Finding Neverland is the kind of uplifting, harmlessly affecting movie that inevitably wins fans wherever it goes — when it showed up at the Telluride Film Festival on the second day, there apparently wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I had already seen it, so I can’t vouch for its festival reception, but I can assure you of this: at the screening I attended, which featured a Q & A session with director Marc Forster, people raised their hands to pronounce that the film was “a gift to mankind” and other absurd hyperbole. All the ingredients are in place: it’s a True Story, Johnny Depp is involved, Kate Winslet spends most of her screen time dying, cute kids run amok, Peter Pan is performed on stage. This is a winner.
The fact is (and yes, it’s bloody well a fact) that this is a standard, solid biopic (or a variation thereon) — impeccably acted and dramatically potent, sure, but also very eager to manufacture a villain and too insistent on literalizing the figurative. Shame that a movie purporting to be about, at least in part, the power of imagination, leaves so little to it.
But before we can get into the ways in which Finding Neverland fails to do J.M. Barrie justice, there’s the small matter of Johnny Depp to dispense with. In the days of Willy Wonka and Captain Jack Sparrow, playing Barrie must be a fairly tame proposition for the actor, but he can do quiet humility every bit as well as manic chaos. His Barrie talks as if he’s always apologizing for something, as if he’s surprised that he is being spoken to, with each line ending on a downbeat; the way to describe it is charming awkwardness. Even when he’s being assertive, railing out against London’s vicious gossipmongers, he seems to be retreating into himself, like he’d rather not bother with the world at all.
Maybe that’s why he liked kids so much — they’re spending some time in their own world before joining ours. “All children grow up except one” is the famous line from Peter Pan; one of Barrie’s big moments here is proclaiming that “young boys should never be sent to bed. They always wake up a day older.” Nowadays, if a grown man spends a considerable amount of time with young children not his offspring, eyebrows shoot up as if springloaded; apparently, the situation in 1903 England wasn’t much different.
Barrie is harmless, of course — he knows it, we know it, the Llewelyn Davies family knows it; hell, even his relationship with Sylvia (Kate Winslet), the beautiful grown woman, is platonic until the very end. That’s the irony of it, I guess — Barrie let his relationship with his estranged wife (Radha Mitchell) go down the tubes and didn’t even get any action. He does, however, establish a truly special connection with little Peter Llewelyn Davies (Freddie Highmore), trying to nurture his talent for writing and helping him cope with the painful process of growing up. This is undeniably moving, even if Forster does resort to chintzy, obvious maneuvers such as juxtaposing Barrie’s hands scribbling in his notebook in the foreground with Peter pensively walking toward the camera in the background.
One person emphatically not moved by this is Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), Sylvia’s stern mother, who finds Barrie’s relationship with her family improper, inappropriate, unproductive, and other such disagreeable terms. The film is so desperate for conflict that it allots Mrs. du Maurier a disproportionate amount of screentime, fashions the venerable Mrs. Christie into a regular harridan, and manufactures a villain out of thin air. The inevitable confrontations that ensue are by far the least interesting parts of Finding Neverland, which otherwise does a great job of avoiding nonsense cliches.
I was annoyed by the ending, too, which earns its sentimentality but not its indulgence: hey, if Never Never Land is all about imagination, is it really necessary for us to see it? It seemed to work wonders on the audience, though, so what do I know; Finding Neverland is a fine, pleasant film that’s intent on making grown men cry. At any cost.