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J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is one of the most beloved works in children's literature. Originally written as a play for London's West End, the work was so well received that Barrie adapted it into a book, adding a coda. There have been several tellings of the story for the stage and screen, most famously Disney's 1953 animated version. Director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee decided to take a different tact. Instead of making yet another version of the immortal story, they decided to tell the tale of how author Barrie created this wonderful work.
Based on the play by Allan Knee, Finding Neverland documents the extraordinary circumstances that led to J.M. Barrie's (Johnny Depp) composition of Peter Pan. The story revolves around Barrie's tumultuous summer with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), a high-society widower, and her four boys (including Freddie Highmore, who also worked with Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Barrie builds an unbreakable bond with Davies and her boys, much to the chagrin of his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) and Davies' mother (Julie Christie). The events of the summer give Barrie the inspiration he needs to write Pan, and the film cuts between Barrie spending time with the Davies' and his play being put on for the first time.
Finding Neverland was nominated for an Oscar for best picture in 2005, and its many heart wrenching scenes may make some feel the need to label it sentimental. The truth is, the film deals with simple sentiments: right and wrong, love and care, devotion and an unwillingness to grow old. For all its flair and spectacle, the film is not complex at its core. Marc Forster did an excellent job at juggling the various aspects of the tale, from Barrie's wild imagination to his love for the children and his disintegrating relationship with his wife.
Johnny Depp is often praised as the best actor of his generation, and it's hard to tackle the subject of his performance without falling back to the old cliche. But the fact is, it's true! He plays Barrie with verve and spirit, being both a loving father figure and a great storyteller. Kate Winslet is far more put upon as the ailing Davies, but she handles her role with grace. Radha Mitchell and Julie Davies have the hardest parts; both nominally villain figures, they show that deep down no one is fully bad or good.
The real revelation of the film is Freddie Highmore. I normally cannot stand child actors, but Highmore is easily one of the best I've ever seen. He goes through such an incredible emotional arc in this film, that I'm positive most adult actors couldn't have pulled it off. Dustin Hoffman also makes an appearance as the owner of the theater where Barrie stages his plays.
As I mention Dustin Hoffman, I feel compelled to point oout some odd coincidences in this film. Discounting Highmore and Depp working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (as the film came out a year later), Hoffman played Captain Hook in Steven Spielberg's unfairly derided Hook. There are scenes where Depp plays a pirate that are by necessity comparable to Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as wearing a hat that looks like it came straight out of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. He also plays an indian at one point, hearkening to his role in Dead Man. And Kate Winslet starred in Heavenly Creatures, a film about two girls with overactive imaginations. Now, I know these are not intentional, nor are they significant, but they certainly are fun to catch.
And while Finding Neverland is sad, I think fun is the most important sentiment that shines through. J.M. Barrie loved to have fun and to laugh, and with Peter Pan he gave that gift to millions of children around the world. With Finding Neverland, Marc Forster, Johnny Depp, and Kate Winslet gave that feeling to millions of moviegoers around the world.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Buena Vista Home Video presents Finding Neverland in a 1080p 2.35:1 MPEG-2 encoded transfer. While there have been plenty of awful MPEG-2 transfers, this is unequivocally not one of them. The movie looks wonderful. The lush landscapes of Barrie's imagination are vividly brought to life, with bursting color and fantastic detail. The portions of the film that take place in reality (with the exception of the gorgeous Kensington Gardens), are more subdued to better contrast with the fantastic worlds Barrie creates throughout. These scenes have a noticeable layer of fine film grain, but not a single compression artifact or snafu can be found. I love it.
Mirroring the graphical style, Finding Neverland is rather muted in most reality scenes, but pick up greatly in the fantasies. So while it's nice that BVHE offers an uncompressed PCM track, it only gets used a portion of the time. When it does pick up, it sounds very good, but that's not too often. Also included is a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
For such a lovely movie, the supplements on the disc are, on the whole, disappointing.
By far the best extra would be the feature commentary by Director Marc Forster, Screenwriter David McGee, and Producer Richard Gladstein. The three chat easily and often, generally limiting their comments to the filming of the movie. They are quick to point out many of the small touches Depp added (such as the cane with the mirror on it and the fishing pole dog ball thrower), and are also quick to lavish praise on their actors, who justifiably deserve it. All in all, very worth listening to.
Next comes the Movie Showcase, the only Blu-ray exclusive, which is a smattering of scenes that show off HD especially well. These are essentially bookmarks, as they take you directly to scenes in the movie.
The Magic of Finding Neverland is a fifteen minute featurette that spends more time showing clips from other movies starring Depp and Winslet than actually discussing the movie. Total fluff piece.
Creating Neverland is a woefully short and incomplete look at the special effects.
Deleted Scenes With Optional Audio Commentary: Several short and useless scenes with quick comments.
Outtakes: Like most outtake collections, the shots shown here are mostly of actors flubbing lines and laughing. There is one gem amongst them, however, an alternate take of the dinner scene at Barrie's where Forster had placed a fart machine under Julie Davis' chair. Priceless.
On The Red Carpet: Comments from various cast and crew members at the assorted movie premieres. Bizarrely, this also has Hillary Clinton.
All of the extras from the DVD release have been ported over, and sadly none of them are in HD.
Finding Neverland is a touching film about the creation of one of literature's masterworks. Superb performances by Depp, Winslet, and Freddie Highmore are the standouts here, along with some excellent picture quality. Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.