Posted in First Take

[2004] Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland is about childhood.

The concept of Peter Pan is about adults longing for the return to the idea of childhood. But what defines an adult? When do you cross that line from the wonderment of seeing the world as a canvas to having that same canvas start to define you? At some point in our adult lives we’ll give into a form of this return to infancy. Some authors write for children, some playwrights design for wide eyes and those fortunate enough to have children can often live vicariously – seeing excitement on the faces who have seen things for the first time is often as exhilarating as experiencing it firsthand. Finding Neverland is about one man, Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie, struggling with and caught between a lackadaisical childhood and sanctimonious adulthood. 

Simple, poignant plotting and a seasoned cast is what helps distinguish Finding Neverland from other movies that might have tackled a similar issue. Besides a deft Depp handling the lead, Finding Neverland also stars Dustin Hoffman and Kate Winslet and a handful of precocious, young actors who help the film twinkle. These actors help bring director Mark Forster’s vision shine through what could have otherwise been a cloying and sappy story about a struggle no one cares about. Instead, framing the love and loss around the creation of Peter Pan keeps the story centered and relevant. Often as most brilliant discovery, Barrie meets Silvia Llewelyn Davies’ kids out of happenstance in a park one day. Already unhappy in his marriage and in his work, Barrie finds the right subtle spark in a quick game of “make-believe” with these children. What develops is a non-traditional relationship among the Llewelyn Davis family that turns some off, but is just enough for the story to keep focus and make a singular, emotional point.

Like childhood, much of Finding Neverland is denouement. Much of the film takes place after a very early climax – within the first half hour of the film Forster’s established the main conflict and spends the rest of the film slowly drawing our cast to a fluffy and poignant end. And in between the characters grow up – almost the exact antithesis of Peter Pan’s plot, which, as we all know is about a boy who never wants to grow up. The young actors – four boys – experience give and take, love and loss, as only and adult should and can, and so, do. Again, Forster’s trick and the reason this movie was nominated for an Oscar, is the juxtaposition of “Peter Pan” as one that can only exist on stage – that we can experience childhood again, but never without the air of a fourth wall.

In an exceptionally weak year – the weakest one of the last decade – Finding Neverland had an outside shot to take this one home for “Best Picture.” The eventual winner of 2004’s “Best Picture” award, Million Dollar Baby, in effect is a film with opposite pacing and themes; this winning picture had almost no denouement and left the reader with an extreme unease. That, in effect, is what stops it from being re-watchable, where Finding Neverland is always a nice picture to watch for some feels. Even the Oscar-worthy films with massive-twist endings, like The Usual Suspects and The Green Mile allow for re-watching from the unraveling standpoint. But Baby fits the Academy’s pastiche; it captures a zeitgeist, which, in 2004 depended upon an excited energy to save a people reeling from recent tragedy.

I would have chosen Sideways, but that’s because children shouldn’t drink wine. Paul Giamatti and I could use a little inspiration.

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