Weekly DVD/Video Picks

Finding Neverland (2004)

Popular, sweet and perhaps a bit too mundane, Finding Neverland tells the highly-fictionalized story about how playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) came to write Peter Pan as a result of a special friendship with the four young sons of the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). But, instead of a story about magical childhood soaring where no adult can follow, this is a story about a magical adult imparting the gift of imagination to children.

As the soft-spoken, gravely childlike Barrie, Depp manages a difficult balancing act, creating a character who prefers playing with children to the grown-up world in a way that is eccentric and playful rather than immature or creepy. Time and tragic circumstances eventually bring a new level of responsibility to Barrie’s relationship to the Llewelyn Davies boys, and there’s a nice counterpoint to all the business about “never growing up” as one of the boys takes a key step toward adulthood.

Content advisory: Loss of a parent; depiction of a failing marriage involving at least emotional unfaithfulness; a fleeting, discreet exchange about (unfounded) suspicions of pedophilia. Might be okay for older kids.

The Wind in the Willows (1983-Hall/Taylor)

Among the many animated versions of Kenneth Grahame’s nursery classic The Wind in the Willows, two in particular stand out: The 1996 BBC version directed by Dave Unwin (a previous Register pick) and this 1983 version by Mark Hall and Chris Taylor. To complicate matters, though, 1983 and 1996 each saw not one but two adaptations of the story. Don’t confuse the 1996 Unwin film with the other 1996 version, directed by Monty Python alum Terry Jones, a satirically revisionist production known in the United States as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. And the charming 1983 stop-motion Hall/Taylor version shouldn’t be confused with the 1983 costume version by John Driver.

For fidelity to the source material, Grahame fans may find the 1996 Unwin film the most satisfying. But for atmosphere, for style, for the best evocation of the spirit and feel of The Wind in the Willows, the Hall/Taylor version is ideal — and the cast is unexcelled.

Content advisory: Mild excitement and action. Fine for kids.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Just released on DVD, Ernst Lubitsch’s daring, controversial wartime comedy classic gives Jack Benny his best role and best film as “that great, great Polish actor, Joseph Tura,” a vain ham of a stage actor whose ludicrous attempts to assay Hamlet’s famous soliloquy seem never to get past the first two lines, and whose well-founded misgivings about the dubious fidelity of his actress wife Maria (Carole Lombard in her last role) are overshadowed by the Nazi invasion and the threat of a Polish spy.

The famed “Lubitsch touch,” whatever it really was, was never put to a more formidable test than this blend of anti-Nazi satire, black humor, marital stress and basic buffoonery — and Lubitsch pulls it off brilliantly. The film meanders for awhile after a sparkling opening, but gradually builds steam as it goes, each act topping the one before as Joseph and his troupe of actors take on the roles of their lives in order to thwart the Nazi menace. The last hour is satiric perfection.

Content advisory: Extramarital flirtation and possible infidelity; a wartime shooting death; a scene of macabre humor involving a corpse. Teens and up.