The fairy dust falls in damp clumps onto Finding Neverland, Marc Forster's movie about the writing of Peter Pan, which celebrates its 100th birthday this December. Biting down on a Scottish accent, Johnny Depp stars as James Barrie, the London-based playwright and novelist who had his own reservations about growing up. Luckily, thanks to a group of rambunctious boys he met one day in Kensington Gardens, he didn't really have to. Barrie's relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her five sons is well documented in a 1979 book by Andrew Birkin called J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys. And although Birkin finally concluded that there was nothing improper in Barrie's affections for Sylvia or her sons, it's hard to read the book without wondering exactly what was going on. For not only did "Uncle Jim" abandon his wife to spend his days playing in the park, he wound up with custody of the children when first their father and then their mother met with premature deaths. Peter Pan had found his Neverland.
And Marc Forster has found his. Finding Neverland, which describes itself as "inspired by," not "based upon," a true story, has decided to give Barrie the benefit of the doubt. Depp's Barrie is a holy innocent verging on a holy fool, so in touch is he with his inner child. And the movie is yet another plea for us to hold on to our childlike sense of wonder. When it opens, Barrie's new play has flopped, sapping his creative juices. But the Llewelyn Davies boys, for whom life is an endless round of Cowboys-and-Indians, are just what the doctor ordered. Their adventures, which Barrie joins in and often leads, are a children's classic just waiting to be written down, or so it seems as a late-night pillow fight causes Barrie to make a mental note, imagining the boys flying out the window. Meanwhile, people are starting to talk, and Barrie's wife sits around an empty house, wringing her hands. Then Sylvia, whom Kate Winslet valiantly tries to establish as a full-fledged character, emits a tell-tale cough.
"To die will be an awfully big adventure!" Peter Pan famously cries when Captain Hook gets him in his clutches. In Finding Neverland, death is an awfully big bummer, so much so that it's hard to imagine taking one's own little Peters and Wendys. The movie seems haunted by death, right down to its funereal pace. And Forster, despite numerous fantasy snippets that bring Barrie's imagination to life, can't snap the story out of its doldrums. Why is it so leaden? Even Depp, who can be pretty light on his feet, has trouble lifting off the ground. Where's his childlike wonder? Barrie, we learn, got frozen at age 6, which is how old he was when his 13-year-old brother died in an ice-skating accident. And the real-life Barrie's pixie-ish appearance (he was barely five feet tall) can only have contributed to that impression. But Depp doesn't seem like a boy trapped in a man's body. He seems like an Edwardian gentleman who really should have had some kids of his own - a father figure, not a brother figure.
Peter Llewelyn Davies, who endured a lifetime of being called Peter Pan, once referred to Barrie as the "strange little creature" whose "connection with our family brought so much more sorrow than happiness." Later, he would commit suicide by jumping in front of a London subway train. Two of Peter's brothers had died young, one in the trenches of World War I, the other at Oxford, by drowning, perhaps as part of a suicide pact. So the Lost Boys were truly lost, a fact that Finding Neverland can't quite face up to. It converts the young Peter (Freddie Highmore) into a budding writer who's the dearest to Barrie's heart. Chalk up another one for dramatic license, but you have to wonder whether there wasn't a far more interesting movie to be made from the strange little creature and his prepubescent muses - one that, like Peter Pan itself, confronts our never-ending fears of sex and death. Finding Neverland is so intent on finding Neverland that it neglects the rich, loamy soil under its feet.