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By Pete Vonder Haar | February 25, 2005

“Finding Neverland” is, let’s see…the “fictional autobiographical” account of how author J.M. Barrie came to create “Peter Pan,” one of the acknowledged classics of children’s literature. It’s also a movie that endeavors to answer the age-old question: what kind of person writes a story filled with fairies, lost boys, and pirates?

Easy jokes aside, “Neverland’s” Barrie – as played by Johnny Depp – is a man facing a crossroads in his life. His latest play is a flop, and his marriage to wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) has become a cold, impersonal ordeal. Seeking inspiration, he makes the acquaintance of one Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), widowed mother of four sons. Barrie is friendly with Sylvia, but really hits it off with the boys, and begins spending more and more time playing games of imagination at the family’s house, causing further tension between him and Mary and making Sylvia’s mother, Emma (Julie Christie), increasingly suspicious. She, like most of “polite” British society, looks askance at a grown man who spends an inordinate amount of time with someone else’s kids.

Director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”) never addresses the possibility that Barrie might have had an unhealthy interest in children, which one can look at as either a wise narrative move or a cop-out. Personally, I felt the story benefited from leaving that stone unturned. Barrie, as Forster shows him, is a big kid, but not an immature idiot like so many other cinematic man-children. His affection for the boys, and their mother, is genuine, and Forster does a convincing job portraying Barrie as a decent sort.

He also shows a lighter touch here than with “Monster’s Ball,” a film that actually made seeing a naked Halle Berry a depressing experience. He’s taken a few cues from one of Ms. Winslet’s former directors (Peter Jackson) as well. “Neverland” often ventures from English countryside directly into Barrie’s fantasy world, much like we saw in Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” though the results this time around are decidedly less sinister.

Of course, being a period piece, “Finding Neverland” wouldn’t be complete without someone dying of an illness that has all but disappeared in modern times. I won’t say who it is, but anytime somebody in one of these films starts coughing, you know you can start winding the death clock. The character’s demise isn’t treated in too maudlin of a fashion, however. In fact, the film’s ending – featuring a live version of “Peter Pan” staged in the doomed one’s home – is one of the more moving scenes in recent memory.

Depp has probably sewn up another Oscar nomination for the role of J.M. Barrie, though I’m not sure how much of an effort he’s really putting forth (if anything sinks him, it might be his “here today/gone next scene” Scottish accent). Capt. Jack Sparrow seemed like more of a stretch, and he doesn’t come close to his excellent portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Don’t get me wrong, Depp is a fine actor, but I found myself more interested in Radha Mitchell and Freddie Highmore, who nails his performances as Sylvia’s son Peter. Kate Winslet is both stoic and vulnerable as noble single mother Sylvia, though she’s done so many of these corset-and-bustle movies it must be about as hard as sleepwalking for her by now.

“Finding Neverland” is an unusual little film. There are some grim themes being explored here: death, social ostracism, and “what a drag it is getting old.” Forster and company examine them all, but have still managed to craft an uplifting piece of work. I don’t usually go out of my way to recommend “adult” movies (meaning movies without fart jokes, not the other kind), but “Finding Neverland” is a worthwhile way to spend some of your precious leisure time, especially in this season of obnoxious cartoons and ham-handed holiday fare.

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