February 8, 2005

Paradise Found

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Rising director Marc Forster certainly knows how to change pace. Three years ago he helmed Monster’s Ball, one of the most disturbing, graphic and depressing films of our time. Now, he returns with Finding Neverland, a much lighter “story-behind-a-story” that instead of dealing with brutality to bring out its message, evokes emotion with genuine charisma. The film itself resembles the story of Peter Pan, the famous play inspired by the events of Neverland. Or is it the other way around? I’ve gone cross-eyed.

Playing Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie is Johnny Depp, one of the most versatile actors around. It’s interesting to track his recent roles: Pirate Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean to a writer in Secret Window to now a writer of pirate stories. Kate Winslet plays Sylvia, a widowed mother of four. Mr. Barrie begins spending time with this family between his engaging, childish personality and need to find heart-warming material to rise above the critical slam he’s recently received. Rounding out the cast is Sylvia’s controlling mother Emma (Julie Christie), Barrie’s distant wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), and a little bit of aged comedy from Barrie’s money-minded producer Charles (Bernie Focker… I mean Dustin Hoffman).

The story takes place in 1903 and many viewers will suffer the same two problems I did: One, what really happened? Two, how much of the actual story Peter Pan can you remember? I, for one, know no more about J.M. Barrie than that he was British and I had not seen Disney’s animated feature in quite some time. All that pops out in my mind is Hook, where again we have Dustin Hoffman. And while memory loss such as mine is becoming an overly-used plot device, films involving writers have as well. Thankfully, the actual writing of Peter Pan is a very minor detail. And through fantastic acting, art direction and, most importantly, a gracious splicing and inter-cutting of two stories, neither history nor the original story’s context is necessary to get entry into Neverland. The point of the film, instead, is imagination and the importance of having one.

Constantly switching focus and emphasis from his fun evenings with Sylvia and her four children with his failing marriage, it is easy to see that J.M. Barrie is a child at heart. He can play out a scene with a bunch of kids much easier than reconcile with his wife. Mischievously poking his head out the curtain to watch the audience’s reaction to his plays shows that, despite his status as a professional, his behavior is anything but.

While certain elements of the story are both predictable and run-of-the-mill, there is still no question that it works. Peter Pan is a story that is loved for carrying different things with each viewing throughout one’s life. This film will have the same effect as viewers can identify with a slew of different characters, all experiencing different things of equal importance.

The best scenes are those that deal with Barrie’s imagination. He gets the idea of Captain Hook watching the boys’ grandma poke them with the hook of her umbrella. Seeing all the boys jump on their beds generates an idea of flight. Anybody with a creative mind, writers especially, will find these sequences fascinating as they play simultaneously on our perception and Barrie’s. It is hard to draw the line between Barrie’s creative process and our own appreciation of the film which, for the entire team behind Neverland, means mission accomplished. No matter what your motivation is to see this film, there are many things it does right in making one feel young again.

4 Stars

Archived article by Dan Cohen
Sun Staff Writer