Finding Neverland (2004)

We wanted it to be about creating art, and we wanted it to be about what someone saw and felt and how they translated that to paper.
— Nellie Bellflower, “The Magic of Finding Neverland

Young boys should never be sent to bed. They always wake up a day older.
— J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), Finding Neverland

“I think the essence of this scene coming up,” observes Finding Neverland producer Richard Gladstein, “is the philosophy we used in making the movie.” DVD Commentary tracks are designed for such moments. And so you are eager to hear the essence, which, as director Marc Forster tells it, was inspired by Arthur Miller by way of Dustin Hoffman (they worked together on a production of Death of a Salesman). In Neverland, Hoffman plays Charles Frohman, J.M. Barrie’s (Johnny Depp) producer, and in this scene, they sit in the theater for which he has taken out an extended lease to support the young playwright’s creative processes, at the moment, not profitable. The seats are red, workers are moving props and scenery behind them. Frohman holds forth on the vagaries of critics, whom he says have “changed” theater. “They made it important,” he sighs. The camera racks to James, across the aisle, as he ponders this notion. “What is it called?” asks Frohman rhetorically, before he answers himself: “Play.”

Forster, Gladstein, and screenwriter David Magee congratulate themselves on their incorporation of Arthur Miller’s insight into their film, part homage, part enchantment. The film takes up the theme repeatedly: play is a means to define childhood, to prolong mythic innocence, to grant nobility. It’s also a way to make trouble, to disrupt adult propriety and expectation, to imagine yourself and reshape responsibility. “Inspired by true events,” and adapted by Magee from Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Finding Neverland offers a Barrie at once childish and inspired, resistant and vulnerable. He lives for children and in them.

And yet, Barrie’s playfulness exasperates his proper wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), who has her eye on social advancement. As the film opens in “London, 1903,” she has stopped appreciating his career, which has become more routine than splendid. (This even as it appears they once shared enthusiasm for the sheer drama of opening nights and homage paid to his celebrity, however small.) Frohman ensures that each new play is mounted, each opening to moderate notice and running for a limited engagement, until James conjures another and the ritual commences again.

Delightfully and smartly, the film layers its versions of realties, in the form of shared expeditions, to and away from “neverland.” Focused on tensions between creation and commerce, the thrill of art, the emotional difficulties of daily engagements, it invites viewers to share in Barrie’s supple imaginings, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes beautifully. Both sorts of transportations work, in their ways. James, for his part, remains enchanted and heartened by the possibilities of theater, though also fretful over mundane career demands. This much is suggested in his first appearance, backstage, afraid to look at the audience or stage, mouthing the words along with the players, as he knows them so well, down to cadences and pauses. “They hate it,” he worries.

Seeking inspiration or distraction, he finds both in the Llewellyn Davieses, a family of four boys and a single mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), he encounters in Kensington Gardens one sunny afternoon. In an effort to move the boys as he is so immediately moved by then, James engages the help of his enormous dog Porthos, to play a bear for a one-man play he puts on in the park (and eventually, to play the model for Nana, the dog who looks after Wendy and her brothers in Peter Pan). Sensitive Peter is especially difficult to console, as he still mourns the death of his father (in real life, Mr. Llewellyn Davies was alive during James’ early relationship with the family, but it’s easier and neater not to suggest competition). As James tries to win the boy over, indeed, to bring him back from the brink of adulthood-too-soon, he also finds in himself a previously untapped creativity and joy.

Depp is, of course, quite perfect for the part, a lovely, adventurous, wholly generous performer whose work with the children in the cast — Nick Roud as George, Joe Prospero as Jack, Freddie Highmore as Peter, and Luke Spill as Michael — is often breathtaking in its breadth and simplicity. (Aside from the quite charming commentary track, the DVD includes some regular-seeming featurettes, “Creating Neverland” [concerning visual effects], and “On the Red Carpet” [doings at the film’s premiere], as well as a making-of piece, “The Magic of Finding Neverland,” much of which is a righteous Johnny Depp love-fest.)

While the film presents several, more or less known “reasons” for Barrie’s perpetual youthfulness (he lost his own brother as a child, his imagination is too grand for the grownup world), it also, briefly, addresses what Forster calls “the subject matter everybody is always talking about, the whole pedophilia issue.” (This compounded, of course, by the Michael Jackson scandals.) Forster describes his subject as an “asexual man, he didn’t like to be touched or touch others, and he definitely was no pedophile.” And with that, he changes the subject, almost impatiently, from this “post-Freudian reinterpretation” to a favorite shot of cake dunking shot, a little homage to Forster’s grandmother.

Rather than excavate desire that even begins to seem unseemly, the film tracks back and forth between other sorts of desire, with scenes dissolving from fantasy to reality, stage play to child’s play. As James conjures the story of Peter and the Lost Boys aboard the pirates’ ship, the scene literalizes the dream and its construction at once, with antic artificial waves booming in the background alongside real water (drenching the kids), while a scar-faced Captain Hook (James) looms over the children, demanding they claim their “pirate” names. When young Peter refuses, he does so out of his lingering sadness, his continued inability to imagine beyond his life’s tragedy. Of course, James will rouse the boy from his sorrow and allow him to rejoin his own childhood, only temporarily abandoned. (And the tale here does not comport with historical records, one of which notes that the boy Peter was long troubled, by this and other relatives’ deaths, disliked the play named for him, and eventually killed himself.)

While James rejects the world at large, in particular the gossip about his friendship with Sylvia and the “innocent children,” he hopes to win over her social-risk-averse mother, Mrs. Emma Du Maurier (Julie Christie). But he finds himself up against it when she begins ailing (indicated by that most worn out sign — an ominous cough and her attempt to hide it with her dainty hand). As Sylvia’s real-life body impinges on the whimsies that so buoy her boys’ newly energized lives, she also turns enormously gallant but not tragic. If the movie does lay on the heart-rending, the performers hold back just enough to contain the just-about-to-bubble-over excess.

The film takes you where you might expect — an ideal initial staging of Peter Pan (with the charismatic Kelly MacDonald as Peter, complete with mechanical hoists and glittering fairy dust). For this opening night, James invites his most desired viewers, a group of young orphans in sore need of amazing entertainment. Their reactions incite the proper responses in the adults seated around them, and yes, the point is made that seeing as children see might be the most effective way back to wonder and delight. If only.