Straight on till Neverland.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Nov. 12 2004 5:51 PM

Straight on Till Neverland

Plus, more reader mail on The Incredibles.

Scene from Finding Neverland
Nothing Jacksonian about this Neverland

Finding Neverland is schlock of a super-refined order, filtered many times to remove extraneous bits of vulgarity, not to mention life. It purports to tell the story of the writing of Peter Pan—which was, indeed, inspired by playwright J.M. Barrie's frolicsome, revitalizing relationship with four young boys, one of whom was named Peter. The first two-thirds of the movie are decent if not transporting. The Scottish Barrie (Johnny Depp, with a robust burr) watches his latest, stuffy West End drama bomb, and, rather than park his carcass in the sitting room beside his gorgeous but no-fun social-climbing wife (Radha Mitchell), finds a nearby park bench on which to brrrood. Through a square hole in his newspaper—made by a housemaid who thoughtfully excised a withering review of his play—Barrie spies the lovely Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), an impoverished widow whose boys quickly involve him in a game of kings, castles, and park-bench dungeons. (Never mind that the "widow" Llewelyn-Davies' husband was very much alive in the first years of Barrie's friendship with her family: We'll give the filmmakers license to bump him off early for the sake of dramatic compression.)  

What follows is a highly chaste but deeply yearning friendship between Barrie and Sylvia, and a life of rambunctious fantasy with her boys (also chaste: Michael Jackson could screen this film at his upcoming trial and cry, "See! That's how we did it, too!"). Although Barrie's wife, Sylvia's mother (Julie Christie, hoarser but still very beautiful), and much of London society find the relationship distasteful and pressure all parties to break it off, this dream has its own headlong momentum. We don't even need to imagine their Neverland: The designer, Gemma Jackson, serves it up—lagoons, forests, fairies, Indians in war paint, pirates walking the plank, the whole shebang.  

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It was only an hour in, when Sylvia was hanging some laundry on a line and gave a tiny cough, that I felt my spine stiffen: Rule No. 1 in a biopic is that there is no such thing as an insignificant cough. With barely a pause, we're plunged into a four-hankie weeper—and one in which Neverland assumes its metaphoric importance as a place where, as one of the producers puts it in my press kit, "everyone discovers their creativity and imagination. … It's a place that can become whatever you want it to be, whether it's Barrie's version of Neverland or Sylvia's or Peter's—or yours."  

In my Neverland, this particular director, Marc Forster, would have been made to walk the plank for his last movie, the rancid Monster's Ball. More to the point, my Neverland would not be quite as sunny, generically uplifting, and free of psychosexual symbolism. No, I don't want Peter Pan Michael-Jacksoned-up. But Barrie's refuge for children who want to remain children isn't supposed to be Teletubbyland—as last year's terrific Peter Pan movie demonstrated. The saccharine pathos of Finding Neverland's climax diminishes everything that has come before.  

This isn't a great showcase for the actors, although Depp does the child-man thing with classy restraint, and Winslet refuses to milk her character's illness: She plays the anger over the helplessness. The kids are all great—and if you like the chemistry between Depp and the hothead Peter (Freddie Highmore), they'll be back as Willie Wonka and Charlie in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I wanted more of Mackenzie Crook (from The Office) as a befuddled usher and the sublime Kelly MacDonald as the actress who originates Peter. As Barrie's American producer, Dustin Hoffman is a treat: jittery, suppressing his jitters with a backslapping producer's good cheer, the whole performance a seesaw between feeling and poise. It's the only fun thing in this un-fun ode to childish whimsy. 

Although I cringe at the thought of anyone deliberately adding new fat cells to their body (even after a diet shrinks them, they tend to stick around yodeling, "Feed me! Feed me!"), Renée Zellweger put them to exquisite use in Bridget Jones's Diary. All that new flesh set off the most lovely wobbly single-girl hopefulness, and the movie combined author Helen Fielding's masochistic radar for daily insults with co-screenwriter Richard Curtis' flair for contriving horrifying embarrassments. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, on the other hand, is plain embarrassing. "Another year, a brand new diary," ho-hums Bridget, in voiceover: not the most urgent opening. Then she does a slapstick parachute jump to Carly Simon's Bond anthem "Nobody Does It Better"—one of countless bludgeoning pop songs used for laughs. The new director is incapable of staging or timing a joke, so gags that should have killed get titters, and gags that would never have worked linger like farts in an elevator. Hugh Grant supplies his own great timing, but Colin Firth's priggishness is no longer charming, and this time Zellweger is an irritant. Back on the treadmill, Renée: Farewell to the flesh! 1:30 p.m.

More Mail! The e-mails I received (and continue to receive) on the subject of The Incredibles and its relation to modern educational philosophy have been, well, incredible. It seemed a crime simply to read them and file them away. There are far too many great ones to print, but I thought I'd share some pithy excerpts.

Mediocrity is not the new mantra—it is unified performance! Perform, you must, and if your child can't keep up...drug them.
—Sara Toole

When my sons were in grade school, the only way for them to take special classes for gifted students was to have them classified as "handicapped" by high intelligence.
—Rick Norwood

It is not that there is a liberal conspiracy to make everyone feel "ordinary." It is even worse—as the line in the movie indicated ("everyone is special") there is a pedagogical approach all too common in public education of teachers making every student feel extraordinary regardless of whether they have every demonstrated anything more than a rudimentary grasp of English, toilet training, or manners. The complaint is that the cult of self-esteem is the enemy of excellence, because if success is to be meaningful there must by definition be the real possibility of failure. My undergraduate students come to me all the time convinced that anything other than an A is indicative that I must have a personal dislike for them, since they have rarely if ever been told that they are performing badly in high school.
—David Curp

[Parents] want hard data: they want their kids' exact class ranks—which, these days, teachers are unwilling to give, on the understandable grounds that it "unmotivates" everyone below the median. In this sense, it's a generational thing, and a vicious cycle: parents who, when growing up, got a lot of their [self-esteem] from being favorably compared with their peers, would expect the same for their kids. Of course there are nobler ways to develop a sense of pride, but for nerd kids, this is sometimes all they have to work with. Cynics like me would say the upside of not giving them this is that more of them might realize the pointlessness of most of the stuff they do at school, a la GhostWorld.
—Bradluen

In the education establishment—meaning: not teachers at Manhattan private schools, but the products of ed. schools and administrators—it is now taken for granted that such things as "tracking" and "gifted" programs are regressive. Better, the conventional education-school wisdom is, to mix all the students together, so that the weaker students can learn from the smarter ones--and so good teachers don't gravitate to the "honors" classes. After all, why would honors students need special attention--they do fine on their own. (Of course they would do better if they could work among peers of similar ambition, but that smells like elitism.) —Chris Shea

I went to camp and found that they had moved the Olympics to Fridays, and now weren't calling them "Olympics" anymore, but some other less cool-sounding name that eludes me now. Furthermore, we were no longer competing, but instead just doing the activities and everyone received a "participation" award. Hooray! Interestingly, we found (in Arizona, at least) that the people pushing this agenda were mainly Mormon Boy Scout troops, who are ostensibly conservatives.

Many parents do not prepare their children for occasional failure in their lifetime … I currently work for a summer camp and we run a trainee program for campers who are 15. This program is fairly exclusive; you have to apply to get in, we require recommendations, etc. Anyway, I was amazed at how many angry parent phone calls we received when certain children did not get accepted. It was like they were unable to comprehend it was reality. One mother I spoke with on the phone said she had "failed to prepare" her daughter for this kind of disappointment. In many cases, parents are creating unending success for their kids that just doesn't mirror reality at all, and many of these kids are unprepared for the "real world."
—Charles Disney

A new movement in education, differentiation, has swept through the country. The idea is that a teacher should have mixed ability classes and teach/assign tasks to meet the needs of all of their students. Of course, that is very difficult and generally, since the high-end kids will do well with little help and the low-end kids will not pass the tests without extra attention, the high ability kids get the shaft. There is also this frustrating idea that smart kids should be peer teachers; they should help other students in the class rather than learn to their ability.
—Lisa Starrfield

Now, ask yourself: is it in the better interest of society to burnish our disgraces, or elevate our "incredibles"?
—James McCaffrey

As a person from a family of public school teachers and now a parent interviewing and touring public and private schools on the left coast, I suggest that schools aren't trying to dumb down performance, but rather a) they don't have the money for honor classes separate from regular classes, and b) that, almost certainly, they are once again trying to tackle the inherent problem: Performance increases across the board when students are told they are "special" and more is demanded of them… and yet, not all students can be "special" because then no one is at all.

If you were an educator, how would you solve this conundrum in your efforts to increase the abilities of all students? It is as close to an unsolvable in the human condition as there is.

Yes, I do believe that this part of the movie is a subtle dig by elites who feel threatened by the emphasis on the moral worth of all outside of the calculus of ability. But it's still funny.
—Ralph Squillace

In middle American public schools, the emphasis on leaving no child behind is coupled with complacency towards "gifted" kids—I've heard phrases like "the cream will rise to the top" in this context. In fact, not only do they not worry particularly about gifted programs, they feel like the gifted are obliged to stay in classes with everyone else in order to help those who lag behind. (I recall my mother got a lecture along these lines years ago when I was pulled from a middle-middle-class, red-state public school.)

Of course, there's a completely different environment at magnet schools, elite private schools, and really any school where most parents are members of the professional class.

If I weren't ostensibly working, I'd speculate on exactly how this fits with fundamentalist anti-elitism …
—Ross Hensley

My niece was uncritically praised for all things. We never thought that she was any more exceptional than any other child nor any less. This has had two effects.

Positive: She is very self-possessed and insouciant and is very accomplished and there are very few things outside her grasp.

Negative: She is insufferable and rarely listens to anyone. She thinks that everything that she does is without fault and she back talks to her elders armed only with an idiotic adolescent philosophy.

If we could only come to some middle ground when rearing children.
—William Rolston

The ending of the film is thematically incoherent because if Brad Bird followed the logic of his storytelling, The Incredibles would have ended up homeschooling their children.

For example: The little boy is alienated at the start of the film because he isn't allowed to go out for sports, where he can show off his abilities. This makes him feel abnormal. Yet at the end of the film, we see him in a track meet, where his father is counseling him to slow down, then speed up, then slow down in order to keep from winning by too outrageous a margin. Deliberately slowing down in order to keep from hurting his teammates' feelings seems as unsatisfactory to me as not participating at all. The kid is a superhero: nobody can compete with him as an equal, so what's he doing on the team in the first place? Only his parents know how to test and develop his powers.

The message would have been more appealing if the boy had been encouraged to participate in an area where he doesn't automatically hold an advantage. That way he becomes a more—dreaded term—well-rounded boy who doesn't just fall back on his super powers, which he didn't do anything to earn.

I wonder if the theme ultimately doesn't have more to do with Brad Bird's rotten experience with The Iron Giant at Warner Bros., where he was very clearly a super-talent tripped up and held captive by his artistic inferiors.
—Steven Hart

My high school almost lost accreditation in the two years prior to my attendance, so the school searched for a principal who would be able to turn it around. Ultimately, his methods not so effective. Termed the "Renaissance Program," his philosophy was that students deserve rewards for performing well. He did this in many forms, one of the most widespread being an assembly in which every student who made the honor roll was invited, ice cream and candy were distributed, and sweet prizes were raffled off (among them a 17 inch TV). Of course, any student with a grade of C or less was unable to attend this assembly. Here comes the interesting part: The major newspaper of the area ran a story CONDEMNING the assembly. Students who weren't invited were interviewed and quoted, saying they felt left out and it actually discouraged them. In order to quell outrage, the school had to include every student in successive assemblies, creating spurious awards for positive attitudes and the like. It is true, and unfortunate, that in our society, people are too sensitive of their own shortcomings to be able to recognize others' excellence.
—Ian Spain

I'm a lifelong Democrat (I voted strictly Democratic during this last election), but I do not think that celebrating and rewarding achievement and hard work should be considered to be a "right-wing" bugaboo. I have always found that the vast majority of people will generally perform to the level of the expectations placed on them. If we celebrate mediocrity in order to not hurt anyone's feelings, mediocrity is what we will get. We don't have to tell everyone that they need to be superstars, but at the same time, it can't hurt to reward achievement.
—Alexander McKenzie-Johnson

And now, the other side of the argument:

You had it right the first time. High school is way more competitive and cutthroat than when I was in school and getting into colleges like Oberlin is way more difficult than it was in 1973. My daughter is terrorized on a daily basis about not getting into a "good" college and my wife and I are constantly having to reassure her that getting all A's and taking nothing but AP courses really isn't necessary in the grand scheme of things otherwise known as life.
—Mark Stein

What absolutely nonsense that schools are not competitive. In the Bolshevik-esque fantasy land of so called right-wing intellectuals, theory trumps reality or reality must always be filtered to conform with theory. Perhaps there is now more lip service given to diversity and the "we're all special" creed but in terms of day to day life, it's go for that magnet school, get your ass reading by pre-K, run track, play basketball and do the chess club so you're scholarship chances improve, take that SAT prep-class and how about an hour and a half of homework a day even though you're just in third grade because those Stanford 9s are coming up in the spring, buddy.

This is the daily world of my 6- and 8-year-olds and my neighbors kids and many other kids in public school. It was nothing like this when I was in school in the '70s. The idea that high achievers are held back is a nice movie fantasy, but the only evidence I know of demonstrating the triumph of mediocrity is the re-election of a marble mouth intellectually lazy coot named George Bush—whose campaign went to great lengths to denigrate high achievers like Kerry.
—Matthew Davis

The claim that American schools are eliminating honor rolls and honors classes causes me to wonder if I am living in some isolated and unusual environment. I live in Sarasota and work in Fort Lauderdale, and in both areas there are not only honor rolls and honors classes, but gifted programs (in Sarasota there is an entirely separate school for gifted students). My neighbors and co-workers obsess over the academic rank of their children and invest in special classes to obtain competitive advantage. Does the National Review's Frederica Mathewes-Green live in a different America? I recently read a quote regarding the effects of comments made by "intelligent design" proponents: "It takes an infant a half-second to vomit on a sweater and an hour to clean it up." Mathewes-Green's statement falls into the category of things that need to be cleaned up.
—Tim Bergin

My kids are nine and eleven and in public schools in Madison, Wisc. I am here to tell you that the public schools here (which are good, by the way) celebrate competition -- academic, athletic, whatever. In fact, I would be interested in where these so-called anti-competitive schools are, and to what extent this interpretation is shared by others at the same school. I would guess the upper class suburbs. I would also guess that the parents who don't want their kids to be losers don't divide neatly by liberal and conservative. They would divide more neatly by "real smart" and "not as smart as their parents think they are."

Some things that are different from when we were kids: (1) less mockery of the losers. Sports are the same way. All cheers have to be positive, no heckling the pitchers, etc. (2) more parent participation and inane phrases. My kids have a name for this. They call it "Good breathing, Billy!" It's sort of an arms race: If the other parents all go to every freaking soccer game and poetry recitation your kid feels bad if you don't go.

On the other hand, I did think there was a suspicious little right-wing Ayn Randy tilt to The Incredibles' message. Then again I also thought the move would have been twice as good if half as long.
—Chip Hunter

Finally, here's a word from the source:

I actually work for Pixar, and worked on the movie. Regarding the recent mail you received as to whether The Incredibles is an attack on affirmative action, I can tell you that, for most of us here at Pixar, we are all rather amused at the various political readings given to the film by various critics. Paging through the reviews on rottentomatoes.com, we were quite surprised to find out that the film we all worked on was pro-Bush, anti-Bush, post-9/11, pre-9/11, making a case for tort reform, indicting corporate war profiteering, and almost every other conceivable political stance.

Maybe this was inevitable, opening, as it did, just after an election of unprecedented emotional involvement. But the truth of it is, anyone at all who sees some grand political message in this film is saying much more about their viewpoint than the intent of a film that, at its heart, is really about familial relationships, and the constant clamor of work and life that pulls us away from them. I suppose we should be grateful. I remember one of my college literature professors telling me that great art allows viewers or readers to interpret it in a way that suits them, regardless of the intent of the artist. These wide and wildly varying interpretations of a cartoon just point out what a complex, compelling piece of storytelling it is. And to us, the filmmakers, that's really the ultimate compliment.
—[Name withheld] 2:50 p.m.

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Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2004

Lover come back
Lover come back

Born Again: Bobbing for sponges in Burbank for a week (with a couple of blacked-out days following Tuesday's election), I missed the (few) screenings of Birth, Jonathan's Glazer's gelid, semi-supernatural tale of a widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman)—still grieving after 10 years—whose husband apparently shows up at her luxe Manhattan apartment in the form of a 10-year-old boy. Young Sean (Cameron Bright) wants to prevent her from marrying the stiff, glowering Joseph (Danny Huston), who is subsequently driven to the brink of child abuse by the boy's habit of turning up at the door, glaring at him, and climbing into his fiancee's bathtub.

I'm a sucker for trancelike possibly ghost stories, and this one is unusually austere and ambiguous for a mainstream release: Monied New Yorkers (among them Lauren Bacall, Arliss Howard, and Alison Elliott) stand around uncomfortably while Harris Savides' camera floats ominously over Manhattan winterscapes and Alexandre Desplat's music conveys at least two currents of reality—a sprightly winter-wonderland top line and a surging bass that follows its own mysterious course. Glazer (Sexy Beast) is adept at spinning stories around psychosexual images: Sexy Beast was practically an allegory of repressed homosexuality, climaxing with fleshy men stripping down to their undies and taking long drills to an underwater vault. Birth has a lot of birth-canal substitutes, and that bathtub is practically a womb reunion. The movie is basically a mood piece, though: Not a lot happens, very slowly, and we know little more about Anna at the end than we do at the beginning.

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