- Finding Neverland (2004) movie review: Director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee’s handsome but unabashedly fact-averse drama stars a bland Johnny Depp as a Disneyesque version of Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie.
- On the plus side, this audience-pandering period drama is a great-looking production, while its trio of actresses – Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell – is uniformly excellent.
- Finding Neverland earned Jan A.P. Kaczmarek an Academy Award for Best Original Music. It received six other nominations, including Best Picture (but not Best Director), Actor (Johnny Depp), and Adapted Screenplay.
Finding Neverland movie review: Reality is an inconvenience to be swept aside in Disneyesque portrait of James M. Barrie
A Miramax/Disney release about the friendship between Peter Pan author James M. Barrie (a.k.a. J.M. Barrie) and the genteel Llewelyn Davies family, director Marc Forster’s period drama Finding Neverland, as the title implies, has absolutely nothing to do with reality – whether Barrie’s, the Llewelyn Davieses’, or anyone else’s.
And to think that back in 2001 the German-born Forster had brought a much welcome non-Hollywood touch to the independently made Monster’s Ball. Besides its daring (if way overlong) sex scenes – and despite its problematic screenplay and lead actors – that socio-psychological drama was much enhanced by the filmmaker’s minimalist approach.
That directorial touch is largely missing from Finding Neverland, which, however handsomely mounted and technically accomplished, has turned out to be little more than your usual big-studio holiday movie, one whose “magical moments” might as well have been created by a computer.
Unorthodox surrogate dad
Adapted by David Magee (making his feature debut) from Allan Knee’s 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Finding Neverland’s bowdlerized plot goes as follows:
In the aftermath of the cool reception accorded his latest play, man-child author James M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) meets four young boys whose father has recently passed away. Since Barrie often escapes into a fantasy world to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of adult life, he finds much in common with his new friends.
Less a father figure than the boys’ playmate, Barrie becomes a frequent guest at their home, now headed by the boys’ mother, the young, good-looking widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet).
All seems to be going well, except for the fact that Barrie is a married man. Feeling rejected, his wife, Mary Ansell (Radha Mitchell), starts going out on her own. Further complicating matters, Sylvia’s stern mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), doesn’t approve of the deepening friendship between her daughter and the weird playwright.
Barrie, however, must keep seeing the Llewelyn Davies family, for they have become the inspiration for his next play, Peter Pan. Moreover, the boys need some sort of “adult role model,” especially as Sylvia’s health has begun to deteriorate.
Any similarity to persons living or dead…
In all fairness, the Finding Neverland narrative does have several elements in common with reality, e.g., the characters’ names and the fact that they all speak English. The connection between the film and the facts just about ends there, as the filmmakers proceed along their never-never, audience-pandering path.
For starters, Johnny Depp – fresh off of a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for Gore Verbinski’s blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – looks as much like James M. Barrie as Kate Winslet or Radha Mitchell looks like Nosferatu’s Max Schreck – who, incidentally, would have been a far more appropriate Barrie.
It doesn’t stop there.
Depp’s Barrie is thoroughly desexualized and “normalized” so 21st-century audiences won’t even dream of questioning his intense interest in the four Llewelyn Davies boys, particularly Peter. (There were actually five Llewelyn Davies boys and Barrie’s favorite was Michael, but never mind.)
Needless to say, reality – whether about Barrie himself or his involvement with the Llewelyn Davies family – was considerably more complex (and more disturbing) than what is indicated in the Miramax/Disney production.
But it’s only a movie!
But of course, Finding Neverland is only a movie. It’s all make-believe.
Why be so picky about the facts having been so meticulously, calculatedly, brazenly distorted, whitewashed, and/or disregarded?
Well, in order to make make-believe believable, the fantasy must feel genuine. That way we can forget that we’re watching a phony retelling of real-life events and just picture the goings-on as if taking place in an alternate universe.
But while watching Finding Neverland, how can one ignore the ghostly presence, just out of camera range, of studio executives, producers, and others involved in the creation of this froth, all doing their utmost to ensure that everything would look and sound as “innocent” and “hopeful” – and box-office-friendly – as possible? Including death itself.
Wan Johnny Depp, but trio of actresses in top form
At the film’s core, Johnny Depp’s performance suffers as a result of all that careful laundering, for his James M. Barrie has as much depth as a water puddle.
A shame, as Depp can be seen at his best as another peculiarly creative real-life figure: The title character in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic/fantasy Ed Wood, about the grade-Z auteur among whose credits are Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
On the positive side, Finding Neverland does look great thanks to cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, production designer Gemma Jackson, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and other talented behind-the-scenes personnel.
But what saves this period melodrama from hell’s pit of mushiness is a trio of actresses at their best: Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, and veteran Julie Christie, all of whom bring a much needed sense of raw honesty and authenticity to the otherwise candied proceedings.
Finding Neverland (2004)
Director: Marc Forster.
Screenplay: David Magee.
From Allan Knee’s 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan.
Cast: Johnny Depp. Kate Winslet. Radha Mitchell. Julie Christie. Freddie Highmore. Dustin Hoffman. Joe Prospero. Nick Roud. Luke Spill. Ian Hart. Kelly Macdonald. Toby Jones.
“Finding Neverland Movie (2004) Review” endnotes
Julie Christie and Johnny Depp Finding Neverland movie images: Miramax | The Walt Disney Company.
“Finding Neverland Movie (2004): Colorless Depp as Disneyesque Barrie” last updated in September 2021.