Imagination, like money, is something not all of us have much of; but if you are lucky enough to come by a good amount, your life can be the richer for it. It also happens to be the thing that turns my five-minute showers into half-an-hour marathons of staring blankly at a yellow bath tile, enslaved and lost in thought. This magic/curse duality similarly bedevils famed "Peter Pan" author and playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) and forms the central conflict in Marc Forster's (Monster's Ball) Finding Neverland.
Coming off a terrible flop, Barrie is inspired (the magic) by a relationship he develops with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow, and her brood of four young boys; eventually basing his classic fairy-tale on the imaginative adventures they all share. Unfortunately for Barrie (the resulting curse) spending his time with a whole other family causes further strain on his already rocky marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell); resistance and skepticism from Sylvia's mother, Emma (Julie Christie) and general upper-crust whisperings of impropriety and inappropriate behavior.
For Shakespeare in Love fans, this sub-genre of the fictionalization of the etymology behind a real-life beloved work might feel a bit familiar. Both the protagonists in these films sacrifice much and experience great personal pain in order to achieve great artistic gain. Both films use well-worn plot lines of forbidden relationships; family disapproval and societal pressure as the basis for our heroes’ sacrifices. But while Shakespeare’s take feels new, fresh and lively, Neverland’s adult-themes feel much safer, predictable and sometimes problematic. In early one scene, from nowhere, Sylvia starts to cough uncontrollably. Possible Terminal Illness alert! In another, far greater example, the Barries’ past strained marriage isn’t mentioned until two-thirds of the way through the movie when they talk about it with each other; it never being hinted at, visually or otherwise, previously. The closest evidence occurs in a scene where the two families meet over dinner and Mary comes across as a wicked social climber. But her character is so underdeveloped that it never truly sticks or fits in well. In fact, I ended up empathizing with Mary for the loneliness that J.M.’s dalliances-for-inspiration cause her; something I’m not sure that the filmmakers were going for. Ultimately, it weakens Barrie’s overall motivation to leave her behind. Perhaps the film’s greatest crime, however, is it’s under-utilization of two members of the cinema’s acting royalty pantheon, Christie and Dustin Hoffman (who plays Berrie’s producer). Neither has that scene that can transcend a supporting role from background noise.
On the flip side, I qualified “adult-themes” earlier because it is the kids-play that shines in Neverland. The Fellini-esque fantasy-scenes are excellent and on par with the Fellini-esque fantasy scenes in Big Fish. You would truly have to be devoid of heart or emotion to not be touched by the scene where Berrie asks the young Peter if he could use his name for the new play he inspired him to write; or the sequence where the four boys and Sylvia, bed-ridden with sickness, are treated to a personal performance of the play in their home. All of the scenes Depp shares with the kids are the closest the film comes to the magical inspiration I had hoped for from its entirety. While I will admit to some emotional welling as the credits rolled, is was the kind of sadness that I would have felt had someone relayed similar events to me in a conversation at a bar, not through any achievement of the film itself.
There is an excellent and just final irony to Neverland: Towards the end of the film Barrie laments that kids these days grow up too fast and stop using their imaginations. Frankly, I am tired of seeing this analogy to modern kids made throughout the pop-culture lexicon. Perhaps if the filmmakers, and others like them, had taken some of their own medicine and applied it to create a truly inspiring film, there would be no need to convey that in the first place. After all, imagination is hard enough to come by.