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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Finding Neverland
Finding Neverland
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // PG // March 22, 2005
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Scott Lecter | posted March 19, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
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P R I N T
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The Movie:
Given the chance, there are probably a lot of people that would love to stay young forever. Ever since J.M. Barrie first created the character of Peter Pan, that is precisely what people have been doing. For numerous years, they've been escaping from the rigors of adulthood and daily life, by stepping into the shoes of a boy who never grows up, on stage and on screen. One of the most cherished of all literary characters, Peter Pan reminds us all exactly what its like to live in a world of innocence and fun. He tells us to forget our worries and fly off to a place where anything is possible. Barrie's creation, however, didn't just come out of nowhere. He had some major inspiration in the form of a widow and her four adventurous boys. At least that's what Finding Neverland tells us.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Finding Neverland takes the viewer through the entire creation of "Peter Pan," from Barrie's latest failed play through the production of his most celebrated work. The film attempts to paint an intimate portrait of the artist as an innocent adult writer with the heart and soul of a child. And if not for the astonishing work of Johnny Depp, it probably would have failed miserably. Though I'm not convinced that his work in Finding Neverland is the actor's best of his career, Depp certainly does earn his Best Actor nod. He has the presence and subtlety to play Barrie as someone who looks awkward, yet totally at ease in his own skin. Barrie comes across as someone who truly loves the Davies family. He delights in the company of the children, and while the playwright's detractors see an inappropriate connection with the boys, Depp plays it so straight that you could hardly even imagine such a possibility.

Director Marc Forster chooses not to comment either way, and rightfully so, but rather opts to focus on the creation of the play itself. His inventive camera and storytelling techniques provide a gateway into the creative mind of Barrie. This is precisely where Finding Neverland flourishes. Forster intersperses scenes of live action with flights of fancy, and shows us nearly seamless leaps from Barrie in reality to Barrie in his own fantasy world. It makes not only for a visually beautiful and stunning film - the fantasy sequence alone are worth the price of admission - but it also allows the viewer to truly imagine what it must have been like for the playwright. Forster sets up these scenes (and that easy slippage into the fantastic) so well that it seems like only a mind like Barrie's could have created something like "Peter Pan." The scenes, while clearly imagined and fantastical, seem completely believable. You can't help but think that Barrie must truly have thought in the same creative way as his character in Finding Neverland.

That's not to say that Finding Neverland is a perfect film. While I agree that the film is deeply moving and powerful, I'm not so sure that it really earns that Best Picture nomination. It tells a fascinating tale of an incredibly intriguing man, but that doesn't detract from the fact that Forster makes a few mistakes. The first, being that the film is simply so melodramatic at times. Yes, it's a heart wrenching film that's purpose is to make you reach for the box of tissues, but there are times when it gets so sugary-sweet that I thought I might get a cavity. While these instances may be few and far between, they are still enough to make you wonder how closely Forster rooted his story in reality. The other misstep comes from the development of a few secondary characters. Although I do agree that Julie Christie and Radha Mitchell do some of their finest work in this film, their characters seemed one-note at times. Both characters undergo somewhat dramatic changes, near the end of the film, that come nearly out of nowhere. They are portrayed as so evil throughout most of the film - there's really not a good thing to say about either character for the first two-thirds - that their about-faces at the conclusion seem almost implausible.

Nevertheless, I'm clearly nitpicking here. Finding Neverland is a very moving story told in an inventive and very moving way by Director Marc Forster. The fantasy sequences alone are not only visually breathtaking, but also help to further development Barrie's character. They are not only the most fun and interesting part of the film, but they also play an important role in the story. And if you're looking for quality performances, Finding Neverland is absolutely full of them. There's not much more to say about Johnny Depp that hasn't already been said. He's the best actor of his generation. Hands down. But the performances, in this film, of Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, and even the four young boys who play the young Davies children, are second to none. If you're a fan of "Peter Pan" and are coming to this film as a fact-based autobiography of J.M. Barrie, you may end up being disappointed. This film is more about what inspires us and how we use that inspiration to power our creativity than it is about "the true story of J.M. Barrie." If you are, however, looking for a sweet film that will tug at your heartstrings a bit, then Finding Neverland will certainly do the trick.

The DVD

Video:
Finding Neverland is presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer that varies in quality throughout the film. When this transfer is good, it is really good, but unfortunately does not stay consistently so for the entirety of the film. Most of the time, detail is incredibly sharp, blacks are deep, flesh tones are accurate, and colors are vibrant and bright. There are times, however, when this transfer shows signs of graininess, a bit of murkiness, some slight shimmering, and even a bit of softness in places. A few instances of dirt and spots on the print show up, though they are barely negligible. Edge enhancement is also present, but not very significant, and luckily there are no signs of pixelation or other digital artifacts. The fantasy sequences are where this transfer really shines. Colors come across beautifully and shadows and lighting are expertly displayed. This transfer, nonetheless, does a rather fine job of showing off the film's beautiful cinematography. If it could only have been a bit more consistent, this transfer could have been a spectacular visual presentation.

Sound:
The audio on this disc is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 format that faces the same issue as the film's transfer. When this track is good, it is great, but it has trouble maintaining that high quality throughout the entire film. Dialogue is clear, crisp, and always discernable. Spatial separation across the front channels is excellent. And Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's Academy Award®-winning score is both incredibly enveloping and intricate. The surround channels not only help to push this score throughout the film, but also become surprisingly active during a few key scenes. The fantasy sequences, in particular, really give this track a chance to show its muscle with some very nice surround effects and even a little bit of powerful low-end. The inconsistency, however, that keeps this track from being even better comes from a fair amount of level fluctuation. The biggest discrepancy comes in the center channel as dialogue changes levels more than a few times. It never becomes such a problem that speech is inaudible, or even hard to hear, but it is certainly a noticeable difference. Just as is the case with the visuals, if not for the slight inconsistencies in this track, it could have made for an excellent audio presentation.

Extras:
While the amount of extra material packed into this disc is impressive, the actual features are not quite as enriching and insightful as I would have hoped.

The first, and best, extra feature is an audio commentary with Director Marc Forster, Producer Richard Gladstein, and Writer David Magee. The trio seems to get along swimmingly as they tell about many aspects of the production. They tell a few interesting anecdotes from shooting, explain how certain scenes were created, and of course bestow lavish praise on the talented cast. They also talk about how closely the film is based on Allan Knee's play "The Man Who Knew Peter Pan." While it would have been great to hear more about how closely the film is based on the true story of J.M. Barrie, the three participants are very chatty and charismatic, making for a very entertaining and insightful commentary.

Also included on this disc is a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette called "The Magic of Finding Neverland," which has the potential to be a great look inside the making of the film, but really comes across as more of your typical EPK fluff. There are interviews with most of the principles, clips from the film, and some behind-the-scenes shots, but mostly this is more of a promotional featurette rather than something that really adds anything to the film itself.

The next two features suffer from the same EPK-style shallowness. "Creating Neverland" is a very short look at how the fantasy sequences were created for the film. It probably has the most interesting behind-the-scenes visuals of all the extra features, but its brief runtime doesn't allow for much depth. "On the Red Carpet," however, is almost a complete waste of time. The short featurette simply shows the cast and crew arriving at the film's foreign premiere. There are a few brief interviews with some of the stars (and, for some strange reason, Hillary Clinton), but this is mostly just a chance to watch the filmmakers and actors pose for the camera.

We also have three deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Forster, Producer Richard Gladstein, and Writer David Magee) that run almost three minutes long. Though brief, these excised scenes are interesting to watch with or without Forster telling us why they didn't end up in the final version of the film.

There are also just over 5-minutes of outtakes included on this disc. Most outtakes reels end up being not all that funny or full of in-jokes, but these clips have a few truly comical moments in them. There are flubs from most of the cast, including the hilarious plan Depp and Forster conceived to lighten the mood during the tense dinner sequence. Despite its frivolity, this is one of the more enjoyable features on the disc.

Finally, we have three trailers for Dear Frankie, National Treasure, and Miramax's 25th Anniversary.

Final Thoughts:
There have been so many stage and screen versions of "Peter Pan" over the years that the character has become indelibly ingrained in our cultural milieu. We'd all love to be Peter Pan and fly off to a land where nothing matters except having fun and being young. The impression we get from Finding Neverland is that playwright J.M. Barrie lived in his own personal Neverland for much of his life, and in it he found creativity, inspiration, and companionship. These are the qualities that come across so beautifully, and powerfully, in Marc Forster's film, and they are precisely the reason it's a film worth watching more than once. With a very nice audio-visual presentation and an insightful commentary track, the only thing that keeps this disc from being highly recommended is the lack of depth in most of the extra features. The quality of the film itself, however, is reason enough for this disc to be a worthy addition to your collection.

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