Finding Neverland

a film by Marc Forster

Do you believe in movies that follow a pre-planned formulaic set of rules and in doing so, end up having absolutely no creativity or sense of style whatsoever? ... If you believe, clap your hands!

What is hard to believe though, is this - That a film about a man who beyond anything else, was a true believer in the power of the imagination, can end up being such a dull, staid motion picture.   There is not one moment in this film that is not like an obvious lumbering elephant of unsurprise.   Okay, maybe I am being a little too harsh here - maybe.   Finding Neverland, Marc Forster's new film (his Monster's Ball, although drab also, at least had some genuine emotion), does have one (almost) saving grace - the performance of its cast.

Johnny Depp, as J.M. Barrie, playwright author of Peter Pan, is, of course, wonderful in the part - even in mediocre films such as Don Jaun DeMarco and Benny & Joon, Depp is the coolest of cool - and in his better films, like Ed Wood and Dead Man, he is beyond reproach.   One of the best Actors of his/my generation, Depp is nearly always a film's center of attention - even when he's not the lead (just watch Once Upon A Time In Mexico to see proof on that).   Noticeably here though, Depp is (purposely by his own doing?) not the center of attention - although, enjoyable as always, Depp downplays his role, and in doing so, he is consistantly being overshadowed by the four young boys that his J.M. Barrie befriends (and who eventually become his muses for writing about Peter Pan and the adventures of Neverland).

Freddie Highmore, who plays young Peter (and who, after starring here with him, Depp hand-picked to play Charlie to his Willy Wonka, in the upcoming Tim Burton adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), is the most overshadowing of the four boys.   Peter is the emotional (what there is of it) center of the film, and twelve year old Highmore (who is getting a lot of Oscar buzz right now) is surprisingly up to the task - without any of that sentimental pandering that usually escorts child actors.

There is also, the always exciting Kate Winslet, who in films like Heavenly Creatures, Holy Smoke and Iris, has more than made up for the existence of Titanic.   Playing Sylvia, the sickly widowed mother of the four boys, she is once again, exciting as ever - even if she has less to work with here.

The faulted parts of the film's casting come from the smaller parts.   Julie Christie, as Sylvia's cliche'd over-dominant mother ends up being nothing more than a walking-talking stereotype and Dustin Hoffman, as Barrie's producer-financier has some of the best throw-away lines in the film, but just isn't shown enough.

Just shmarmy enough to win the hearts of the Academy voters, a la Chocolat (another Depp vehicle), and just fictionalized enough a la A Beautiful Mind, ("inspired by true events" is code for "mostly made-up"), Neverland is a definant "Oscar-bait" production with little substance or style (Forster is more studio-hack than Auteur), and there is a definant glossing over of the allocations of Barrie possibly being a pedophile (only one brief mention of a gossipy nature).

Depp is understatedly good (and manages a Scottish accent that never goes over the top like Mike Meyers) and Freddie Highmore may be everything Haley Joel Osment wants to be (mainly talented), but Finding Neverland is far from a great film (or even a good film) - more like mediocre that is brought up to an almost recommendable (but still shallow) status by its performances. [10/31/04]