“Finding Neverland” (Miramax) stars Johnny Depp. Need a girl say anything more? Even the most mediocre endeavors can be made viewable through this man’s great presence. But while there is nothing mediocre about “Finding Neverland,” Depp’s seemingly effortless performance as J.M. Barrie, the Scottish playwright who brought “Peter Pan” to the stage, raises it far above an average sentimental biopic. Loosely based on Barrie’s relationship with the Llewellyn-Davies family, whose four young sons inspired the tale of Peter Pan, “Finding Neverland” successfully rides the fine line between enchanting family film and bittersweet drama, propelled by an excellent ensemble cast and a script that casts a spell in the same way Barrie’s play did over his audiences.
In the opening scenes, Barrie meets Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young boys during an afternoon at the park and immediately begins feeding their imaginations with his ability to create fantasy worlds from scratch. They, in turn, begin providing him with the material for his greatest and best-known work. Rumors, however, threaten both the Barrie and Llewellyn-Davies families as “Peter Pan” takes shape and begins production, and illness threatens the future of the children’s world. “Finding Neverland,” although rated PG, is a film for adults, and Barrie’s rumored pedophilia (which the film denies) adds an element of uneasiness – the film’s only real, perhaps inescapable flaw – to the enchantment.
While Johnny Depp is unquestionably the star of “Finding Neverland,” he is lent excellent support by a cast of established major talents like Winslet, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman, who is hilariously deadpan as Barrie’s producer. The four young boys are not only heart-crushingly adorable, but talented actors as well, particularly 12-year-old Freddie Highmore as middle son Peter. Marc Forster’s unobtrusive direction highlights the magic of the world Barrie creates without departing from the reality of the story. While the script is undoubtedly predictable, its blend of heartfelt emotion with funny and enjoyable moments made it worth watching nonetheless. Only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t cave in to the magic. Bring your least cynical self and a huge box of tissues.
“Finding Neverland” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday, Nov. 12.