If every PG movie was as good as Finding Neverland, I think I’d find America’s move towards Puritanism a lot more palatable. I’ll still miss the sex and violence, but I can live in a world with amazing PG movies like this.
Johnny Depp stars as the real life author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, in Finding Neverland. Though his boy who never grows up masterpiece has been covered countless times before and in numerous formats, the story of Barrie himself has never made it to screen. Finding Neverland captures him at a brief moment in his life, in the midst of creating his greatest play, and subsequently most memorable achievement, Peter Pan. How much this story actually jives with the reality of Barrie’s history is unclear, but what’s here is moving and compelling. Whether or not it bears any similarity to the truth, it’s not a bad way to be remembered.
The film begins with the opening of Barrie’s latest play, a complete and total flop. Already a well known and accomplished playwright, the failure is a bit of a setback, but not a surprise. Barrie knew it wasn’t any good when he wrote it. Starved for inspiration, he takes his notebook and lurks in his favorite park. It’s there that he encounters the Davies children.
With no children of his own, it’s like they’ve unleashed the child inside him. Barrie immediately puts on a performance for them, in which he coaxes the kids into imagining that his pet sheep dog Porthos is actually a performing, dancing bear. Discovering that their mother is a widow, he takes it upon himself to spend time with the Davies family, not just for them, but for himself as well. His wife is scandalized and jealous. His already cold marriage beings to suffer, but Barrie, lost in a world of imagination and inspiration barely seems to notice. In what for me is one of the film’s more poignant moments, Barrie and his wife open the doors to their separate sleeping rooms. His wife’s room is cold in dark. Behind Barrie’s door… blue skies, green trees, and Neverland.
That mix of fantasy, reality, and miniscule detail is what makes Finding Neverland so unique. Director Marc Forster blends fantasy segments of imagination seamlessly into dramatic shots of real world London to make a film that is all at once serious and fantastical. It cuts right to the heart of what’s happening in Barrie’s head, gives us a window into his private world, a world opened up by the imagination and innocence of children.
The film itself may be PG and ultimately family friendly, but that doesn’t mean it has been watered down. Instead, Forster creates a deeply emotional piece of drama in which no punches are pulled. It faces up to difficult questions of divorce, damaged lives, and even tackles questions of pedophilia. Don’t worry, you won’t be required to read anything before, after, or during this movie, nor do you need to like Peter Pan. This isn’t a movie about fairy stuff, but rather what that fairy stuff meant in the real world to one incredible man. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you feeling just right. Buy it, watch it twice.
This really is one of the very best single disc releases I’ve reviewed. Instead of shipping out something bare bones in hopes of selling a two-disc, souped up edition later, Miramax has crammed as much as they possibly can onto one disc. The result is a shining example of exactly what a modern single disc release should be.
First off the little things. Pop the disc in and a screen comes up telling you to hit the “menu” button to skip past the advertisements. I’m blissfully happy with any DVD that lets me do this, but not only does Finding Neverland let you skip all the obligatory advertising, it suggests you do so beforehand. I’ve seen this before on Miramax’s releases, and they deserve credit for sticking with it in the face of forced advertising on so many other DVDs. Now the disc’s menus themselves aren’t that spectacular looking but easily functional with quick links to staples like Scene Selection. The other little thing they get right is including Finding Neverland’s original trailer, something that should be a given, but often isn’t so if you don’t mind I’ll keep harping on it till it is.
Actually, my one real complaint (and it’s a small one) is the movie’s sound quality. There’s a problem, and it’s one I seem to have on a pretty regular basis lately. The actor’s voices are much too soft in comparison to the score tracks or even the sound effects tracks. Now I don’t claim to have the world’s most kick ass surround system. It’s a cheap, surround sound system in a box from Target. If it has an EQ on it, I probably don’t even know how to work it. I use all the present sounds settings for watching movies and listening to music so my understanding of how all the sound balancing on it works ends there. But I have three movie settings on the thing, and no matter which one I set it on, the vocal tracks sound incredibly soft compared to the music tracks. This isn’t just a problem with Finding Neverland, it’s one I have consistently with almost every DVD. It’s not just on my TV, I find the same thing to be true even at friend’s houses. So, in order to hear what the heck people are saying, you’ve got to crank the volume up all the way. Of course if you crank the volume up all the way, then you’ll blow out your eardrums, or worse your speakers the next time someone working in the movie’s orchestral scoring kicks in a particularly loud trumpet. I don’t really feel comfortable deducting from this release for this problem, since it’s present with almost every disc I buy. But it’s a really irritating issue, one that only seems to be getting worse with each subsequent DVD. What good is the movie if we can’t hear what people are saying? Do I need to buy a super fancy equalizer to crank up the vocals just so I can make out what’s going on? Call me crazy, but there has to be a way to do this better.
Well, my one tiny problem turned into a massive paragraph, but everything else about this disc is totally stellar. It’s loaded out with special features, including several really insightful making of documentaries and a red carpet special from the film’s premiere. Of course, most of these aren’t as long or extensive as you might find on a big, Special Edition release, but this is just a single disc. Putting any sort of extra information on it is a nice accomplishment, and Miramax has gone out of their way to use whatever time they have left on the DVD to provide interesting info. Some of the cast interviews devolve into little more than ass kissing, but that’s generally what you get with anyone in Hollywood. Nobody dishes dirt anymore.
Also included is a commentary track with director Marc Forster, producer Richard Gladstein, and writer David Magee, a set of deleted scenes, and some pretty nice outtakes from the film. The deleted scenes come with optional commentary. Unfortunately most of the optional commentary contains things like Marc Forster saying “I don’t know why this was cut”, but he also throws in a few interesting tidbits like an admission that Johnny Depp told him he’d cut these scenes while filming them. The outtakes include some great shots of the stage version Peter Pan slamming repeatedly into a wall, and a lovely dinner table segment in which Johnny Depp employs a fart machine to get proper reactions from all the actor kids.
Were this a Special Edition, or any kind of multi-disc release, it might be considered a little thin. But for a single disc movie release, Finding Neverland really hits the mark. Even if Miramax releases a big Collector’s Edition further down the road, you won’t feel cheated if you’ve already purchased this one. It’s a great movie and a well done DVD.