Cinematic Flashback: Finding Neverland (2004) Review
Just pretending? You brought pretending into this family, James. You showed us we can change things by simply believing them to be different. We’ve pretended for some time now that you’re a part of this family, haven’t we? You’ve come to mean so much to us all that now, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. And even if it isn’t true, even if that can never be… I need to go on pretending… until the end… with you and my “cinematic flashback” review for 2004’s Finding Neverland.
“Unlock Your Imagination”
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: David Magee
Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, and Freddie Highmore
Run Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: December 17th, 2004
After one of his plays flops, J.M. Barrie meets four boys (Peter, Jack, George, and Michael) and their widowed mother (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies) in the park. During the next months, the child-like Barrie plays with the boys daily, and their imaginative games give him ideas for a play. Simultaneously, a friendship deepens between Barrie and Sylvia begins to blossom, juxtaposing the cold and distant relationship that Barrie has with his wife (Mary), with whom he spends little time with as well as the disdain views of Sylvia’s mother (Mrs. Emma du Maurier). As Sylvia’s health worsens and gossip in London’s high society grows with rumors of Barrie’s attraction to a widow and her son, Barrie ties to the boys strengthen and finds a way to take his muse childhood wonder and innocence and transform it into a play about a young boy (who doesn’t grow up) and the adventure he has in a place called Neverland.
Of course, growing up in my childhood, I loved hearing about Peter Pan and its many (and I do mean many) various iterations of the iconic story of Peter Pan, Wendy Darling, her two brothers (George and Michael Darling), their dealings with the nefarious Captain Hook, and the adventures in Neverland. However, I always wanted to know “how” J.M. Barrie created the story of Peter Pan (or rather the first iteration of the tale in his play “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Never Grew Up”. The answer came to me in 2004 with the release of Finding Neverland, a film adaptation of Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan and the life that surround that time period of his inspiration for the tale. I remember I didn’t see this movie in theaters when it initial came out, but I did buy the DVD of it a few months later (for its home release).
Directed by Marc Forster, Finding Neverland is very much so a Hollywood bio-pic drama; presenting a narrative within a feature film that well-executed and well-crafted from start to finish. Forster makes the film feel like a “labor of love”, shaping the film as a quality production in handling its characters and in the feature’s story narrative. Speaking of which, the movie’s script, which was penned by David Magee, offers up a story that feels endearing by showing the creative writing process of Barrie (drawing inspiration from real-life individuals for his new play) as well as presenting the real-world plights and triumphs he faces within his friendship with Sylvia and her sons. The big thing that the movie both Magee and Forster display is in the precarious nature of innocence of fantasy and the harshness of reality, which definitely are fundamental cornerstones in a wide variety of facets (including real life) as well as essence of Peter Pan’s story.
Yes, for tense and purposes, Finding Neverland definitely has a “tear jerker” vibe at various parts, but none of them feel mechanical or a product of “manipulation” as the moments (at least I think so) feel genuine and touching; tugging on the heartstrings with sense of humble sincerity of emotion than a “forced” one. Also, the feature’s presentation is beautifully well-made as Finding Neverland looks like a quality movie within its various technical presentation aspects (i.e. production designs, set decorations, costumes designs, cinematography, etc.). This is most apparent in some of the more “imaginative” moments where Barrie’s imagination comes alive as well as a “quick” glance at Neverland towards the film’s third act. Additionally, the film’s score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek is terrific and definitely works well with the movie…from onset to conclusion.
There is a lot to like about this movie, but there are a few bits and pieces that make Finding Neverland have a few blemishes within its cinematic undertaking. For the most part, the story is a straight forward and it is easy to follow, but there are a few pacing problems scattered throughout the feature, which do make the movie’s runtime of 106 minutes feels much longer than it’s supposed to. Additionally, the movie does come across as slightly predictable, with several major plot points / scenarios easy in the film’s narration path. Meaning….it was easy to determine what was gonna happen before it actually did happen in the movie. Of course, the journey of Finding Neverland is delightful and well-awarding, but it isn’t exactly the most original; finding the movie structure to be the standard biopic framework.
The cast of Finding Neverland was also another great positive for the film, with plenty of strong acting talents that populate the feature’s various characters. Naturally, acting as the lead character focal point of the film, is actor Johnny Depp in the role of J.M. Barrie. Coming off the massive successful role of playing Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp’s performance in Finding Neverland is great and definitely shows the actor “revival” in the cinematic spotlight and certainly displays the right amount of innocence / naivety as well as creative imagination within the character. The result is something quite pleasing to see in Depp’s performance as Barrie. Also, young actor (at the time of the film) Freddie Highmore provided a very strong (and sincere) performance in the movie as Peter Llewelyn Davies. Many of the scenes that both Highmore and Depp share together are terrific and it’s clear to see how much they too shine together in the movie. Plus, that ending scene with him and Depp on the park bench…. wow…. that some great acting on both of their parts. While Highmore went on to star in other TV / film projects (i.e. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Bates Motel, and The Good Doctor), I personally think that his best performance is of Peter in Finding Neverland.
Other acting talents, including Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, and Julie Christie, give great performances in the film and definitely strengthen the feature with their theatrical stage presence involvement in the movie. In addition, the movie does have a few other recognizable faces scattered throughout the movie (in minor character roles), so it was quite a treat to spot them in the feature. An example…. seeing actress Kelly Macdonald as Peter Pan in sequences of Barrie’s play.
To sum it up, Finding Neverland is a touching and beautiful bio-pic drama movie of how Sir J.M. Barrie found inspiration in creating the tale of Peter Pan. Its no wonder that this particular movie went on to garnish positive reviews from both critics and moviegoers alike as well as being nominated for four Academy Awards at the 77th Academy Awards (winning Best Original Score). In addition to the movie’s success and overall well-received narration, Finding Neverland was turned into a Broadway musical back in 2012. Thus, despite a few minor problems, the movie, with a great story to tell, a terrific director at the helm, and a strong cast, Finding Neverland charts a course to heartwarming and poignancy; unfolding the story behind the iconic “boy who won’t grow up” tale and the reflection duality of childhood innocence and the reality of adulthood.
Cinematic Flashback Score: 4.4 Out of 5
Fun Fact: There is no wrap-up information about the characters at the end of the film, as is quite often the case with true stories when filmed, probably because the future stories of many of the leading characters proved to be tragic ones. George Llewelyn, a soldier in World War I, died at the age of twenty-one and Michael Llewelyn drowned at the age of twenty, under mysterious circumstance, which Barrie suffered heavy bereavement over their deaths. In addition, in 1963, at the age of six-three, Peter Llewelyn threw himself under a train, while Charles Frohman was, in 1915, one of many Americans who lost their lives as a result of the sinking of the “Lusitania”.