To achieve the fanciful in cinema is hard. Genuine enchantment is even more difficult. So when the rare film comes along that manages to truly captivate the child within us all, it is suitably treasured. Classic Disney animation, 'The Wizard of Oz,' the original 'Miracle on 34th Street' and 'E.T.' are just a few examples. Such films are more than just blockbusters or even revered classics -- they are rites of passage, movies that every child must see and films that few of us ever forget.
Marc Forster's long-delayed 2001 semi biopic of "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie, 'Finding Neverland,' is a film that aspires to reach those rarified heights. And while it's probably fair to say it doesn't quite hit the mark, 'Finding Neverland' is still one of the few Hollywood films in recent memory that manages to come very close. It transcends the mawkish and the sentimental to achieve a genuine emotional resonance, and (despite some liberties played with the real life controversies that plagued Barrie) it's admirable as a biography of an artist as well.
The story of "Peter Pan" is of course well known by everyone, but few know much about Barrie. Though he has been posthumously dubbed the ultimate boy-man, Barrie (wonderfully underplayed by Johnny Depp) was actually a very successful adult playwright well before "Pan." When his young son tragically lost his life to illness, it resulted in a marital rift that would never be repaired, and a career slump. It would not be until his relationship with local widow Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons -- particularly Peter (Freddie Highmore) -- that the inspiration would strike for "Pan." But in real life, there was a dark side, as suspicious eyes frowned upon his close relationship with the young boys, and in the intervening decades, this has caused some to rewrite Barrie's epitaph.
This small little fact will be all but brushed aside in Forster's film. Ultimately, the director seems more concerned with Sylvia's death, with 'Finding Neverland' always threatening to break into a love story. The way Forster structures the film, it is immediately obvious that Barrie and Sylvia are meant to be together -- and in a modern society, they would be. But the manners and mores of their time would not allow divorce nor, of course, a torrid affair. Yet it is one of the great strengths of the story that it does not go down such adulterous paths -- instead, the lessons Barrie has to teach the Davies children, and Sylvia herself, are of a entirely different kind. They are human truths, not sexual. Though the implications are obvious (and just a little bit Freudian), Forster always walks the right side of the line. In short, 'Finding Neverland' is no tabloid expose.
Such creative choices some met serious criticism at the time of the film's release. But the whole Barrie-was-a-pedophile theory has never been verified to any credible extent. I, for one, welcomed Forster's strict focus on the creative fruits of Barrie's relationship with the Davies family. 'Finding Neverland' is not as much a film about the man, as it is about his work, and what inspires an artist to create. By avoiding the sensational, Forster allows the story to effectively and emotionally examine painful human truths about death.
'Finding Neverland' also succeeds because it is a very well-acted, handsomely mounted film that never fails to enthrall. Depp delivers another deeply-felt, multi-layered performance. Winslet is luminous as always, even while being relegated to a sick bed for the last half of the movie. There are also wonderful, welcome supporting turns by Dustin Hoffman and the why-doesn't-she-work-more Julie Christie. Even Highmore (as Peter) delivers the kind of natural child performance free of cloying mannerisms or screechy hysterics. Technical credits are wonderful as well, with pristine period location and costume design, and an Academy Award-winning score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Forster also delicately uses modern special effects to bring the most fanciful elements of the story to life. 'Finding Neverland' may not be a true modern classic, but I found it undeniably enchanting.
'Finding Neverland' was originally released on standard-def DVD in 2005 by Miramax, which had by then developed a reputation for producing rather lousy transfers. I remember not being very impressed with 'Finding Neverland' on DVD, and unfortunately this Blu-ray version continues the trend. I can only guess that this new 1080p/MPEG-2 encode comes from the same source, because it is still rather weak.
The source looks grainy, overfiltered and whited-out. It's not dreadful, but it's never better than middling. Colors suffer from oversaturation, while the hot contrast washes out the image, so that the transfer always looks like it is fighting itself. Fleshtones also appear a little off, veering toward the reds. Chroma noise can also be a problem -- right from the opening shot of a red curtain, the mosquitoes seem to have found a nice home here. Detail is good enough, all things considered, but the image certainly never jumps off the screen. On the bright side, shadow delineation isn't that bad, and the source itself is clean, with no dropouts or major print damage. Such minor pleasures aside, I just wasn't particularly pleased with 'Finding Neverland.'
Faring somwhat better than the video, Buena Vista offers up an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track, encoded at a strong 48kHz/24-bit/6.9mpbs. The mix here is only hampered by the film's sound design, which shows off during the fantastical sequences, but is rather bland otherwise.
Tech specs are certainly up to snuff. Dialogue is always clear and distinct, with even the thick British accents intelligible. Bass and the rest of the upper range is pleasing and spacious, but never pumped up so much as to overwhelm the intimate nature of the story. I was also quite impressed with Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's Academy Award-winning score, which is luminous, beautiful and soaring. It really fills up the soundstage at key moments, and the effect can be wonderful.
Surround use, however, is reserved. Only the fantasy moments really come alive, with playful discrete effects directed with great accuracy to specific channels. Imaging in these sequences is also near-seamless. Alas, just when things are getting immersive, the soundtrack pulls back yet. But on a purely technical level,'Finding Neverland' is perfectly lovely.
Once again with 'Finding Neverland,' Buena Vista continues their welcome trend of including all of the previously released standard-def extras on their Blu-ray releases. There is nothing new or inventive here, but given the rich history of the author behind the film's story, this package manages to rise above the blandness of its presentation.
First we have the screen-specific audio commentary with director Marc Forster, writer David Magee and producer Richard Gladstein. As is quickly evident from the start of the track, these three are a bit like kids themselves, sometimes getting a bit overly-enthusiastic and playful. Thankfully, however, they do reign it in, and end up offering a wealth of insights. The production stories are not as interesting as the background on J.M. Barrie, but happily, Forster in particular doesn't shy from talking about the controversies surrounding the author and, by association, the film itself. The director makes some interesting arguments for why he chose to tell the story as he did, which makes this an essential track.
A bit on the surfacey side, the 18-minute featurette "The Magic of 'Finding Neverland'" still transcends its promotional nature, providing a solid overview of the production, from background on Barrie to the shooting and completion. All of the cast and crew are interviewed, with Depp reserved as usual, though Kate Winslet and Dustin Hoffman are stand-outs. Worth at least one watch.
Less compelling is the 3-minute "Creating Neverland," which takes a look at the film's special effects (of which there are surprisingly many), and "On the Red Carpet," another 3 minutes of premiere footage. Both are just too short to cut very deep, and are immediately forgettable.
Wrapping things up are three Deleted Scenes. All are quite bland, so it's pretty clear why they were sniped. Forster, Magee and Gladstein again provide optional commentary. There is also a 5-minute Outtakes reel, which is actually quite amusing. It's nice to see Depp smile and laugh for once, as I usually find his off-screen demeanor rather dour. (Note that the quality of the all of the above video material is fair at best. The 4:3 full screen, 480i/MPEG-2 encode is lacking by even standard-def DVD standards.)
Alas, there is no theatrical trailer for 'Finding Neverland' included.
'Finding Neverland' is a charming, fanciful film, and its conclusion packs a surprisingly emotional wallop. It may not be a true (or particularly incisive) biography of the real J.M. Barrie, but controversies aside, it's a winning Hollywood concoction. I wish I could say the same for this Blu-ray release. The transfer is generally mediocre, and the only slightly improved audio remains inconsistent. At least the supplements are healthy. Still, a rental is probably the best 'Finding Neverland' on Blu-ray deserves.