"Peter Pan" is such a flamboyant theatrical play and film that it's almost surprising that "Finding Neverland," the biographical account of how J.M. Barrie came to write the children's classic, is such a quiet and unassuming film.
A year after starring as Capt. Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl," Johnny Depp was playing pirate again (though more low-key) as the reluctant-to-grow-up Barrie. The setting is London, 1903. Fresh from a theatrical flop and stuck in a loveless and childless marriage, writer-playwright Barrie retreats into a world of imagination and make-believe that begins when he takes his dog (which bears a striking resemblance to Nana) for a walk in the park. There he meets the Llewellyn Davies children and their mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet)--and his life and theirs forever change.
"Young boys should never be sent to bed," Barrie says at one point. "They always wake up a day older. And then, before you know it, they're grown." There's been speculation that Barrie himself suffered from a form of what's now being called Peter Pan syndrome, partly because his brother, whom his mother loved unabashedly the most, died when he was 13. That left young James feeling both ignored and unwanted as the child who perhaps should have died. A yearning for those pre-tragedy days? Perhaps. But all writers seem to have retained more of their childlike nature than others in "real" occupations.
Based upon a 1998 play by Allan Knee, David Magee's screenplay is an intelligent, well-written drama with light moments and plenty of quiet space for Depp and Winslet to do what they do best: convey subtle nuances of character. The facts may be bent a bit, but they're far from broken. "Finding Neverland" is a moving partial biography and an account of how ideas are born. Though leisurely paced, it's a film worthy of the Oscar nominations it received for Best Actor, Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Costume Design, and Art Direction, and the win it earned for Best Music. As John J. Puccio observed in an earlier review, it's "a mesmerizing experience, a balmy poetic vision of a time and place long ago, a vision of a Neverland itself; and like Neverland, a world that probably ever was but should have been."
As Barrie and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies start spending more time with each other, their idyll is resented by Sylvia's mother (does anyone else hear a pop song right about now?), Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie). But as her widowed daughter becomes ill and she sees how much Barrie and his antics mean to her and the children, even she softens.
In reality, Sylvia wasn't yet widowed when she met Barrie, but that's the poetic license taken by the filmmakers. Arthur Llewellyn Davies died in 1907, three years after "Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up" opened in a London theatre--a play that his children inspired Barrie to write. Aside from a child that was also left out, the rest of the facts are mostly true, and so you can chalk this up to Hollywood's penchant for writing out characters that aren't terribly important. The entire cast seems to take its cue from Depp's and Winslet's powerful but understated performances. Dustin Hoffman seems perfectly content to play the producer who funds a flop and waits for Barrie to turn it around with "Peter Pan," which happens near the film's end. In between, there are rumors about Barrie and his marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell) to contend with, though Barrie would much prefer the company of the children, played by Freddie Highmore (as Peter), Joe Propero (as Jack), Nick Roud (as George), and Luke Spill (as Michael).
But all of this is talk talk talk. For as quiet a film as "Finding Neverland" is, you never get the feeling that it's all a lot of monologuing. That's one of its chief strengths. There are other things to admire as well. Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") avoids the easy trap of sentimentality somehow, and we're never quite sure how he managed that while also investing the film with real emotional content. Forster also does a good job of integrating point-of-view shots so that we can see the world the way that Barrie sees it. Shots like these can be tricky because they can seem so gimmicky if not done well. But understatement is the operative word with this film, and so even in a scene where Barrie envisions a hook on the end of one of he character's arms, it doesn't seem overly intrusive. Throw in location filming in London and Surrey and you have a movie that's really a delight to watch. I'm not sure how much we ultimately learn about the man behind the Pan, but it's a pleasure spending time with him.
The 1080p Blu-ray picture looks great. What more can I say? The colors are bright and vibrant when the scenes call for it, and when the film has a bluish cast there's still a great amount of detail visible. "Finding Neverland" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured soundtrack is an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio (48kHz/24-bit) with additional sound options in English and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. As with the video, the sound is quite wonderful. There's a richness and resonance to the sound in the better Blu-rays, and in the best ones the sound seems to fill the room in a natural way. This soundtrack doesn't quite do that, but it does fall into the "better" category.
All the bonus features from the standard DVD release are included, but when you get right down to it they really aren't as extensive as they look. The best feature is the commentary with director Forster, producer Richard Gladstein, and writer David Magee, who offer a nice blend of anecdotal information mixed with the philosophical. A featurette on "The Magic of Finding Neverland" is pretty standard, with the usual blend of talking heads and clips, but it does give background on the history of this timeless children's classic. There's just not as much about the real-life circumstances of Barrie's life as I would have expected in a biographical film like this. A very brief "Creating Neverland" feels like a pre-release promo for the Disney Channel, it's so limited at roughly three or four minutes. More interesting is the Red Carpet feature that even has Hillary Clinton commenting.
There are just three deleted scenes with optional commentary, none of which are long or substantial enough to be missed--so if an extended director's cut of "Finding Neverland" is offered, I know that I won't be tempted.
Rounding out the extras is a blooper reel which runs for just five minutes and shows, among other things, the laughter that ensued when Depp placed a fart machine under Christie's seat.
"Finding Neverland" is rated PG and will certainly appeal not only to adults, but also older children who've grown up watching the Disney classic. I don't know how penetrating a look it gives into the author's life, but as a film that celebrates the imagination and the power of creativity, it positively soars.