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Finding Neverland
by Mark Sells

Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, the Darling children and their adventure to Neverland, with Tinkerbell and the nefarious Captain Hook. But how many know the story of J.M. Barrie, the eccentric author of the whimsical tale? And how many know how the famed classic came to life? Adapted from the Allan Knee stage play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Marc Forster's Finding Neverland presents a fictional account of Barrie’s creative life and the inspirations that helped bring Peter Pan to the stage. Heartwarming and playful, it features another phenomenal performance by Johnny Depp in the leading role.

It’s opening night of J.M. Barrie’s latest play at the Duke of York’s Theatre and the audience is restless. Anticipating laughter and amusement, Barrie (Depp) watches eagerly backstage only to be disappointed by the apathetic reaction of the crowd. It would seem that not only is the Edwardian audience bored with the same old themes and stories, but so too is Barrie. In desperate need of inspiration, Barrie retreats to London’s Kensington Gardens where he finds amusement and a spark from his St. Bernard, Porthos. It is here that he first encounters Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys – Peter, George, Jack, and Michael. Almost instantly, they form a unique friendship – one based on kindness, laughter, and imagination.

But that friendship is met with resistance from the boys’ grandmother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), and Barrie’s own wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell). Notwithstanding, Barrie continues to play games with Sylvia and the boys -- taking them out to fly kites and venturing out to his country estate to engage in colorful games of pirates and mischief as “The Lost Boys.” All of this translates into his most ambitious play yet, called “Peter Pan.” But it comes at a price.

With unprecedented requests such as flying actors across the stage, fairies made of light, and adults wearing dog and crocodile costumes, the theater company and its loyal producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), are extremely concerned about losing their investment. Yet, unbeknownst to them, Barrie has reserved his last surprise for opening night. And despite a wicked twist of fate, the future of all involved will rest on whether they choose to believe.

While many of the characters and situations in Finding Neverland are based on fact, the actual timing and specifics are played with and altered in a way that elevates a static, verbatim translation into a magical, inspiring one. This is terrific screenwriting by David Magee, expanding on the play, which consisted primarily as a series of conversations between Barrie and the Davies’ boys. Most noticeably, the script elaborates on the relationship between James Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies -- creating an atypical romance, one that emphasizes need and friendship over expressive and active love. This took a leap of faith because the reality is that their romance began while Sylvia’s husband Arthur was still alive. And despite skepticism about Barrie’s involvement with his wife and children, Arthur actually became friends with Barrie, who was at his bedside when he died in 1907.

In much the same way as Barrie infused imagination and whimsy into Peter Pan, Forster and Magee enliven Barrie’s life story. The inspirations for “The Lost Boys” and Neverland, a dog that makes beds and acts as a nanny, a ticking crocodile, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, and the notion of flying -- all are directly correlated with events and observations from Barrie’s life, whether they happened or not. And most are linked to his usage of the Davies’ boys as muses, his longing to be a father, and his yearning for Sylvia’s affection. In every instance, we gain an enlightened view of Barrie’s individuality and intent, something that many outsiders, including his wife, could never see or realize.

Coming off another successful year, which included both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, Johnny Depp once again shines. Although his Scottish accent takes a little getting used to, it’s easy to see how this actor remains a master of irregularity. Depp is perfectly at home as Barrie, slipping easily into the role through his own boyish looks and childhood spirit. His embodiment of Barrie comes across as a fluid, natural extension of his own personality. Equally impressive is the debut of Freddie Highmore, who portrays the young Peter with a remarkable toughness and sensitivity only glimpsed and felt through his wide eyes. It is his performance that grounds and challenges Depp’s Barrie, both as a writer and a father figure.

Peter Pan celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Finding Neverland is an appropriate tribute to the classic story that has been made and remade hundreds of times. But unlike a simple telling of the spriteful tail, it delves into Barrie’s life to re-invent itself with a different twist, all the while capturing the spontaneous joy and affection of the beloved original. Add to that an affectionate and genuinely uplifting performance from Johnny Depp and you have a picture that needs no illusion or pretense to impart its message -- that it’s important to maintain a child’s optimism and hope about the world, even as an adult. Because, said Barrie, you’re never “young enough to know everything.”

©2004 Mark Sells