We all know (from bitter experience) that being a kid is no picnic. Here are two movies that tell us that being a writer of kids’ books isn’t much easier AND both manage to use the word “Never” in their titles. Given that “Neverwas” is getting a DVD release today from Buena Vista Home Entertainment and “Finding Neverland” was Oscar nominated, our fight-to-the-finish is about picking the one movie you should rent if you want to take this particular author’s journey.
“Neverwas” is an indie film which got some steam behind it coming out of the Toronto Film Festival in 2005. I saw it in April of 2006 at the seventh annual Newport Beach Film Festival where it was the opening night film, and the movie’s West Coast premiere. It stars Aaron Eckhardt as Zach Riley who’s spent his life in the shadow cast by his celebrated father, T.L. Pierson, the author of the seminal, best-selling children’s book Neverwas. The book brought joy to millions, turned the dad into a Salinger-type recluse and, we guess, screwed up the kid living in the shadow. I have to admit rooting for Neverwas, sitting there in the theater waiting for it to start. The 33-year-old writer/director — Joshua Michael Stern — had just spoken from the heart, it was his first script produced and he directed it. Also, the film that opened the festival the year before was “Crash” and we know how that went. And you have to hand it to Stern, not many first-time directors manage to wrangle a cast that, in addition to Eckhardt, also includes Ian McKellan, Brittany Murphy, Nick Nolte, William Hurt and Jessica Lange.
“Neverwas” really is a great premise. Eckhardt’s Zach (why are so many film characters named Zach?) finds out that his famous dad got the whole idea from a delusional schizophrenic when he was in a mental institution in the early sixties and then wrote he, the son, into it as the main character. Kind of a Mobius Strip of film reality.
The Defending Champion
“Finding Neverland” was a big Oscar contender in 2004, ultimately losing out to “Million Dollar Baby.” Its star, Johnny Depp, was nominated but lost to Jamie Foxx for Ray. That is no slam. Every part of “Finding Neverland” was terrific in a well-written story where Depp showed even more of his ever-widening dramatic range as an actor.
“Finding Neverland,” of course, was hardly a low-budget indie but a big studio film that was hunting for an Oscar from the day it was released. It’s the true story of J.M. Barrie, a Scottish playwright, who found his mojo in four boys whose mother is newly divorced. The great acting was based on a solid foundation. The screenplay — by David McGee — was based on a book by Allan Knee, The Man Who Was Peter Pan. The whole thing was artfully delivered by director Marc Forster.
So, you have the champion in our Smackdown, represented by “Finding Neverland,” as true story, and our challenger, “Neverwas,” a piece of fiction. When it comes to story-telling, as someone who has adapted material as well as made things up out of nothing, there are pluses and minuses. In adaptation, you have a place to start but, often, you are prevented from certain dramatic moments because of what really happened. In an original, you have nothing but what’s in your head, but you can go anywhere. From my point of view, if you can go anywhere, you shouldn’t have so many things that look like you got lost along the way. “Neverwas” has a few. The most spectactular is the fact that the crazy schizonphrenic played by Ian McKellan has supposedly been locked up for 30 years but at the end of the film the cops are trying to evict him from his fantasy shack in the middle of the woods like he’s been a thorn in their side for years.
Back at the Newport Beach Film Festival, as the nearly 1000 people who attended the opening filed out to the afterparty held at Fashion Island, you heard a lot of ambivalence. They had been rooting for the film, like me, but they could see that the writer/director just wasn’t quite experienced enough to pull it off. Feeling let-down by the experience, I could hear conversations here and there between filmgoers who whispered their criticism of the dozen places in the film where you just felt it was off the rails.
This one’s not a hard choice. “Finding Neverland” is the film in this genre by which all others will be measured. That includes “Neverwas” and it just doesn’t measure up, despite a great cast and a promising premise. As the lead, Aaron Eckhardt has a lot of heat now and you’ll be tempted to check him out, but if you want to see him at his best, it’s still “Thank You for Smoking” you want to see. If you’re in the mood for an author’s journey, through the looking-glass of childhood, go with the true classic and you won’t be disappointed.