Marc Forster, 2004, UK, 106 mins
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie
The title is a good barometer for the weather of this film. It is not enough for a film on which a large amount of money has been spent to show Neverland or mention it; it must be found.
The creator of Neverland is the creator of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie (Depp). His patron Mr. Frohman (Hoffman) is exasperated, as patrons in films often are, at the fortune Mr. Barrie has lost with his failure of a play, the opening night of which neatly forms the opening of the film.
Barrie's patron would therefore rather like Barrie to write another play, immediately, that would be a success. Given the iconic status of Peter Pan and the length of this film, I feel I am not giving away too much in saying that Mr. Frohman gets his success at the opening night of Peter Pan, helped along by Barrie's sprinkling of orphans in the audience.
Neverland is the magical world of Barrie and becomes the world of Peter Pan. His wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) does not get taken there and so leaves in a (fond) huff. However, Mrs. Llewellyn Davies (Winslet) and her children Jack (Joe Prospero), George (Nick Roud), Peter (Freddie Highmore) and Michael (Luke Spill) do. Barrie urges them to reach it by the power of their imaginations. One of the unexplored questions of the film is: whose imagination? Barrie's or the children's? Whether Barrie plagiarised their inventiveness must be a question for films deeper than this, however, as Depp's Barrie is forever sitting on benches and chairs letting his imagination, previously mired in failing plays and now so quickly released, to roam. Despite being shown Neverland several times, in pleasant fantasy sequences that are blissfully CGI-free and nicely stagy, we are thwarted in our quest for it.
Despite Barrie's urgings to use our imaginations, this film doesn't give us the chance to. The acting, often fine as it is, cannot overcome the predictable curves of the story. Julie Christie is excellently evil as the forbidding grandmother, but has to be seen to have a heart after all; Hoffman is enjoyable as the indulgent patron; the children are all good in that register of preternaturally adult cuteness which Hollywood likes, Freddie Highmore being particularly sweet. Radha Mitchell does her best with seeming unreasonable before revealing that Barrie has never let her in to his Neverland; Winslet is as engaging to watch as ever, almost managing the smoothing over of the rough edges of her character's Platonic intimacy with Barrie which the script demands.
Miramax's idea of complex humanity is for each character to have qualifications. Sadly the film is rich enough to raise expectations beyond such a level, though not strong enough to satisfy them: when Mrs. Davies starts coughing, one knows her remaining minutes on screen to be numbered; lines such as "How are you"/"I'm alright. How are you?" and "'Kay" don't conjure up London in 1903; when the Davies children play in the rigging it must end in a fall; when Peter Pan is first performed, with the orphans (and they would be orphans of course) for the audience arriving just in time, it is a great success.
Director Marc Forster has done a straightforward job with the hampered script of David Magee, from Allan Knee's book. Roberto Schaefer's cinematography has a slightly dual personality whereby it spends most of the film showing you nicely-framed midshots before careening around in the odd fit of excitement. Gemma Jackson 's production design is the most exciting technical aspect: it is unobtrusive and yet with just the right touch of the fantastical to it. The key to the film being as watchable and likeable as in parts is Depp's charm and power. As with other films, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Pirates of the Caribbean, he pulls the film along, even helping us get over his attempt at a Scottish accent. His charisma suits the film: protecting us from the weaker parts of the script, but also from the fuller empathy we might have felt for a better-written part.