Johnny Depp cleans up nicely when he wants to. Sometimes you get the feeling that the scruffy beard, mascara, and frilly shirts he sported in Pirates of the Caribbean aren't far off from his daily real-life appearance, while the clean-shaven, suit-and-tie look is what he considers a ridiculous costume. There's no denying that Depp is a talented actor, but he's also something of an eccentric kook. Given his penchant for playing oddball characters in offbeat movies, it's almost a surprise to find him in a stuffy Merchant Ivory-wannabe period drama like Finding Neverland, and even more surprising just how bland and formulaic the whole thing is.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, arguably only two of them deserved (the art direction and costumes are indeed quite nice), the film tells the supposedly true story of Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie's scandalous relationship with a sickly widow and her four exceedingly precocious sons. As written in the source play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, Depp plays Barrie as a dreamy man-child trapped in a suffocating marriage to a woman who just doesn't understand his sensitive soul. One day while sitting at his favorite park bench, he meets the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), and though she seems a pleasant sort of lady Barrie is more captivated by her gaggle of children. Soon he finds himself spending every afternoon playing Cowboys & Indians, or Dastardly Pirates, or often a combination of the two, with the boys to the great amusement of at least three of them. The youngest boy, Peter, acts the most troubled and grown-up of all, and worse seems to have little imagination or sense of fun, much to the consternation of free-spirit J.M.
Naturally, Barrie's wife doesn't take well to the idea of her husband spending all of his free time with another woman and her family, and even the Davies boys' overbearing grandmother (Julie Christie) doesn't care much for him. High society looks on the whole affair as juicy gossip, but Barrie can't be troubled by appearances or the state of his marriage. He grows to see the boys as his own family and cares deeply for them, and finds in them the inspiration for what will be his greatest and most enduring play.
Finding Neverland is a by-the-numbers costume drama that occasionally rises to life during its elaborate fantasy sequences. It must have been these trips to Barrie's vivid imagination that attracted Depp to the project, but there are not nearly enough of them to keep the film aloft. The story goes through the motions of setting up its big tragedy, weepy climax, and redemptive victory for our hero exactly as we expect them to. The romance with Mrs. Davies is underplayed to such an extent that you actually have to be told after-the-fact that it happened at all, and the movie completely brushes aside those real rumors of the time that Barrie's interest in the young boys was less than wholesome. Neither of those was the type of movie that director Marc Forster wanted to make. His only interest was in telling the feel-good story of a man who finds inspiration in the goodness and innocence of children. While that's perfectly nice, it makes for less than compelling drama, at least to this jaded critic.
Perhaps I'm just not the intended audience for this type of material. The film played extremely well to family audiences looking for inspirational and safe movie-going fare, made a healthy profit, and was nominated for a bunch of major awards. My wife liked it quite a bit more than I did and I found her sniffling and holding back tears at the end. Personally, I can think of several movies in the genre that achieve the same goal without being quite so trite and cloying (Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis, comes to mind). Whatever the case, Finding Neverland is far from a bad film, just an overrated one that could have been more interesting if its makers had been a little more ambitious.
The HD DVD:
In the U.S., Finding Neverland is distributed by Buena Vista, a studio currently only supporting the rival Blu-ray format. As such, the movie is unlikely to appear on HD DVD in this country anytime soon.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The color transfer is adequate in some respects and flawed in others. Overall, the picture has a slightly soft and dull appearance. Black levels and colors appear a bit too light. The deep red curtains and carpeting of the theater, for example, seem a little faded, and the Neverland fantasy sequences don't quite pop off the screen as vividly as you'd expect. The problem isn't terrible, but just doesn't live up to the movie's potential. On the other hand, although the image seems soft, it nonetheless has excellent fine detail in objects such as the fabric weave of clothing and is clearly a true High Definition source that easily outperforms the resolution of any DVD.
All of the initial HD DVD releases from Japan have been encoded with AVC compression, whereas American releases have used Microsoft's VC-1 codec. Most reports about the quality of the Japanese discs have been underwhelming, and there has been speculation about whether AVC is inherently inferior to VC-1. I can't speak to that with technical certainty, but I didn't notice anything that looked blatantly like a digital compression artifact. The movie's photography is sometimes grainy, but that grain is generally well rendered and doesn't look like video noise. The problems I did have with the disc seemed to be all with the color transfer and are likely unrelated to the compression format.
The Finding Neverland HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The audio quality isn't much more impressive than the picture. Volume is set very low by default and will require substantial amplification. That's not a big problem in itself, but unfortunately even so the dialogue track is set too low in the mix. If you boost the volume to hear the dialogue, the music will blare deafeningly. The film has a quite restrained sound design that's primarily dialogue-driven, but music does swell up uncomfortably during the weepier moments. Aggressive surround activity is reserved almost exclusively for the fantasy sequences. Other than this one issue, audio fidelity is on the whole pretty good, but the track will leave you riding the volume constantly to compensate for the dialogue.
Subs & Dubs:
This HD DVD was intended for the Japanese market. The disc menus are mostly in Japanese text and will be difficult for a non-Japanese speaker to navigate. Since the disc automatically defaults to displaying Japanese subtitles, the way to disable this is to go to the Setup menu (third option on the main page), then go to the Languages submenu (left-hand option), and finally choose the bottom selection in the right-hand column.
There seem to be two separate sets of Japanese subtitles available. Perhaps one is for the movie and another for the commentary?
All of the supplements from the Region 1 DVD appear to have carried over, plus some exclusives from the Japanese DVD. All of the video features default to displaying optional Japanese subtitles that can be turned off if you play around with the remote control.