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Movie review

Finding Neverland

Johnny Depp's expressive portrayal of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie lifts a sometimes plodding and overly sentimental tale.

Published November 24, 2004

[Miramax Films]
Johnny Depp, second from left, gives another fascinating performance in Finding Neverland, as author J.M. Barrie getting his inspiration for Peter Pan from the four sons of a widow (Kate Winslet).

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Peter Pan is not an excellent play. The dialogue is elementary and the drama either overripe or bathetic.

Yet, J.M. Barrie's work is a classic because it dares to be unconditionally childlike, a quality harder to achieve in modern times. It appeals to the part of our hearts that wishes children didn't grow up so fast.

The same reserved praise applies to Marc Forster's film Finding Neverland, a fictionalized account of the 1904 summer when Barrie wrote Peter Pan. Each character in the movie existed, but perhaps not as each is portrayed. It's a romanticized version of little-known events, meaning it will be accepted as truth by many viewers. As with Peter Pan, the film's resonance with our nice side will make it seem better than it is.

A first viewing of Finding Neverland was tear-inducing and completely satisfying. Seeing it again was a mistake, less of my own than Forster's, who didn't make a movie that can sustain its magic beyond first impressions. Problems with David Magee's screenplay that initially could be shrugged off - occasionally slow pacing, melodramatic plot twists - became glaring. With familiarity , the fantasy simply wasn't as fanciful. It felt like growing up, and it was disappointing.

On the other hand, many of the film's qualities are too strong to falter, starting with another fascinating man-child performance by Johnny Depp as Barrie. Depp floats through Finding Neverland with a Scottish burr and gentle mannerisms, plus a talent for expressing his character's thoughts without dialogue. Forster assists that purpose with interesting peeks at Barrie's imagination: a dog turned dancing bear, displeased theater patrons drenched in gloomy rain, an angry matron's fist seen as a captain's hook. Matt Chesse's editing between Barrie's yard play and the imaginary pirate ships or dusty Old West streets he imagines is clever, and Roberto Schaefer's cinematography is lovely.

It's the earthbound drama contrived between the flights of fancy that bogs down Finding Neverland. Barrie's relationship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons further strains his troubled marriage to Mary (Radha Mitchell). Sylvia's mother (Julie Christie, always a pleasure to see) thinks Barrie's interest in her daughter is scandalous, and perhaps a bit threatening. Dustin Hoffman pops in and out as Barrie's droll producer, who needs a hit and can't see it in a story about fairies with an actor in a dog suit.

Even those subplots could be handled well without distracting from Barrie's uniquely romantic creative process. But Magee and Forster take things too far in the time it takes for Sylvia to cough. Actors don't do that in movies unless we're entering the terminal illness zone, from which few movies escape. A film about life immediately becomes a death watch.

But it's a handsome procession, capped by a hallucinatory eulogy. Barrie's play that we've barely seen gestating is staged, and opening night is a fine sequence. Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting, Gosford Park) is a suitable sprite to play Peter Pan, but the sequence's strength is Barrie's invitation to two dozen orphans, who are sprinkled around the elite adults. Such childish intuitions tell us more about the author's mind-set than his grownup problems.

No wonder, then, that Barrie's relationship with Sylvia's 9-year-old son, Peter (Freddie Highmore), is the best human element in Finding Neverland. While Barrie nudges the boy to believe in imagination, we learn more about what makes him tick, and how Peter Pan was born. Highmore is a strikingly natural child actor who brings out the best in Depp's tenderness. After this role, Depp convinced Tim Burton to hire Highmore for Charley and the Chocolate Factory, arriving in 2005. He'll be a good pairing with Depp's Willy Wonka.

Finding Neverland works if you clap your hands and say "I believe." That's easy to do once, which is how many times most moviegoers will see it. No doubt Forster's film will have some viewers weeping while others roll their eyes. But I dare anyone not to think of another artist residing in Neverland: Michael Jackson.

Finding Neverland

Grade: B

Director: Marc Forster

Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Freddie Highmore, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell

Screenplay: David Magee, based on the stage play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee

Rating: PG; mature themes

Running time: 101 min.

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 07:19:18]

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