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Life Aquatic & Finding Neverland
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Review Date: 12
.29.05


Wes Anderson's new film, The Life Aquatic, reminds me that sometimes you can load the blender with choice, beautifully colored fruits and end up with a brownish-green goo. But even that, notwithstanding its unappetizing color, often tastes good. Sadly, The Life Aquatic is not the cinematic equivalent of a dull colored but delicious fruit blend.

Anderson takes the Oedipus myth and gives it a clever twist. There's even a Greek chorus, of one. Then he updates Moby Dick. To these ingredients, he adds a host of wacky characters and stirs the lot well. But the result is strangely gray and flat, as if it had emerged from a cement mixer.

Life Aquatic has a wonderful cast, but Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson and Wilem Defoe, as talented as they are, can't be much better than the material they have to work with.

Bill Murray has become a master at playing the world-weary smart guy. His character has been around the block once too often to be surprised by anything. In this film, Murray is Captain Steve Zissou, ageing eco super hero. He's a jaded version of Jacques Cousteau. The most important members of his crew are the guys who churn out adulatory pseudo-documentaries of Captain Z's exploits.

Life Aquatic opens with a screening of Captain Zissou's latest underwater adventure. The climactic moment occurs off camera, when a huge leopard shark devours the Captain's long time friend. This event provides the motive for what could turn out to be the Captain's final adventure. He and his crew will track the giant shark and verify its existence on film.

Along the way there will be pirates and mutinies and romance and rivalries. Restraint is not Anderson's strong point, but he does spare us a storm at sea.

I wanted to like this movie. I like well done wackiness. And I've always loved Bill Murray. But this film is a mess. Anderson's ambition overwhelms his judgment. And the result is a boatload of underdeveloped ideas, dead in the water.

That's not the case with Finding Neverland, a film based on the life of the man who wrote Peter Pan. Liberties with the facts are taken by the director and screenwriter, but the story has the feel of authenticity. Finding Neverland is a celebration of the power of the imagination.

Johnny Depp was good in Pirates Of The Caribbean, but he's brilliant as James M Barrie, the Scot who gave Peter Pan and Captain Hook to the world. Barrie befriended a tragedy stricken family. The children in that family became his muse.

Director Marc Forster realized that biographical fidelity was less important than the spirit of the story. The children are charming and precocious. Kate Winslet plays their doomed mother. Though her relationship with Barrie was platonic, it fills the screen with a yearning that only restraint can kindle.

I've seen the film twice and was moved to tears on each occasion. Forster is a director who understands children, of every age. He knows that not every story has a happy ending. But we humans have found surprising ways to console each other. And that's what Finding Neverland is all about.

For KUSP's Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.