Johnny Depp leads the cast as J.M. Barrie himself, the famous, yet less than fully successful (at this time), author of novels and plays for benefactor Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman in a Peter Pan Movie? WOW!). His marriage to wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) is strained, his plays are unsuccessful, and his self esteem is lower than my profit-margin for this web-site.
But a chance encounter in the Park introduces Barrie to the Davies boys, Michael, George, Jack and especially Peter. Somehow all of these boys, and their mum, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), are just what the proverbial doctor ordered, and the ideas that became the adventures of Peter Pan began to catalyze in Barrie's head. All of this evolves to the delight and happiness of Sylvia and the boys, and to the chagrin of Mary Barrie, and Sylvia's own mother (Julie Christie).
What follows is Barrie's influences on this family, and much more so, that family on Barrie himself. As time goes on, the Peter Pan we know begins to become a real boy, and, yes, what we see of Peter Pan really can fly! Finding Neverland is a beautiful film, unlike any other (if I had to pick anything similar, it might be Big Fish). If you've ever really grown up, well this movie is going to be unbelieveable! If you never-never have... then aaaaaaaaaaaah!
Naturally, as usual, it's Depp who shines the brightest here and again proves that he's one of our greatest actors. Not only is his Scottish accent perfect, but his eyes tell the story that the David Magee-penned lines can't even touch. Barrie's no Saint, but Depp balances the obviously self-serving nature of Barrie with the sympathetic bend that made him so endearing to the children, and in fact what makes Peter Pan a hit even today.
There's not a bad actor in the bunch, though, and 8 years after Branagh's Hamlet Christie and Winslet still feel like perfectly matched acting pair. Hoffman has traveled many miles from The Graduate, and remains an evergreen actor for us. He feels comfortable here as an older actor, and is as fine here, in a small part, as he's ever been in his numerous leads. If Depp has a corollary in this movie, it has to be Freddie Highmore, who plays Peter Llewelyn Davies. Don't let anyone ever tell you that there's no such thing as a "Child Actor". Highmore has a surprising range from cynicism to joy to striking grief. With each laugh or each tear, you believe this kid. He's very, very good!
Oscar-Bait acting or no, there are a few flaws. This quite a fine film (finer than Angel Hair), but some of the characters feel somewhat under-developed, and questionably motivated. And while so much of this was history, much of it came from Allan Knee's The Man Who Was Peter Pan. By that token, some of the most effective parts of this film feel calculated to be cute or sad. When they work, though, they work very well, and they bring you in to Barrie's fantastic mind!
I loved it, though, and if you've ever refused, flat out, to put away childish things, you'll be believing, tearing-up and feeling sentimental along with me. Bring the kids... they'll love it too. That's why I'm shooting out Four and One Half Stars out of Five for Finding Neverland! If you refuse to grow up, you might find yourself creating something beautiful like Peter Pan, or telling stories forever like Big Fish's Ed Bloom... or you could delude yourself into believing that you're the world's greatest critic.
Neverland is a very real place... I'll see you there, and I'll see you in the next reel!
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