For most holiday filmgoers, there are two very good reasons to see “Finding Neverland” — Johnny Depp and Johnny Depp with a Scottish accent. But if a few audience members managed to survive the Depp frenzy which has swept the post-“Pirates” world, they’re apt to find “Neverland” a perfectly acted, sweet and innocuous little movie in its own right.
The film tells the story of author J.M. Barrie (Depp) and a widow (Kate Winslet) with her four sons who inspire Barrie’s greatest creation, “Peter Pan.” Also making an appearance are Dustin Hoffman (who appeared as Peter’s arch-nemesis Captain Hook in “Hook”) as Barrie’s producer and the beautifully-preserved Julie Christie (“Dr. Zhivago”) as Winslet’s stern mother.
All of the principal actors give wonderful performances. Winslet conveys strength and independence, mingled perfectly with vulnerability in a subdued performance. Hoffman and Christie are luminous in their small roles, and make the occasional trite or melodramatic line reverberate like Shakespeare. The true revelations of this movie, however, are the four young actors: Joe Prospero (Jack), Nick Roud (George), the adorable Luke Spill (Michael) and most of all Freddie Highmore (Peter) who gives a more authentic and captivating performance at the age of 12 than most movie stars have given in their lives.
Unfortunately, the film around them just isn’t quite as inspired or ambitious as the cast. The direction by Marc Forster is too safe and calculatedly inoffensive to be remarkable. Still, his attempts to go for the heart rather than the tear ducts are admirable, especially in a genre traditionally saturated in cheap sentimentality. Forster also has to work around the very large impediment of real life — that label “inspired by true events” comes at a significant cost to the cohesion and narrative flow of his movie.
Nonetheless, the filmmakers manage to extract from Barrie’s life a message about the place of imagination and play, which though almost undoubtedly inauthentic to the story, lends the film dramatic weight and purpose. On the lighter side, the full color palette as well as the clever touch (employed to best effect in “Shakespeare in Love”) of showing imagined day-to-day inspirations for characters and events in the play add a nice contrast to the seriousness of the story, keeping the film in a pleasant balance.
And then, of course, there’s Johnny Depp. Narratively and commercially speaking, this is unquestionably Depp’s film, and it lives or dies on the strength of his performance. It’s fitting, therefore, that like the film itself, Depp’s performance settles for better than average rather than shooting for greatness.
After spending the better part of the last decade cornering the market on unusual movies that no one saw (“The Ninth Gate,” “The Man Who Cried” etc.), Depp has tasted the sweet narcotic of Hollywood success. If “Finding Neverland” is any indicator, he’s hooked. It’s a shame because although Depp is effective at playing soft-spoken, subtle and conventional, he also happens to be amazingly dull doing so. Depp’s greatest talent is in finding the unexpected and bizarrely beautiful in his characters. This film only allows him to give the same performance a dozen other actors could have executed with comparable success.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars