November 19, 2004

Finding Neverland

Directed by Marc Forster Starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Just as Shakespeare in Love drew its inspiration from Romeo and Juliet and Topsy-Turvy derived its from The Mikado, Finding Neverland tries to imagine the creative process that sparked Peter Pan. Misleadingly touted as "inspired by true events," this gimmicky adaptation of Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan itself resembles a fantasy. Unfortunately, this awfully big adventure is just plain awful.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriended the Llewelyn Davies family and later became guardian of its five boys, who reputedly inspired him to write Peter Pan. Similar to travesties committed in Shakespeare in Love and Stage Beauty, screenwriter David Magee's revisionist tendencies here push beyond responsible artistic license. He has invented tragedies such as death and illness to contrive drama, and omitted the youngest Llewelyn Davies son for no apparent purpose. Instead of celebrating imagination, the film ends up promoting denial and escapism as sensible coping strategies.

When illustrating how routine dress-up playdates with the Llewelyn Davies kids help flip on Barrie's creative light switch, Neverland relies on superficial visual cues rather than substantive thematic references to establish parallels between the events and specific Peter Pan scenes. Barrie's unorthodox fixation on the boys is also unexplained. The film merely makes clear that he does not have any romantic designs on their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet) despite his failing marriage, nor is he a pedophile because "How can anyone think of such evil?" Without a much-needed analysis of Barrie's psyche and motives, it's impossible for viewers to identify with this eccentric who appears to have as much of a grasp of reality as Michael Jackson.

Inventive directors like Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Peter Jackson might still pull this off, but here we unfortunately have the unremarkable Marc Forster of Monster's Ball. For a film filled with elaborate fantasy sequences, Neverland is surprisingly devoid of fairy-dust magic. Its decidedly theatrical (i.e. fake) special effects do little to make believe, immediately bringing to mind Roberto Benigni's abysmal Pinocchio. The film's torpid climactic opening night also flops badly compared to its mesmerizing counterpart in Being Julia.

Depp and Freddie Highmore (as Peter Llewelyn Davies) manage to fashion a poignant final scene, but it's far too little and too late. Without any ingenuity or dramatic crescendo to engage viewers' interests, this seemingly family-friendly drama ends up setting off anxious antics among children and testing the patience of their adult companions.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.