Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Finding Neverland
Review by Sombrero Grande

I’ve read several reviews criticizing Finding Neverland for overly fictionalizing the life of J. M. Barie. Indeed some moments in the film, when Barie is shown gaining inspiration for scenes, lines and characters in Peter Pan from real events, reminded me much of the farcical short film George Lucas In Love in which Lucas is depicted as a young film student meeting and falling for a girl named Marion (whose name the film alleges he remembered for Raiders of the Lost Ark) with a bizarre hairstyle (which later became Princess Leia’s infamous “cinnamon bun” look). But I don’t believe Finding Neverland ever professes to be factual. At the opening of the film, titles clearly state, “INSPIRED by actual events.” If the film was trying to be an accurate account of Barie’s life it probably would have been called “J.M. Barie,” but instead it’s called “Finding Neverland,” and that’s just what the film is about: finding that magical, timeless realm of the imagination that the film’s Barie termed “Neverland” before Peter Pan ever came along.

Finding Neverland is a story about the differences between the real world and imagination, being a child and being an adult. There’s a shot fairly early on that very nicely establishes Barie’s preference for fantasy over reality. After an argument, James and his wife, Mary, retire to their separate bedrooms. While Mary enters a darkened room, James’ door opens to a green field on a sunny day. The unexpected moments of fantasy weaved into the film are done quite well and at times it becomes difficult to tell if something is real or if it isn’t (i.e. did Michael really get the kite off the ground or was everyone just imagining he did?), making for moments which call for interpretation along with basic visceral enjoyment.

The film’s unexpectedly complex take on the issue of pretending was quite refreshing. Just as the film seemed to be moving right along with the standard “imagination = good” treatment, Finding Neverland veered off into some interesting territory. The young boy Peter, whom Peter Pan came to be named after, is the only one of the Davies children to not want to play along with J.M.’s imaginary games. Okay, I thought, this is the kid who’s going to be won over in the end by the joys of imagination and we’re all going to see how pretending makes life better, yadda yadda yadda. But then the film threw me for a curve when we find out why Peter refuses to buy into Barie’s pretending crap. When his father was dying, Peter says he was repeatedly lied to about his condition. He’s angry over being duped and sees imagining things to be nothing more than buying into ugly lies. If that doesn’t sound like enough of a curve for you, wait until Peter does begin to succumb to Barie’s seductive power of imagination and then have it come back around to bite him again. (The power of these scenes is aided tremendously by the great acting of Freddie Highmore as Peter, who’s so good here it’s easy to see why Johnny Depp insisted to Tim Burton that he be given the role of Charlie in the upcoming Burton/Depp remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.) The fact that the act of pretending is shown for both its positives and negatives here (in more instances than just this) makes for a film that gets increasingly interesting as the situations get more complicated.

While I enjoyed watching Finding Neverland, I do have a few small criticisms. The problem is it’s hard to know if my criticisms of this film are founded or not. What I mean is that the portions of the film I didn’t enjoy actually serve the story. The film opens with a dissatisfied crowd yawning and dozing through one of Barie’s plays. Indeed the first portion of the film produced the same sort of reaction in me with the only exception being the pleasant surprise of seeing Mackenzie Crook (Gareth Keenan of The Office) pop up in a small role. Finding Neverland takes a while to get going. Was this on purpose or not? I’m not sure. While I don’t think a film should ever TRY to be dull, the initial slowness does set up the later fantasy elements as a great joy because they’ve been contrasted with the bland, uninteresting and dull bits of “reality.” Also, the kids start out speaking in a manner that was so verbose and “adult” that it pulled me right out of what was going on in the story, but later I didn't notice it anymore. I can’t tell if A) I just got used to it after a while or B) the change in the kids’ speaking mannerisms were so subtly changing to a more childlike status throughout the film that I didn’t notice the change. It makes sense for all Barie’s childlike imaginitive play to have an impact on their diction and mannerisms, so again I’m not sure if it’s really a “weak spot” in the film after all given the contrast from beginning to end.

Those distractions aside, Finding Neverland is a smart and subtly crafted film that’s enjoyable and may just put a tear in the corner of your eye. Just don't go in expecting a history lesson.


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