Saturday, March 09, 2013

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #30--Finding Neverland (2004)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

Do you believe in fairies? If you believe, clap your hands! 
"What I liked very much is that it didn't feel like the kind of movie that you see all the time. I thought it was sweet and heartbreaking, but in an honest way. It didn't feel like it was trying to be something; it felt like it was something." Johnny Depp on Finding Neverland

"I'm not Peter Pan, he is."
Based on Andrew Birkin's biography, J.M. Barrie and The Lost Boys, Finding Neverland introduces author J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) who, in 1903, is on the verge of creating his masterpiece. After his most recent play flops in London's West End, his producer (Dustin Hoffman) encourages him to write something new. A chance encounter with Silvia Lewellen Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys--George (Joe Prospero), Jack (Nick Roud), Peter (Freddie Highmore), and Michael (Luke Spill)--marks the start of a lifelong friendship with the widow and her sons, to the dismay of her socialite mother (Julie Christie) and most of the rest of society. But inspired by the boys' sense of play and imagination, "Uncle Jim" creates Peter Pan's world of pirates, fairies, and endless adventure in Neverland.

Although it may seem slight today, putting on a full-scale West End production based on a boy who never grows up was risky at the time, particularly a play that involves flying, a dog serving as a nanny, ocean adventures, clock-swallowing crocodiles, and more nonsense never before attempted on the stage. Learning the inspiration behind it all makes this story even more extraordinary.

Bring on Neverland!
I could barely wait to see this movie, not only because of Johnny and the other great actors joining him, but because Peter Pan is one of my favorite stories. When I was a kid, I watched the Disney cartoon endlessly. I even had its soundtrack album. In grade school, I won an art contest prize of tickets to see Peter Pan on the stage. Recently, though, I saw a bit of the Disney cartoon on TV and thought Peter Pan was a brat and Tinkerbell had a big attitude problem! I'm not sure what my fascination with it is--maybe the adventure of it all, the fairies, the flying, and the idea of not having to grow up.

I've seen lots of different versions of Peter Pan. But I'm not the only one who loves it. Dustin Hoffman recognizes how everyone relates to J.M. Barrie's idea of Neverland: "Neverland is the place that exists for all of us in the wish part of our brain," he says. To some people, Neverland is a place where one never grows old or dies. Others think of it as the place where the imagination lives.

In the preface to the original play, J.M. Barrie noted that the actors only need to bring with them a child's outlook. "I think what Barrie was saying was to do your best not to grow up so quickly," Johnny says. "You can grow old and be an adult but maintain those beautiful qualities." Like Johnny, the filmmakers took Barrie's direction to heart. Producer Richard Gladstone explains, "We thought of how to watch all of this through a child's eye, how to approach that, how to manifest that on film."

I was in New York when Finding Neverland opened Halloween weekend. Johnny was also in New York that weekend to receive the Lee Strasberg Artistic Achievement Award (Yay!), but we never ran into each other. Instead, I saw him on the big screen in one of the best movies ever!

What's to love? Lots!
The story: Written by David McGee, this historical period piece explores the creative process of a writer moving from thought to page to stage. "We wanted it to be about creating art, and we wanted it to be about what someone saw and felt and how they translated that onto paper," says producer Nellie Bellflower.You'll meet James Barrie's inspirations and see how his wheels turn to create Nanny, Captain Hook, fairy dust, and all the rest of it. In this great script, you're recognize familiar lines and plot points from the classic story and know that the author plans to write all these moments down in his journal to include in his developing play. This film's blend of adult and child perspectives, history, imagination, creativity, and drama is moving and inspiring.

The director: Involving a beloved children's story with cute kids in the cast could have made this movie overly sentimental, but I was confident that wouldn't happen when I heard Marc Forester was directing it. At the time, he had just won a bunch of awards for Monster's Ball, a dark film that couldn't be more different from this one. As I had hoped, Finding Neverland has a perfect balance of playfulness and drama without any excess sticky sweetness.

The production: One of my favorite things about this movie is how seamlessly the story weaves between imagination and reality. There are little moments, like when James Barrie imagines that it's storming in the theatre as his latest play goes sour or when he opens his bedroom door, revealing the sunny open field he pictures in his mind. And, when Silvia comes down with a cough at the summer cottage, the beautiful day turns cloudy and windy in Peter's eyes. In more elaborate sequences, as James Barrie plays Cowboys and Indians with the Davies boys or takes them aboard a pirate ship, the film switches back and forth between them running around in their garden to being in the Old West or soaked by choppy waves on the high seas. Give another star to Marc Forester for coming up with these ideas. "For me, the visual effects basically are to underline the transformation of imagination," he says. Even though the imaginative scenes are obviously fake, they're beautifully done without taking you abruptly out of the story. Instead, they draw you in even more, letting you see what they are seeing. "The goal was to give people an idea of where that line's drawn between fantasy and reality and how thin it was was," says visual effect designer Kevin Tod Haug. It works!

The stars: If you haven't figured it out by now, I usually see movies because of the actors involved. And, when Johnny gets to be in movies with people I admire, I'm thrilled about it. Imagine spending your days at work with Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Dustin Hoffman! "I've been so lucky in my career to work with some of the people I've worked with," Johnny says. "Going to work everyday with Dustin Hoffman is once again an amazing gift!" Everyone is perfectly cast in this movie. You'll even find some old friends from Pirates of the Caribbean in here: Mackenzie Crook as the theatre usher and Angus Barnett as the actor playing Nana.

The real stars: But it's really all about the kids, George, Jack, Michael, and especially Peter. When Kate Winslet and Johnny caught Freddie Highmore playing a scene as Peter, they knew they had to up their game: "Freddie just elevated the level of truth for everyone," Marc Forester says. As Peter, Freddie Highmore may have the meatiest role as the one whose on the brink of  completely losing his childhood too soon, but all of the Davies brothers are fantastic. They will make you laugh. They will make you cry. They steal the show.

"He is quite handsome!"
- Dustin Hoffman
My favorite star: It's always a treat when Johnny dresses down and quiets down for a role. One of the things I admire most about Johnny as an actor is his ability to say so much without saying anything. But the bonus here is that when he does speak, it's with a flawless Scottish accent! Johnny was the first actor in mind to play J.M. Barrie, and he was the first to sign on to Finding Neverland. It doesn't surprise me that he found such a connection to the author and this story. "What I feel is important is the freedom to invent things, however ridiculous," he says. "Don't be afraid to take risks, to be creative and try things."

I think this is one of Johnny best performances, displaying such a range of emotions as a creative artist stuck among grown-ups: "It's a surprisingly difficult role because it has to be a man who's mature enough so that you have respect for him but still have a kid inside the whole time," writer David McGee says. "He does an amazing job."

Some of my favorite scenes are of Johnny interacting with the kids. You can tell that they all got along really well. As Kate Winslet says, "Working with Johnny Depp is like working with a fifth child. I have four children in the movie, and then I have Johnny." For those of you who like Johnny Trivia, look for some of his own inventions early on in this movie, including the mirror attachment to his cane and the ball-retrieving fishing pole. In the tense dinner scene, try to keep a straight face knowing that Johnny got all the kids to laugh throughout by installing his trusty remote-controlled fart noisemaker under Julie Christie's chair before the director called "action." I think Kate Winslet is right!

At the 2005 Oscars with Vanessa Paradis
To my great surprise (followed by infinite elation), Finding Neverland earned Johnny his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor! This nomination was practically sweeter than the first, just because James Barrie isn't as flashy as Captain Jack. (No one is as flashy as Captain Jack.) I didn't think anyone else would notice Johnny's fantastic work in this! I so wanted him to win, but I knew he wouldn't because Jamie Foxx was winning everything everywhere for his portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray. Still, the Oscars are so much more exciting when Johnny is in attendance! I'll take it!

Finding Neverland was also nominated for Best Picture and several technical Oscars. It won for Best Original Score by composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. I agree! This movie's beautiful music is a perfectly-suited complement that sweeps you into the moment.

Finding Neverland and the cast were nominated for lots of awards at other ceremonies worldwide, and they (mainly Kate Winslet and Freddie Highmore) won quite a few. Yay!

The Kitties can fly!
I didn't expect to pick the scene that appeared in all the commercials and previews, but it really does sum up Finding Neverland. Here's an example of how James Barrie was inspired to write his story. As Silvia (Lily) scramble around to get her defiant boys (B.J. as George, Norman as Jack, Comet as Peter, and Simon as Michael) to bed, they are more interested in pillow-fighting. Watching the giggling boys bouncing around on their beds, Uncle Jim suddenly "sees" the windows magically open and the boys fly off into the night. With a little bit of fairy dust, they'll be in Neverland by morning.

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #30--Finding Neverland (2004) [January 4, 2013]
"Never put young boys to bed. They always grow up a day older, and before you know it, they're grown."

And now, let's talk about fish. 
Kate Winslet and Johnny enjoyed working together on Finding Neverland so much that they jumped at the chance to do it again, even if it was just in a recording studio. In 2006, they narrated the IMAX documentary Deep Sea 3D. Funnily, I also saw this in New York too. It was a Friday and apparently field trip day for all the grade-school kids in the immediate vicinity. "Are you sure you want to go to this showing," the cashier asked me. "That's a lot of kids." Let me tell you, a nature documentary is so much more fun and interesting when you're surrounded by excited kids in oversized 3D glasses who are actually paying attention and screaming every time a shark swims toward them. We had fun!

What's next? 
Johnny is The Libertine. You will not like him.

Image credits: Finding Neverland images © Miramax Films; Image of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis at the 2005 Academy Awards © unknown; Deep Sea 3D image © Warner Brothers Pictures; Illustration © Melissa Connolly

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