“Finding Neverland”

Johnny Depp soars high as "Peter Pan" playwright J.M. Barrie, but this movie doesn't ever quite take off.

Topics: Johnny Depp, Movies,

"Finding Neverland"

Because no one knows where genius, or even just plain old inspiration, comes from, it’s a favorite game of writers, filmmakers and playwrights to try to guess. In “Finding Neverland,” director Marc Forster — working from a script by David McGee, adapted from a play by Allan Knee — attempts to trace, in a manner more suggestive than factual, the roots of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” From what thin air did Barrie, who’d already written a number of successful plays, pull his ideas? And how does an ordinary mortal take a menacing pirate with a hook for a hand, a crocodile with a ticking tummy, and a flying boy who refuses to grow up and make any sense of it at all?

No one has the answers to those questions, and the director and writers of “Finding Neverland” don’t pretend to, even though the picture is, as we’re tepidly alerted at the beginning, “based on true events.” What Forster is interested in here is less a biopic than a mapped lunar landscape of one writer’s imagination. Forster has some good ideas here: A few of the fantasy sequences in “Finding Neverland” are lovely, and he stages a few brief scenes from “Peter Pan” in a way that gives us a sense of the impact the play must have had on straitlaced, bejeweled Edwardian audiences. But if “Finding Neverland” shows a bit more grace and surefootedness than Forster’s last picture, “Monster’s Ball,” it just doesn’t have the buoyancy, or the resonance, that this kind of semifactual flight of fancy needs.

It does, however, have Johnny Depp, as James Matthew Barrie. The movie opens in London in 1903, just as Barrie is coming off a less-than-successful play. His producer (played with amusingly distracted efficiency by Dustin Hoffman) isn’t particularly troubled by the play’s failure, but he is, of course, hoping the next one will be a hit. The problem is that Barrie doesn’t yet have an idea for the next one. It’s also clear that he and his coolly beautiful wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), have a relationship that’s affectionately businesslike and not much more.



One day while Barrie is having his outing in the park — he goes there with his bear of a dog, Porthos, and spends the morning jotting down ideas for his plays while taking in, perhaps a bit wistfully, the life of the world around him — he meets a family of four boys, ranging in age from about 5 to 12, and their widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet). He and Porthos entertain the boys with an impromptu circus show (it really amounts to little more than Porthos’ ability to prop himself on his hind legs for a few minutes, but Barrie sets off the routine with a heck of a windup, which makes all the difference). And aside from the fact that Barrie is taken with their mother (she is, after all, the lustrous, wholly alive Kate Winslet — how could he resist her?), he enjoys the children so much that he arranges to meet them again the next day.

Before long, he’s having tea at their modest house, tranforming their defiantly English garden into fantastical imaginary wonderlands — a sun-parched wild, wild West, for example, where cowboys and Indians lurk. The children take to him almost immediately, except for Peter (Freddie Highmore), a sensitive kid who has been hit harder by his father’s death than his brothers have. Peter is at first wary of the new family friend, but before long, he’s won over by Barrie’s offhanded charm, sensible reassurances, and, most of all, his insistence that the imagination is the most powerful tool any of us has got.

And so before long, Barrie has the idea for his next play, “Peter Pan,” which was inspired by his new friends but also grew out of his desire to amuse and entertain them. Forster writes that out in letters much larger than necessary, intercutting theatrical fantasy scenes (Barrie, the boys and their mother dressed as pirates and shipmates on a ship rolling on a sea of wooden waves that looks like part of an elaborate stage set) with reality (the five, in less elaborate costumes and without stage makeup, scampering around the grounds of Barrie’s country home). Forster pulls off one starkly beautiful effect: As the Barries open the doors to their separate bedrooms after a passively bitter argument, Mary steps into darkness, while beyond James’ door we see a forest of sunlit greenery. It’s a wonderful stroke of shorthand that underscores the differences in the way these characters see the world.

Mostly, though, the fantasy sequences only distract from the impact of the “real-life” ones. Forster doesn’t know how to make his story flow — the picture moves from scene to scene with an almost painfully mechanical precision. But “Finding Neverland” often feels like a better movie than it is, simply because there’s always Depp to watch. The point of casting him, obviously, is that he’s the perfect embodiment of a boyish man who steadfastly remains young at heart.

But Depp is too subtle an actor to play that boy-man in the most obvious ways. What’s moving about him is the way he shows how hanging onto the most precious parts of childhood also means opening yourself wide to the uncertainty and suffering of being young. We all know people who are considered “young at heart” because they put on rubber clown noses at Halloween or squirt people with water guns at family picnics. Depp’s Barrie is the exact opposite of that. His delight in make-believe isn’t an escape from the melancholia of childhood: He sees the delight and the sadness as necessary sides of the same coin. (That also helps explain why “Peter Pan” is such an unsettling, eerie work — a dream version of the wonders of childhood as told by someone who hasn’t shaken the spell of its dark weirdness.)

Depp is particularly wonderful with the child actors here. Barrie accords the boys the respect that would be due such miniature Edwardian adults, but he’s also keyed in to their troubles and fears — Depp knows how to convey that without talking down either to his fellow actors or to us. And the role makes perfect use of his charm and beauty.

In that early scene in the park, he gets Porthos, a grand, furry fellow, to dance with him not by barking a command but looking into his eyes and pleading, “Dance with me!” Paw to shoulder, the man and his dog perform their clumsily poetic two-step. Forster films it badly (and cuts away to one of those persistent fantasy sequences), but we see enough of it to get the idea. We know we’re watching one of the most innately graceful actors — spiritually and physically — of his generation, a performer whose commitment to a role always extends to drawing out the best in the actors around him. Even when they’re dogs.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>