Finding Neverland: Forster’s Senetimental Fable, Starris Johnny Depp as James M. Barrie (Peter Pan)

The journey undertaken by Scottish author James Matthew Barrie (played with great charm and subtlety by Johnny Depp) in creating his legendary children’s play, Peter Pan, is examined with poignancy, lyricism, and sentimentality in Finding Neverland, directed by the ever-surprising Marc Forster.

Barrie’s most daring and renowned work was inspired from the sheer thrills and adventurousness of childhood. The new film proves that this literary classic still speaks directly to the child in all of us adults. In fact, in the instruction to his actors, Barrie wrote: All characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child’s outlook at their only important adornment, a principle that guided Forster’s direction. Finding Neverland traverses both fantasy and reality, melding the inevitable pain and heartbreak of adulthood with the spellbinding allure and innocence of childhood.

The story begins as Barrie watches his latest play flop among the polite society of Edwardian England. Though acknowledged as a literary genius, he’s getting bored with the themes he’s been writing about. In short, he’s a man in crisis, suffering not from a creative block but from lack of inspiration. Barrie finds inspiration in an unlikely place, in London’s Kensington Gardens, while taking his St. Bernard dog on a walk.

Barrie finds inspiration for Peter Pan in his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family, headed by Sylvia (Kate Winslet), a young widow and mother of four sons: George, Michael, Jack, and Peter. Together, they help Barrie unlock his imagination and open the gates to Neverland. The film’s point is that one never knows when and where the muse will strike. Mysterious and unanticipated, the creative act may derive from the most random and quotidian activities.

Barrie’s wife resents his preoccupation with the boys, but he prevails. He befriends the family, engaging the boys in tricks, disguises, games, and mischief. In a marvelous dinner party scene, Barrie uses a fart machine, but it’s a genuinely funny, not a gross-out moment. Barrie creates magical play-worlds of castles and kings, cowboys and Indians, pirates and castaways. In his hands, hillsides are transformed into galleon ships, sticks into mighty swords, kites into fairies, and the Llewelyn Davies clan into The Lost Boys of Neverland. In the process, Barrie, a childless man, becomes a father figure to the four boys, eventually guiding them through the terrible tragedy of their mother’s illness.

At first, the theatrical company is skeptical about Peter Pan. His producer worries that he will lose his shirt on this children’s fantasy. Nonetheless, Barrie goes ahead with rehearsals, shocking his actors with such unprecedented requests as asking them to fly across the stage, talk to fairies made of light, and don the costumes of dogs and crocodiles. Then, just as Barrie is ready to introduce Peter Pan to the world, a tragic twist of fate makes the writer and the boys he loves understand what it means to really believe.

Finding Neverland is more of a tribute to Barrie’s creative genius than a biopicture of the man, hence the neglect of sexual politics, specifically Barrie’s marital crisis and the nature of his attraction to Sylvia. Barrie is emotionally detached from his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), though the cause of the marital rift is never explained. Mary is depicted as a lonely woman who loves her husband but can’t connect with him no matter how hard she tries.

The unspoken love between Barrie and Sylvia du Maurier is implied but never becomes a typical Hollywood romance. Sylvia is an interesting persona in her right: a fiery bohemian, a modern woman by standards of the time, who made the courageous decision not to be treated for cancer. Sylvia wants to protect her sons, shield them from her debilitating health, and keep them from seeing her suffer. Making an amazing sacrifice, she wishes life to continue as normal, to slip away quietly.

The film is framed by two scenes that involve Barrie’s loyal theatrical producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman). In the first, Frohman consoles Barrie after a disastrous opening night of his play. In contrast, the last scene shows the reverse, with Barrie now trying to reassure Frohman that the world premiere of Peter Pan would be a sell-out, which it is.

Written exactly a century ago, in 1904, Barrie’s play about a boy who simply won’t grow up remains a seminal work of children’s literature. Its characters–Peter, Wendy, Tinker Bell, Captain Cook–and defining themes are as pertinent today as they were back then. Finding Neverland captures the magical essence of being a child (and adults who are child-like rather than childish), with a touch of sentimentality but without pandering to the audience.

David Magee’s screenplay was adapted from Allan Knee’s play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which was a series of imaginary conversations between Barrie and the Llewelyn boys. The script is not a factual chronicle of Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan, but a fantasy about the meaning of growing up and becoming responsible for those you love. Magee takes a novel approach to Barrie’s creation. Instead of focusing on the effect of the play, which is still performed all over the world, he emphasizes the play’s origins: How and why it was created.

Since the act of writing is solitary and decidedly uncinematic, Fortser has decided to probe the creative process itself, which he sees as transformation of the imagination–how writers get inspired, how they form ideas, and how they shape them into something coherent–and magical. Foster examines the creative artistic process by integrating the emotional reality of the playwright’s life with the fantasy of his dream state.

Finding Neverland constructs two parallel fairytales. The story itself, centering on Barrie’s friendship with the Llewelyn family, unfolds as one fairytale. The second fairytale is the play itself, Peter Pan, which is recreated at the end of the story on stage, and then in the boys’ private residency, in front of their dying mom. The two tales deal with the same themes: the wonder of the imagination, the nostalgia for childhood innocence, the longing to believe in something more enchanted than everyday life.

Recent attempts by directors to transplant fairy-tale mood into a recognizable modern world have failed. But Forster achieves something quite remarkable: He takes a known fantasy and gives it flesh and blood, as another fantasy. Finding Neverland redeems Hollywood’s previous efforts to film Barrie’s work. Hoffman must be particularly happy to be associated with this picture, having starred as Captain Cook in Hook, Spielberg’s disappointing rendition.

In Hook, you may recall, Peter Pan (Robin Williams) has grown up and become a weary yuppie, utterly divorced from his magical childhood. On his trip to England with his family, he visits Wendy, now an elderly woman. When his kids are kidnapped by Hook, Peter must recapture his youthful vigor and innocence.

On paper, the casting of Williams, Hoffman, and Julia Roberts (as Tinker Bell) must have seemed inspired. And while Hook’s central premise had potential, the movie didn’t fly, literally and figuratively. It was just noisy, busy, and dull, with a pedestrian-looking Neverland.

The only decent Hollywood version is the 1953 Disney-made Peter Pan, a delightful animated cartoon, directed by Hamilton Luske, in which Peter leads Wendy, Michael, and John Darling to Neverland, where they battle Cook and his pirates.

Finding Neverland works a full circle, dealing with how one’s own life inspires art, and how art in turn inspires routine lives. It’s a film about the power human creativity to take people to another world, the deep human need for illusions, dreams and beliefs that inspire us, especially in times of tragedy and crisis.

With its emphasis on the transcendent power of the imagination, Finding Neverland is effective as a period and as a timeless work of art. The film’s enchantments are so diverse that they will charm, in different ways, any age group. Here is a family movie in the best sense of the term, one that parents and children can attend together without either group being bored or embarrassed.

That said, is should be noted that in several scenes, the fable it overly sentimental, and opens itself to charges by harsher critics and viewers of being too much of a weepie.