter, composes a beguiling gem of a script—proving that sometimes a freshman can be a breath of fresh air. Also, Roberto Schaefer’s intoxicating cinematography and Jan A. P. Kaczmarek’s stimulating score each garner respect in their own right. To date, it is entirely feasible to assume that Finding Neverland has the capability to clean house as far as nominations go.

Finding Neverland is truly a terrific film that has the power to both wet your tear ducts and whet your appetite for the Academy Awards. It is a picture that you can get lost in; a picture that will make you cry, smile, and laugh; a picture about love, compassion, and the importance of youth; and a picture that is creative, endearing, lush, and uplifting. To be able to find all of these attributes in a single picture, easily makes Finding Neverland my frontrunner for film of the year. (**** out ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004