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 better yet, how many
know how the famed classic came to life? Adapted from the Allan Knee stage play, "The Man Who Was
Peter Pan," "Finding Neverland" represents a fictional account of Barrie's creative life and the
inspirations that helped bring "Peter Pan" to the stage. Playfully heartwarming, it features
another phenomenal performance by Johnny Depp in the leading role. For, in "Finding Neverland,"
the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are blurred, leaving behind a magical, wondrous
world where anything is possible, if you just believe.
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 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. And it is here, where he first encounters Sylvia Llewelyn Davies 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,
and Barrie's own wife, Mary. 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." Of course, all of
this translates into his most ambitious play yet, called "Peter Pan." But it comes at a
price - the departure of his wife. 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, 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.
"Finding Neverland" is first and foremost a fictional depiction of the evolution of "Peter Pan." While
many of the characters and situations are real, 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, adaptive screenwriting by David Magee, expanding on the Allan Knee play, which exists
predominantly 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. In fact, Barrie even stayed by Arthur's bedside until his death
Directed by Marc Forster, known for "Monster's Ball" and "Everything Put Together,"
"Finding Neverland" is the perfect blend of reality and fantasy, tragedy and triumph,
laughter and tears. In much the same way as Barrie infused imagination and whimsy into
"Peter Pan," the film reciprocates by infusing imagination and whimsy into 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, this time as Scottish playwright, J.M. Barrie.
Although the 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, someone who easily
slips into the role because of his own boyish looks and childhood spirit. And 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. And rounding
out the magnificent cast is the always divine and elegant Kate Winslet in the role of Sylvia,
Radha Mitchell as Barrie's neglected wife, and Dustin Hoffman as the comical and nervous
producer, Charles Frohman.
From its opening night at the Duke of York's Theatre on December 27, 1904, "Peter Pan"
transformed the stage into a magical world of adventure and endless possibilities. Invigorating
audiences with childlike enthusiasm, it became an instant classic, timeless in the way it
resonates with society, emphasizing the importance of dreams and illusions. Furthermore, it
proved that children were equally as important as their parents when it came to theater going
audiences. Universal in nature, the story extracts the inner child in all of us - the ability
to fly, to stay forever young, and to imagine a world where the bitter and violent aspects of
reality do not exist.
"Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" celebrates its 100th anniversary this
month. And "Finding Neverland" is an appropriate spin on the classic story that has been
made and re-made 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."