Movie Review

 

Finding Neverland poster

Finding Neverland

Production Company: Miramax
Director: Marc Forster
Principals: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements and brief language.

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom)—How many of us wish that, even for a little while, we could return to those innocent days of childhood? A time when the world was full of possibilities and every day was an adventure. At the turn of the last century, Scottish playwright James M. Barrie shared those same feelings, and longed for the lost magic that infused the world when he was young.

So he let his imagination soar and gave that longing a name—Peter Pan. In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp brilliantly brings Barrie to life, and takes us along to rediscover the restorative charms of childhood, in a place he called “Neverland.”

Finding Neverland image
A chance meeting with widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys at the park awakens something deep inside James Barrie (Johnny Depp). © 2004 Miramax
The film begins with the adult Barrie, already a successful playwright, but mired in career and personal doldrums. His latest play is a resounding flop, leaving his confidence severely shaken and his muse silent. But if Barrie’s “Midas’ touch” at the box office has cooled, it’s nothing compared to his chilly and listless marriage. He and his beautiful but distant wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) have reached a joyless impasse, characterized by separate bedrooms and essentially separate lives. 

As his play unceremoniously closes, he asks his producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) if he’s lost his touch. “No,” Frohman answers, “the critics have just made it all too serious. They forget that it’s called a play.” It’s a prophetic line, because Barrie’s whole life has gotten too serious, and what he needs instead is some serious play. A chance meeting with widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys at the park awakens something deep inside Barrie. Is it the inspired silliness of playing with the four boys? Is it an attraction to Sylvia? A ready-made family for the childless Barrie? Or is it an instant empathy with the middle child—sad, serious Peter—who, like Barrie himself, has not recovered from losing a father too soon.

Finding Neverland image
James Barrie develops a friendship with sad, serious Peter who, like Barrie himself, has not recovered from losing a father too soon. © 2004 Miramax
His relationship with the young family grows, and Barrie takes them emotionally and financially under his wing. And the tongues begin to wag. London’s high society begins to wonder what the well-known writer is doing flying kites and playing pirate with another woman’s sons. His wife Mary suspects infidelity, and gravitates towards another man in response. But for Barrie, it’s as if the sun has emerged from behind a cloud. His leaden seriousness has disappeared, replaced with the playful abandon of a boy. As he imagines new games and make-believe scenarios to entertain the boys, his writing also comes alive, resulting in his most lasting and magical creation, the play Peter Pan.  

Finding Neverland is an artful blend of whimsical fantasy, and the bittersweet realities of life and love. Depp, Winslet and the entire cast, particularly the young boys, are uniformly excellent and equal to the task of the emotional mood-swings of the story. The film cleverly, and even poetically, shows the real-life inspirations for Captain Hook, Nana the dog, and how boys jumping on a bed, to Barrie’s fertile imagination, could become the Lost Boys flying off to Neverland. In that scene, Sylvia commands the boys to stop jumping and get to sleep. But Barrie wistfully tells her, “Boys should never be told when to go to bed. They’ll just wake up a day older. Before you know it, they’re grown.”

He knows all too well that childhood is fleeting.

Finding Neverland image
For James Barrie, imagination was not an escape from reality, but a way to instill hope, and even create a better reality. © 2004 Miramax
Best of all, is the relationship between Barrie and the young Peter. Peter helps Barrie rediscover the “lost boy” inside of him, and Barrie helps Peter learn to trust, dream and imagine again, before he, too, is all grown up. They must all face tragedy ahead, and you, (like me), may shed a tear. But the film ends on a hopeful note. 

One of the greatest lessons of Finding Neverland is the positive power of imagination. Imagination and believing in something better—a better world or happier times—really can help us through the hard times. To Barrie, imagination was not an escape from reality, but a way to instill hope, and even create a better reality. And his Neverland, a place where no one dies and boys never grow up, is a metaphorical heaven. 

Finding Neverland is both emotionally rich and spiritually rewarding. As a small “art house” film, it could be hard to find, but I encourage you to track it down. Despite its subject matter, it’s not really a story for children, but a story about childhood. So take your inner-child along, and prepare to be enchanted!

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.



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