Finding Neverland (PG)
Finding Neverland, a whimsical, warmhearted and heart-wrenching film about the playwright who wrote Peter Pan, builds to a moving climax like a teakettle over flame. It's a movie for children and children-at-heart alike, completely set apart from Hollywood's standard sex-and-violence fare for adults. Just like Peter Pan, it's a story about never growing up, never surrendering to the cynical world of adults, and never giving up on fairies and a place called Neverland.
Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) cleverly chose Johnny Depp to star as J.M. Barrie, a pensive young man with a runaway imagination who would pen Peter Pan. Depp has built a career playing misanthropes, misunderstood geniuses and oddballs (just think Benny & Joon, Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean) and he doesn't fail here.
A star-studded supporting cast, including Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman, portray adults who struggle with Barrie as his imagination leads him further and further into a children's world of pirates, ticking crocodiles and Newfoundland dogs.
The movie opens at a posh, balconied Victorian-era London theater where Barrie nervously waits behind a red curtain to hear the audience's reaction to his latest play. As he feared, the play is a flop and he sulks his way back home. But his home, occupied by his stunningly beautiful but cold wife and her tasteful but somber furniture, offers no relief from misery and failure. To escape suffocation, he walks his dog to the park.
There he meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Winslet), a widow, and her four sons: George, Jack, Peter and Michael. Inspired by the boys marveling at his dog, Barrie puts on a make-believe bear show. While whirling his pretend-bear Newfoundland around as if he were ballroom dancing, the scene is suddenly transformed into a clown-filled circus. It's the first of many magical transformations that represent the world of imagination.
Soon, Barrie finds himself spending every day with the Davies family, frolicking with the boys in imaginary games and writing his new play. The cold, gray photography Forster uses to portray somber London is contrasted with the riotous color and costumes of Barrie's fantasy world.
Yet no matter how happy and innocent the fun and games, Barrie's behavior sparks a flurry of suspicions. The children's prim and cruel grandmother (Christie) thinks Barrie's involvement with her daughter will prevent her from finding a suitable new husband. Barrie's wife (Radha Mitchell) suspects he's having an affair with Davies. And the theater owner (Hoffman) thinks Barrie's lost his mind when he learns the new play will involve fairies, flying children and pirate ships. The final straw, for Barrie, comes when a friend of his tells him there's a rumor going around that his interest in playing with the boys might be less than wholesome.
"You find a glimmer of happiness in this world and there's always someone who wants to destroy it," Barrie explodes. It's during moments like this, and in the increasing revelation that Sylvia Davies health is rapidly fading, that Finding Neverland turns into a serious adult drama.
But eventually the silliness and the magic return as Peter Pan finally makes it to the stage and the movie winds toward its tearful conclusion.
A quirky and rare film, Finding Neverland revels in its childish ways. It sticks its nose at the oh-so-serious world of contemporary films, and upholds the basic message of Peter Pan: that the world worth living in is the world worth dreaming of.
-- Dan Wilcock