"The Man Who Was Peter Pan" is Allan Knee's stage play of imaginary conversations between "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie and the four fatherless boys who inspired him to write that very same children's classic. "Finding Neverland" is adapted from that work, and features Johnny Depp as Scottish author Barrie. Since the true story is far more tragic than the one told in the film, the key to enjoying "Finding Neverland" is to understand the movie is the fairy-tale version of the making of a fairy tale.
Following the icy reception of his newest play by London's well-to-do theater crowd, Barrie meets the recently widowed Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four precocious little sons while going for a walk in Kensington Gardens. He is impressed by the young ones' unbridled imagination and comes to befriend the struggling family. He visits them regularly and takes them on frequent trips where they can let their most whimsical fantasies run free. The charismatic Depp has an easy rapport with the kids and is convincing as both a father figure and playmate.
Barrie's relationship with Peter Davies (Freddie Highmore) soon develops. Certainly the most intriguing of the young boys, Peter is the most honest about his feelings that Barrie should not try to take the place of his dead father.
The playwright encourages the boy to become a writer himself, and Peter begins to see how creating art can be beneficial when one is dealing with pain. Eleven-year-old Highmore radiates with the depth and intelligence of someone twice his age. His onscreen chemistry with Depp is palpable, and it is easy to see why Depp requested that the young actor co-star with him again, playing the title role in the upcoming "Willy Wonka" remake: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
Meanwhile, Barrie's cooling relationship with his wife becomes more strained as talk circulates in London's high society about the widower and the playwright. Here the film stumbles a bit, and Radha Mitchell is not able to elevate the role of Mary Barrie above the one dimension of a jealous wife.
Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") fares better when the film lapses into Barrie's active imagination. He seamlessly blends real-life events and people from the author's life into the fantastical scenes depicted in "Peter Pan." These moments are convincing partly because of some sparkling set and costume design, and partially because of his tasteful, sparing use of computer-generated effects. By showing the audience how recognizable "Pan" characters like Smee and Captain Hook may have come from real people, Forster draws a genuine, if not obvious, parallel between art and life.
The movie takes liberties with true events. For example, there were actually five Davies children, and their eventual fates are heartbreaking no matter how rich a fantasy life they could have led. But this is of no consequence to the film as its own entity.
David Magee's screenplay revels in the idea that a healthy dose of fantasy can save one from an unwanted dose of reality. It also tugs at the heartstrings in the most reliable ways. The real Peter Pan is not young Peter Davies, but instead its author, Mr. Barrie. "Finding Neverland" demonstrates that we all must retain a bit of our childhood in order to keep our sanity in an adult world.
It may come off as quaint and tidy for those who know the real story, but this version is one that kids of all ages can enjoy.