Early in Finding Neverland, failing playwright James Barrie (Johnny Depp) is comforted by his patron, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman). "They changed it," Frohman says, attempting to cheer Barrie up after his latest play has flopped due to lackluster critical reception. "The critics. They made it important."
Frohman's right. The work of Barrie--who would go on to write Peter Pan and make pixie dust and Tinkerbell real in the imaginations of both kids and adults--works first as fantasy, and only as a distant second in terms of meaningful subtext. Any critic who would take the converse to be true would be doing Barrie's work a disservice.
But it works both ways--anyone aiming to tell a Barrie-esque story based loosely on his life would be doing it a disservice to make it more important than it really was. Finding Neverland sometimes feels so distinctly unlike Barrie's darkly whimsical work that it's impossible not to infer that its makers meant to make it important.
Looking at the calendar, one realizes that's not a coincidence--we're smack dab in the middle of Oscar season, with upcoming weeks holding Kinsey, Closer, The Aviator, Alexander, Hotel Rwanda, and a slew of other films custom-made for the increasingly irrelevant awards ceremony. Which brings us to perhaps the oddest ducks of this cinematic season--films that have no right to be Oscar contenders, but probably will be anyway.
Studios figured out long ago that how they budget, market, and release a film can have just as big of an impact on the Oscar race as the film itself, and Finding Neverland is a perfect example of a film that's clearly been designed as an Oscar contender. It hits all of the necessary points for an Oscar favorite, with well-portrayed characters in an opulent period setting, plenty of tear jerking, the all-important names of Miramax maestros/executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and just enough of an edge--in this case, Depp--to set itself a token space away from the rest of the pack of Oscar wannabes.
And to be fair, Finding Neverland is a pretty decent film. It's not bad at what it attempts--indeed, at times it's damn near skillful and clever in its technique and imagination--it's just that its heavy-handed attempts to be Oscar worthy are so transparent that they prevent the film from ever becoming an entity in and of itself. When it comes to categorizing Finding Neverland, it's inaccurate to say it's a drama, a historical piece, or even a re-imagining of Barrie's life--its genre is that of "Oscar Contender."
Depp provides a quirky, believable performance as the wildly imaginative Barrie, who's stuck with a bitchy wife (Radha Mitchell) and mired in conservative, early 1900s British society. But Barrie dreams big, even as his plays fail, and when he meets up with the Llewelyn Davies family--made up of charming widow Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her three impossibly adorable sons--he hatches the idea for Peter Pan. It goes without saying that sweet interludes, heartbreak, tragedy, and saccharine-sweet inspirational sound bites ("Just believe") soon follow. There are more Oscar-targeted aspects to be found as well: the predictable death of one of the characters, the endearing children in whom Barrie finds both companionship and appreciation for his fantastical ideas, Barrie's conflict with tradition (epitomized via Syliva's mother, played with a stereotypical stiff upper lip by Julie Christie). It's not that this stuff is trifling, it's just that Finding Neverland tries to make so much more of it that even the breezy tone can't cover up the film's aspirations to be taken seriously.
Finding Neverland's dependence on the burgeoning genre of Oscar Contenders is significant, regardless of whether or not the film ends up taking home any awards. In a time when winners are often crafted rather than deserving, Finding Neverland is an example of a film that could be competent enough on its own, but thanks to its overly ambitious intentions, the thing that's most notable about it is how short it falls from being great. And unlike Barrie's play at the beginning of the film, now the critics aren't the ones to blame--this time, the fault lies with the filmmakers and studio execs, who've created an awards-centric genre only to fill it with increasingly dubious films.