Finding Neverland is the type of fantasy film that only actually becomes such near its conclusion. Ostensibly, it’s about the writing of “Peter Pan,” although it’s more about the man and the circumstance than the play itself. His name was J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), a Scottish writer who begins the film opening to a terrible production. Scorned by critics, he needs something to inspire him, and quickly.
Writing in the park one day, he encounters a little boy hiding under his park bench. The boy claims to be imprisoned under the bench, thanks to the evil work of some king (also known as the boy’s older brother). After exchanging some words, Barrie meets the boys’ mother, a widow named Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet). Barrie then dances with his dog, and before you know it, everyone is the best of friends. Barrie is now “uncle,” he spends more time with the Davies’ family than with his own wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), and he basically manages to become a surrogate father to the boys.
Meanwhile, Barrie still has a play to write. He begins basing characters in the play on the boys’ lives, uses their circumstances to fuel his creative drive, but never really makes a move on their mother, even though he clearly loves her. Oh, and he also spends a lot of time playing with her kids, acting out various scenes like pretending they’re on a pirate ship or living in the Wild West.
It’s actually kind of creepy in the way that he befriends these children. This is mentioned in the film, although quickly dismissed. The film doesn’t want to come out and say that Barrie might have had a hidden motive for getting so close with these children, although it was suspected in real life. The film is innocent, though, and portrays its lead character as an innocent as well. There are no dark, hidden thoughts to this man; he just wants to be a good man and improve these kids’ lives.
The only real fantasy comes from when the play is actually finally put into production, as well as a few fanciful digressions when characters are imagining things. For example, when dreaming up Captain Hook, Barrie at one point sees Sylvia’s mother, Emma (Julie Christie), with a hook on her hand. Other times, we’ll flip back and forth from fantasy to reality when the characters are imagining that they are on the high seas or in other locations in their heads.
The plot isn’t really interesting. I just described most of it for you, and it doesn’t get much more entertaining than what I described. Most of the time, we just spend a lot of time watching Barrie and the boys getting up to any number of shenanigans. But the film spends so long not really doing anything that it’s hard to not feel bored while watching it. It’s so repetitive and doesn’t go anywhere that I didn’t have a lot of fun. Progression is important, but Finding Neverland doesn’t have a lot of that.
It’s true, though, that we get a lot of time with the characters. For a character study, that’s important, but if they’re not doing anything while we’re learning about them, it’s difficult to enjoy the time spent with them. We could sit Depp down in front of a camera and have him go on about his character’s life story for a few hours. That would let us learn about him, but it wouldn’t be very enjoyable. Add in a few annoying kids, and you can understand what we’re dealing with in regards to Finding Neverland.
Once the plot gets going — and by this I mean there are about thirty minutes left and I was already half asleep — the film is quite enjoyable. The magic returns, so to speak, and I started having a very good time. Things picked up when a possible tragedy occurs, and I actually had to appreciate the film for not ending on a perfectly happy note. It doesn’t exactly follow the real life story, but considering the fantasy elements that are already in play, I don’t think there’s a problem with the story being switched around a bit.
The ending is bittersweet, and is actually quite emotional. I did end up caring about the two adult characters, at least, even if they rarely do something worth mentioning. I guess when you spend enough time with someone, you’ll care about them regardless of whether or not they’re particularly interesting. When you have such gentle souls like the people in this film, you don’t want to see harm come to them. “Peter Pan” was about a boy who never grew up, but it was Barrie who never really wanted to.
Both of the leads are quite good in this film, although it’s Depp who truly shines. Depp has such a great range in the characters that he can play, but this is probably his least threatening role to date. Winslet is good, although relegated to more of a background role than you’d think. It’s the kids who end up being the most memorable characters, although not because they were good. Each one of them is so annoying, and I wanted much less of them.
Finding Neverland isn’t worth your time because it takes way too long to actually get going. If only 30 minutes of its 100 minute running time is entertaining, you can’t say that it’s a good film. Yes, the final half hour is good, and yes, the ending is quite emotionally charged, but I was bored for the majority of the time the film was playing. Bored, or annoyed at the children, as they’re all insufferable. The main cast is good, but this isn’t a film that’s terribly enjoyable.