Film Reviews


By • Nov 24th, 2004 •

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Miramax Films / A Film Colony production

…& you’ll never want to leave.

What wonder! What magic! What a movie!
With talent to spare, Johnny Depp, as Peter Pan’s creator James M. Barrie, brilliantly, ever so gently, taps into the child hidden in us all. And it’s pure enchantment.

Inspired by true events and directed with loving spirit and sensitive hand by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”), the film transports us back to Edwardian England, to trace the origin of one of literature’s most perennially endearing characters.

So prepare to be beguiled by this fanciful detour into the real world of the boy who never grew up—because, just in case you didn’t know, there actually was a Peter Pan. Barrie himself.

The year: 1903, when the prevailing dictum was “Children should be seen and not heard.” But Barrie, a true innocent, listened. He created a “Neverland” overflowing with imagination and adventure for four young fatherless boys and their widowed mother. More than that, he gave meaning and joy to their lives—and to his own.

Plot: Though a successful playwright, Barrie, a Scot, is bored to tears by stodgy London audiences and unhappy with his loveless marriage. He needs recharging. Then one afternoon, by pure serendipity, he finds it. While walking Porthos, his huge Newfoundland in Kensington Gardens, he meets the Llewelyn Davies family. (And here, think the Darling kids and Nana, their dog/housekeeper.)

They’re the family he craves; he’s the father figure they sorely miss. And over time, they bond. He becomes their surrogate parent, and close friend and emotional support to their mum Sylvia (Winslet).

To lighten their spirits and brighten their lives, he creates a fantasy world for them, with pirates, cowboys and Indians, fairies, and especially, of Peter Pan, the man-boy in search of his shadow.

Eventually, Barrie translates those tales of imagination into a hugely successful play:
Watch Captain Hook attacked by the crocodile or the Lost Boys flying
through windows. Follow the beam of light—it’s Tinkerbell soaring
across the stage.

But FINDING NEVERLAND is more than a mythical trip along the light fantastic. As Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys ultimately confront the death of a loved one, the film fills with an unsettling poignancy guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. (In other words, bring plenty of Kleenex.)

The Bad News: Not a film for the very young. Though whimsical for the most part and featuring some of the most appealing child actors since Lassie came home, this account of Peter Pan’s genesis is laden with sophisticated and often serious adult themes.

The Good News: But for anyone past the 3rd or 4th grade, this film is as good as it gets. The casting is superlative—with none better able than Depp, Cinema’s prime Master of Make-Believe, to coax and cajole audiences of all ages to “suspend disbelief” when, for example, in an authentic Scottish brogue, he asks : “Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!” His enthusiasm is contagious—I must confess I was almost prompted to do so at the screening.

The Back Story: Relationships prove complex. Winslet’s Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, recently widowed and emotionally foundering, is drawn toward Barrie’s capricious nature, but Mary (Radha Mitchell), his straight-laced wife, takes a lover when she can’t cope. Neither can Julie Christie, as Sylvia’s aristocratic mother Mrs. Emma Du Maurier (see below). Rigid and fiercely antagonistic, she resents Barrie’s intrusion into her daughter and grandchildrens’ lives, despite his major renown.

Then there’s the rich American impresario Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), a major theatrical producer of the period, who believes enough in Barrie’s vision to help him mount his unconventional play—which even after 100 years, continues to charm audiences. (Hoffman, no stranger to the fable, played Captain Hook in Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film, HOOK.)

Finally, only 6 at the time, Freddie Highmore as Peter, the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies clan, is outstanding. Expect to see more of him—he’ll play Charlie Bucket in next summer’s remake CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, teaming once again with Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka.

One caveat, though. While the film was loosely adapted from the stage play (Allan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan”) based on the author’s life, it’s no biopic. Rather, as Miramax Films boss Harvey Weinstein noted, it’s a “fictional retelling.” And in spades. Personally, I wouldn’t know where to start—there’s too much biographical distortion.

Bottom Line:
Though multi-facets of Barrie’s past have been stretched mightily, so will your sense of enjoyment. FINDING NEVERLAND is a must-see, and not to be missed.

Trivia: To set the record straight, in actuality, when Barrie met the boys, there were only three, their father was still alive, and two more were subsequently born to the family.
Mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, née Sylvia du Maurier, came from a family with impressive artistic lineage:
Her father, George du Maurier, was a renowned artist and novelist (“Trilby”). His granddaughter Daphne du Maurier, is better known to later generations as the author of such best-sellers as Rebecca (1938), Jamaica Inn (1936), Don’t Look Now (1971), My Cousin Rachel (1951), and The Birds (in a collection of short stories, 1951), all of which became successful motion pictures.

Director: Marc Forster
Writer: David Magee
Based on the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” by: Allan Knee
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Nellie Bellflower
Executive producers: Gary Binkow, Neal Israel
Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer
Production designer: Gemma Jackson
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Editor: Matt Chesse

James Barrie: Johnny Depp
Sylvia Davies: Kate Winslet
Mrs. Emma Du Maurier: Julie Christie
Mary Barrie: Radha Mitchell
Charles Frohman: Dustin Hoffman
Peter: Freddie Highmore
Jack: Joe Prospero
George: Nick Roud
Michael: Luke Spill
Peter Pan: Kelly MacDonald
Mr. Jaspers: Mackenzie Crook
Mrs. Snow: Eileen Essell
Stage manager: Paul Whitehouse
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Ian Hart

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