People often find that it’s the smallest things that change their lives forever: it can be anything from deciding to stay in one night to bumping into a perfect stranger on the street. In “Finding Neverland,” it was sitting on a park bench one afternoon that changed the life of Sir James Mathew Barrie.
Johnny Depp stars as the author of “Peter Pan” in this adaptation of the Alan Knee play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan.” But as the title of the play suggests, this movie isn’t exactly about the little boy you may be familiar with, but what led a man to write “Peter Pan.”
The movie begins by introducing a defeated Barrie, whose last play was a complete miss. Looking to pen a new hit for his backer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), Barrie goes to a nearby park. At this same park is widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. The lives of a man and a family, both looking for inspiration, cross when one of the young brothers finds himself under Barrie’s bench.
The scenes that capture the first interaction between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies’ family set the tone for the rest of the movie. Within minutes of meeting the young boys, who are as adorable as they come, Barrie is playing along with them. In an effort to make them use their imagination, Barrie dances around with his dog, who he says is actually a giant bear. The magic in this scene is due not only to the changes from reality to Barrie’s imagination, but also from Depp’s performance. There’s nothing like a grown man telling young boys to use their imagination and just believe.
From their meeting in the park, Barrie develops a close friendship with Llewelyn Davies and her children. Of course, now might be a good time to mention that Barrie did have a wife of his own, although they barely shared a friendship, let alone a bedroom. To his wife’s dismay, Barrie spends all his free time with the new family, causing them to be the talk of the town. A married man spending all his time with a widow and her four young boys? Not exactly the best way to make a good impression.
It’s through his interactions with the boys that Barrie finds inspiration and begins to write “Peter Pan.” The film does a great job of incorporating scenes from the play into the movie so that the audience can see where Barrie gets his inspiration. Through comical scenes, we see the play come together. At the same time, however, Barrie’s friendship with the Davies family becomes strained and we begin to wonder how it will all end.
One of the best things about this movie has to be the performances given by the young actors. Although all of them are adorable and play their parts well, Freddie Highmore, who plays Peter, is the stand-out. How a 12-year-old can add such intensity to a film is beyond me, but instead of questioning it, I just accept it.
Winslet also delivers a heartwarming performance as a woman trying to raise a family as she struggles to keep herself together. The subdued feelings between her and Barrie keep their friendship alive, even when her own mother tries to keep them apart. In a situation where it’s impossible to express the feelings of their characters, both Winslet and Depp do an amazing job of conveying them silently.
In the end, “Finding Neverland” is simply a movie about a man and the magic that comes into his life. It leaves the audience wanting to be a kid again to make a personal trip to Neverland. And, like Barrie said, it can be done if you “just believe.”