This film has been near and dear to my heart for a long time. Beautiful production design, fantastical story elements, inspired acting, and melodic music. The film balances magical elements with the brutality of reality in stunning fashion, yet I find every moment convincing and emotionally moving. One quick note: I have not read or seen the play that the film was based on – The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee – so I will not be able to address any liberties the director (Marc Forster) or the screenwriter (David Magee) may have taken with the original material.
The opening sequence is one of my favorites in the entire film. The audience sees Scottish playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie (Johnny Depp) nervously awaiting the opening curtain of his newest play in a London playhouse. There’s a whirlwind of action as the camera jumps between actors preparing, the stage being set, the orchestra beginning, the audience finding their seats, and Barrie’s wife, Mary Ansell Barrie (Radha Mitchell), searching for her husband. Each time we return to James, we are suddenly drawn into a moment of calm, even though the nervous tension he feels is palpable. The almost frantic buildup culminates in the drawing back of the curtain, to a lukewarm (at best) reception of the opening moments of the play. Afterwards when theater patrons are mingling and preparing to leave, Forster allows the audience to hear brief snippets of conversations talking about what a disaster the whole thing was.
Following this defeat, James visits a London park to write and gather new ideas. Instead, he meets widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) along with her four boys: George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), Peter (Freddie Highmore), and Michael (Luke Spill). A friendship grows between James and the Davies family, while his marriage to Mary is simultaneously crumbling. Whispers in social circles of ill-intentions and perverted happenings between James and the Davies causes all of them to suffer differing levels of humiliation. And while this is painfully apparent to Mary, as well as Sylvia’s mother Mrs. Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), James and the Davies continue their games and playful imaginings in relatively ignorant bliss for a while.
However, reality rears its ugly head when Sylvia becomes very sick during some time away at the Barrie’s country cottage. Nothing is quite the same after this incident, and the gloom of mortality and adult struggles hangs over a significant amount of the rest of the film. Mrs. du Maurier becomes exceedingly restrictive over her daughter’s family, eventually moving in to care for Sylvia and discouraging James from continuing his association with them. Mary suspects James of cheating, and is caught in a compromising situation herself, leading to an ultimatum that James only works on his play and their marriage – no more games.
But, the Davies boys have been the inspiration for his newest play, and their lives now seem permanently linked. Through their imagined games of pirates and Indians and trained bears, he has crafted a play full of childhood magic and wonder, where each Davies boy has a role. The stoic Peter Davies has had the greatest effect on him, reminding James of having to grow up too fast himself when his brother died. The actors seem skeptical of the play, but put out a noble effort regardless of how they were cast. James’s producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) has undisguised misgivings about the play’s content, but allows James to stretch his creativity nonetheless. When it’s time for the play to open, James scatters 25 orphans throughout the audience to help the old and rich staple patrons of the theater to see the story through the innocent and imaginative gaze of a child.
The play is an enormous success, but Sylvia is unable to attend the premiere due to her worsening illness. The end of the film is incredibly touching, with a staging of the play in the Davies home for Sylvia to see, and at the end she disappears into Neverland. There’s a brief epilogue afterwards featuring Sylvia’s funeral, as well as Mrs. du Maurier’s acceptance of James’s permanent role in their family. And finally, we get a touching moment between James and Peter, where the boy is finally able to become a boy again, to be vulnerable and mourn the loss of both his parents.
Seriously, if you haven’t seen the film, you really, really should. I’m teary-eyed just from trying to provide a synopsis!
Now, one critical thought I have after re-watching the film is that Mary’s role is definitely underdeveloped. I think Radha Mitchell does a great job, but the way her character is written and represented makes it so hard to sympathize with her. The film basically opens in the middle of their marriage troubles, which seems to be an excuse to gloss over her character in favor of featuring other relationships like the one between James and Peter or the one between James and Sylvia. I suppose I understand this choice when it comes to prioritizing plot content, but it completely lessens the impact of Mary finally leaving James. It’s impossible to see why they’re married in the first place because we’re only presented with this one-sided character instead of someone who has evolved over time.
J.M. Barrie dancing with his dog who magically transforms into a bear is suddenly so much more relatable and easier to visualize now that I have a dog that large of my own. I didn’t think I’d be talking about Smudge again in another post so soon, but here we are!
The score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek is elegant yet innocent, well crafted yet relatable, and magical yet pleasantly restrained. It would be so easy to go way too over-the-top with this score, especially in certain scenes, but Kaczmarek keeps a set of parameters in mind at all times. He’s writing in an orchestral context, and he’s keeping a set of themes in play from beginning to end that carries the viewer through the arc of the story. It’s a simple concept, but it’s beautifully executed and wonderfully crafted. This is a score that I never get tired of listening to, and the primary theme that we so often hear in the strings stays with me long after I’ve finished watching the film.
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- The score is rich with themes and dense with melodic writing. You’re entitled to have whatever opinion you want on thematic scores and dramatic composing. BUT there is no way any other style could have been as effective in this context. In a film all about imagination and childhood, there has to be elements of fun. It has to be relatable to a child. Every cue is sophisticated and nuanced, but still manages to retain that relatability through these melodic elements; along with some pretty fun orchestration that incorporates choir, bells, and more into the orchestral context (these are also favorite instrumental additions of Danny Elfman, I might add, who also has crafted scores that need to reflect a childlike innocence and preciousness).
- Kaczmarek keeps a magical score within certain boundaries – to the benefit of everyone. There are moments in the film where the score is allowed to shine, and they are glorious. But he never oversteps what is happening in the film. It’s such a delicate balance between being emotionally supportive to the story and staying in the back of the viewers mind, and Kaczmarek walks this line as well as anyone could. But when the music soars…it really is the ideal compliment to the amazing production design and emotional weight of the film. The result is breathtaking.
- The score reflects the big picture rather than the scene. As it should. The whole film is elevated when composers take this approach to scoring, and this is a perfect example. It would almost be completely disjointed and silly to try and do anything else; there are so many moments of magic interspersed with tragedy that scoring each scene would cause aural whiplash. The score gains a weight to it that’s missing in the opening sequence as the movie progresses. Marital troubles, sickness, social controversy, and eventual death all add gravity to the story that is subsequently reflected in the music, to great effect.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- The acting is sublime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more adult child than Freddie Highmore. He’s so convincing as an overly serious boy who’s haunted by the loss of his father and impending loss of his mother, and it’s gratifying to see him open up at the end and let his emotions out (and his crying is more natural and convincing than many actors who have studied and trained their whole lives). Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet have great chemistry together – they are able to avoid sexualizing the relationship that develops between James and Sylvia without sacrificing the friendship and comfort that seems to come so naturally to them. And I actually had to remind myself that Charles Frohman was indeed Dustin Hoffman! Each actor did a marvelous job of making their character believable and relatable, and they all were remarkably natural with their fellow cast members (kudos to the casting department!).
- It’s the details that really make the film something special. The audience is allowed brief glimpses in James’s mind throughout the movie, and it’s really cool to watch Peter Pan come together as James plays with the Davies boys. For example, we know James sees the world differently right from the beginning of the film when he views the entire audience at his play as sitting through a rainstorm, rather than it being contained to the stage. When James and Mary enter their separate bedrooms at the same time, her room is just a room while his room is an enchanted forest. The kite that Michael flies returns in the play to save Wendy, and I have to believe that their positive encouragement of Michael to run fast and get the kite in the air is what inspired the need believe in fairies to save them from dying. There are obvious moments like the games of playing pirates and Indians, but also subtle inspirations like when Sylvia mentions that her late husband would never have let the dog in the house and would have him tied in the yard. I suppose it should be expected that the film would be sprinkled with these moments to show how the play formed in James’s mind, but I really appreciate the varying degree to which these details are emphasized.
- Children really are something special, and adults should learn more from them. When discussing the failed play from the beginning of the film with his producer, James mentions that it “was never meant to be taken seriously.” And for Peter Pan, he knows it will only be a success if he allows children into the audience to influence how the adults view his work. The adults in the film all represent reality and seriousness, but James needs innocence and playfulness and imagination in order to be understood. He really is still a child himself because the death of his brother robbed him of a normal childhood and forced him to grow up and assume his brother’s existing role. And he’s trying desperately to prevent that from happening to Peter Davies by assuring him that it’s okay to pretend and be a child even with terrible things happening. James understands children better than his fellow adults, and they understand him better too. George and Peter both prove themselves to be extremely perceptive and capable of having mature conversations with James and capable of making mature decisions despite their age, but they maintain the wonder and beauty of childhood that so many adults lose as they grow up. Growing up is inevitable – retaining imagination, innocence, and a sense of wonder is a choice. After all, isn’t that also the lesson Peter Pan teaches us?
After the premiere of Peter Pan, Peter Davies is presented as the inspiration for Peter in the play, but he insists that the real Peter Pan is J.M. Barrie himself. I say they both are Peter Pan because Peter is who James was as a boy. And James wants to protect Peter and nurture him in a way that he was not. Which makes the final moments of the film gratifying on another level; Peter is able to be vulnerable and emotional, but James has also succeeded in protecting Peter’s childhood and preventing him from becoming solemn and grown-up like after his father’s death.
This film is beautiful, emotional, full of meaning, and so well executed. I absolutely recommend trying to see it if you haven’t, or watching it again if you have!