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Believe in Forster's 'Neverland'

Nov. 30, 2004

By LAURA KYLE, reporter

Just as Peter Pan, the play, was adapted to film, so is Finding Neverland, a stage to screen transformation that is as much about writer J.M. Barrie's life as it is about hope. Relative newcomer Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) genuinely directs this magical exploration of what it really means to believe in fairies.

Much like the recent Big Fish and In America, Finding Neverland reminds us that childhood dreams and fantasies should not be separate from real life, but should inspire it.

Based on a true story, Johnny Depp is Barrie, the famous playwright, who befriended widow Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four boys, a relationship that in the face of public criticism would eventually motivate the beloved story of Peter Pan. Barrie's dysfunctional marriage complicates an otherwise saint of a man, and underlying tragedy threatens to force little boys to grow up too soon.

Last year's live-action blockbuster rendition of Peter Pan sought to play off our nostalgia for the original children's tale, but Finding Neverland actually does so. It's profoundly ironic that the second to youngest boy, Peter (Freddie Highmore), would have Barrie believe that he is the least imaginative and adventurous of his siblings. Other details ring familiar, as Forster occasionally and effortlessly shifts into Barrie's imagination. Such examples include the Davies' big, furry dog and domineering grandmother, who insists on taking care of Sylvia and the family without Barrie's help, and in the process, disciplines the playful boys.

A charming first half eventually segues into a much weightier second -- there is no cheap manipulation going on here, just bona fide tear-jerking moments. And although I didn't quite cry, I wouldn't have been ashamed to.

Depp never gets hung up on his character's Scottish accent and he decidedly turns the volume down for his delicate interpretation of Barrie, an optimist who wants to salvage as much childhood innocence as possible, and at the same time, wisely understands the eventual rites of passage that must occur in every young boy's life. Winslet also gives a subdued but effective portrayal as a woman who, like Barrie, is fully aware of the enormous power of pretending.

Despite Depp and Winslet's pitch-perfect performances and a surprising, though much welcomed supporting role from Dustin Hoffman (as Barrie's producer), the cast of young boys often steal scenes, especially Highmore, who once again proves that children can "act naturally" much better than the adults.

Luckily, Depp is a generous performer who knows when to back off. Highmore could conceivably grab a supporting actor nomination from the Academy for this role, but one never knows with these things -- and he and Depp still have the much-anticipated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Finding Neverland is a dreamlike movie and although rooted in true events, it's quite clear Forster is more interested in expressing unfeigned emotion -- not exhaustive plot accuracy, or even realism. This is wonderful, because if Forster were to rely on realism, he would betray Finding Neverland's very own themes and aspirations. After the intense Monster's Ball, we "Find Forster" here -- or at least his heart.

Cinematographer Robert Schafer's beautiful contribution, Jan Kaczmarek's elegant score, and Forster's fluent style, bring to life a story that is worth telling, especially during a time in history that is doubled over in cynicism. Finding Neverland is a worthy masterpiece the entire family can enjoy.