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Finding Neverland

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 01/29/05 02:18:14

"Unimaginably unimaginative."
3 stars (Just Average)

Films about writers can be tricky. How do you get inside the head of someone who wrote fiction to determine how they came up with all their ideas? Finding Neverland tries, but it really doesnít try very hard. Instead, it produces a straightforward narrative and a film that is almost intensely average. Though its subject is a man known for a play whose magic has delighted people of all ages for decades, the film itself is rather unimaginative.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) has just seen his most recent play bomb spectacularly. With his marriage in decline and his backer (Dustin Hoffman) worried about getting back on track, he meets Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies (Kate Winslet) and begins a friendship with her and her four sons that evidently led to the creation of Peter Pan, which was a tremendous success (and without which Barrie would today be all but unknown).

The film condenses events from real life, which is only to be expected. Iíve always been inclined to cut films slack on this count Ė the movieís the thing, after all, and real life is not always as dramatically interesting or convenient. At any rate, unless the shift in reality drastically misrepresents the actual events, it rarely seems worth being that picky, and such is the case here. The fudging of reality is not Finding Neverlandís problem.

Would that it were, though, as the filmís biggest woe is much more problematic than a few altered biographical tidbits. Finding Neverland presents itself as a film about the power of imagination, explaining how Barrie could transform role-playing with a family into one of the most beloved plays of all time. While itís true that he performed that feat, the film is at a loss to actually show it. Rather than really getting inside Barrieís head, the film is more interested in just going through the narrative motions. At best, Finding Neverland offers suggestions of where certain parts of the play came from, but even those are few and far between. For all the film cares, most of the story sprang from thin air.

This would undoubtedly be more forgivable if the relationship between Barrie and the Davies family were drawn deeper, but it remains regrettably shallow. There is some sense that Barrie cares a lot about Sylvia and the boys, but most of their time is limited to playing games of one sort or another. As Sylvia begins having some medical problems, the tone gets more somber, but the emotions never really come to the surface.

Most of the film is just stuck in the mud, not really going anywhere. Itís made well enough never to be bad, but there isnít much that jumps out. Even the acting is middle of the road Ė Depp is excellent in that he makes you forget heís Johnny Depp, which is a hard thing to do, but Winsletís performance is surprisingly nondescript. Julie Christie, as Winsletís mother, cuts a mean figure and has a nice redemption scene near the end, and Dustin Hoffman gets all the good lines, but neither veteran is asked to do all that much. The various doe-eyed imps playing the Davies brood rarely sound like anything other than children reading lines.

Finding Neverland proves that Barrieís thoughts were magical, but its depiction of his life is pretty pedestrian. Play-acting alone did not make him a creative genius Ė if anything, it was the output of what was already there. If the film is anything to go by, his effect on the Davies family was much greater than the reverse. That would be okay except that the film wants things to be the opposite Ė it wants to show that Barrieís adventures with this family inspired his masterwork. It just doesnít come across that way.

The great irony behind Finding Neverland is that itís a film about a man with a seemingly unlimited imagination, and yet it has so little of its own. Thereís nothing novel, clever, or truly even all that interesting about the picture; its heart seems to be in the right place, but itís all thumbs when pressed into action. Finding Neverland isnít an unpleasant way to pass two hours, but itís a rather uninspiring one.

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