"All characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child's outlook as their only important adornment," wrote Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie in the stage directions for "Peter Pan." This directive became a guiding principle for "Finding Neverland," Marc Forster's unabashedly loving, and largely fictionalized, take on Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, who inspired his most famous work.
"Finding Neverland" sees the world through the eyes of both a child and an inner child, but happily neither set of orbs has been forced to look through the funhouse filter of "childlike wonder" as depicted in cereal commercials and the works of Robin Williams. On the contrary, "Finding Neverland" is gently seductive, genuinely tender and often moving without being maudlin. As portrayed by Forster ("Monster's Ball") and screenwriter David Magee, childhood is a happy, innocent time so fraught with danger and powerlessness it compels regular escape into fantasy.
This is what makes Barrie's gift of Neverland to the Llewelyn Davies boys so important. A successful, if lately uninspired, playwright in a stagnant, childless marriage with his remote, unhappy wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), Barrie (Johnny Depp) is just coming off a flop and at a loss for what to do next.
You can tell he's a fun kind of guy by the way he teases an usher, played by "The Office's" Mackenzie Crook, into admitting the play's a dud, and by the contraption he's devised from a fishing pole to play catch with his dog in Hyde Park.
But at home he smolders like a just-snuffed candle. Until he meets the Llewelyn Davies boys and their recently widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), one afternoon in the park, his spark seems nearly extinguished. There's a moment early on when he and Mary ascend the stairs at the end of the day, pause in front of their respective rooms and open their doors. Mary's door opens on her furniture, but Barrie's opens onto a sunlit field.
"Finding Neverland" is the story of a childlike man who teaches a man-like child how to take off his hat and stay in boyhood a while. Traumatized by his father's death and worried about the health of his mother, an anxious Peter (Freddie Highmore) strains at the limitations of his age. Barrie's ability to empathize with Peter -- he lost a brother in childhood -- is what endears him to the boy, whose sense of loss is palpable. At first, he's immune to Barrie's uncly charm. When the famous playwright invites the boys to watch as he dances with a circus bear -- namely, his dog, Porthos -- Peter snaps to his mother, "This is absurd. Why did you bring me here? It's just a dog." Gradually, though, Barrie wins Peter over by treating him like a grown-up, and then taking the edge off with pirate stories. Highmore is fierce as a kid who's lost one parent and knows he's about to lose another. (Sylvia keeps waving off her fits as "a chest cold," but from the sound of the first ladylike cough, we know she's a goner.)
Despite his identification with youth, Depp's Barrie is no antic man-child. Nor is he a mugging creep, which is a huge relief, considering the precedent. Depp never stoops to juvenile behavior, never turns himself into the butt of the joke. Instead, he portrays that rare adult who can relate to kids without pandering or condescending. Barrie's genial American producer Charles Frohman, played by Dustin Hoffman, displays a similar quality. And Frohman's unquestioning financial support allows Barrie to create something true.
It's hard to imagine Barrie and the bohemian Sylvia played by another pair of actors. Depp and Winslet share a rare combination of airiness, earthiness and sharp, wry intelligence. With his gleaming black hair, quiet grace and molten eyes, Depp makes Barrie's ability to conjure imaginary worlds seem magical. At times, "Finding Neverland" resembles Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," also starring Winslet, in the way it depicts fantasy intruding on reality.