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"Really, son -- do you think I'm going to have
a problem with typecasting?  I'd like to do away
with all the, 'yar, matey" stuff, but it's been
working so well for me.  But these eye patches
are doing such a number on my depth-perception!"

Finding Neverland
Review written by: Alex Sandell

In 1902 J.M. Barrie introduced the world to the most famous inner-child ever imagined, Peter Pan.  Since that time, generations of new children have discovered this mischievous boy who refused to grow up, adults have continued to emulate him (especially during "beer-for-a-buck" happy hour) and Michael Jackson went crazy, it seems, because of him.  It's fitting that Finding Neverland is based upon a play, being that -- despite the popular misconception that the story of Peter Pan that we've all grown up with was born in book form (or as a Walt Disney film) -- the full-length tale made its debut on the stage, in 1904.  Not content with merely retelling Barrie's original story, or creating a really lame semi-sequel starring Robin Williams as the creepiest Peter Pan ever; playwright Allan Knee, screenwriter David Magee and director Marc Forster have instead created the story of J.M. Barrie himself.  Sort of.

Although it claims to be based on a true story, Finding Neverland seems nearly as much a fantasy as Peter Pan, itself.  J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is taken with a widow named Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her boys, when they meet up in a park.  The boys are mourning their father's death in their own way, but Peter Davies (Freddie Highmore) is having the hardest time dealing with the loss.  He's crawled inside himself and locked up all emotion.  It takes J.M. Barrie's childlike enthusiasm and vivid imagination to wake the boy from the personality coma he's fallen into. 

The story of Peter Pan begins taking shape through the games Peter plays with Sylvia's children.  Sylvia's mother, played with wicked glee by the always compelling Julie Christie (although her character verges on being as outlandish and one-dimensional as a "bad guy" found on any given Saturday morning cartoon), doesn't approve of the quirky Barrie hanging out with her daughter and grandchildren and, in one of her more wicked moments, Barrie briefly sees her as Captain Hook. 

All this is fine and dandy, and the film is a pleasant enough diversion, if you're in the mood for a leisurely paced and oftentimes painfully boring melodramatic bit of fluff, but it glosses over the real controversies that surrounded Barrie's life; essentially becoming a live-action version of a Walt Disney cartoon.  What should have been a deep and profound look at life and death, simplifies the issues to the point where discussions of mortality are as basic as Bambi's mother getting shot in Bambi and discussions of the value of life are about as profound as the moment in The Lion King when Simba's dad appears in the stars and explains that whole "Circle of Life" thing.  

My girlfriend has done her best to get me to second-guess my opinion of the film (she loved nearly everything about it), but I can't convince myself, even after a second viewing, or be convinced by her (which probably has her wondering what she's doing dating a critic), that Finding Neverland is an engaging film.  It somehow feels flat and contrived.  In the irony to end all ironies, the film lacks in imagination and spontaneity. 

Everyone does an adequate job with their acting, but even Johnny Depp can't live up to the similar, but much more lively and compelling performance that he delivered in Benny & Joon.  The directing is sufficient, but rarely inspired (I felt the same way about Marc Forster's directing in his last overrated film, Monster's Ball).  This feels like a play shot on film.  A direct translation, rather than a sincere adaptation. 

I'm sure this made for a beautiful play.  It just doesn't make for a very good movie.  It tries its hardest to be a touching story of love and loss.  And, to be honest, at some points it does succeed in its attempts.  But for a film dealing with the creation of one of history's greatest fairytales, it is sadly lacking in truly magical moments.  Instead, we get a few obnoxious looking CG scenes (I really hated the look of the CG in this film), which are meant to represent "imagination."  I don't know about you, but I don't imagine in Computer Generated images.  If my imagination ever went digital, I think I'd kill myself.

With its CG moments of "magic" and its serious moments between the cheap theater owner, performed lifelessly by Dustin Hoffman -- who can't seem to find a mediocre story involving Peter Pan that he doesn't want to star in (he was Captain Hook in the tepid Hook) -- the father's death and the widow's illness, the movie pulls the audience in too many different directions.  Or maybe it doesn't challenge the audience enough.  It sort of takes us for granted.  "Here's a sad part ... now cry!"  "This part's whimsical ... clap your hands and smile, damn you!" 

Finding Neverland is too rooted in truth to become entirely fantastical and too timid to tell the truth.  Imagine if they made a story of the life of Michael Jackson, 100 years after his death, but didn't include his apparent addiction to plastic surgery or his odd behavior with little boys.  This is the "J.M. Barrie" story sanitized and told by Hallmark.  It's sugary sweet, soft and gentle.  A bit like a roll of toilet paper made out of cotton candy.  This definitely isn't entirely the true story of the creation of Peter Pan, but it isn't entirely fictional, either.  It isn't the real life story of J.M. Barrie as much as it is a tribute; a cinematic eulogy for a man who brought us one of our most beloved fictional characters (and drove poor M.J. friggin' nuts). 

The title itself leads to the most heartfelt moment in the film.  This poignant moment makes Finding Neverland worth watching (at a dollar theater).  This scene is magical, this scene is moving and this scene will, more likely than not, bring a tear to your eye.  It's also a message that people with any commonsense, whatsoever, need to hold onto, because, with the Bush Administration and the Republican House and Senate determined to rape the world's environment and pillage all of its natural resources, Neverland may end up being the last habitable place left for humanity.  Hopefully we can find it in time.   

Agree? Disagree? Have questions?  Comments?  Email this critic at alex@juicycerebellum.com

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COMING SOON - Reviews of Seed of Chucky, Finding Neverland, Polar Express and, just because it's been requested more than ANY other movie yet to be reviewed on this site, Hellboy (so who says I don't listen to my readers?)!

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