Peter Panache 

J.M. Barrie gets a Hollywood makeover in Finding Neverland.

Oh, that Johnny Depp. Played in some dime-a-dozen rock bands, did some average television, made a few cutesy little movies. Whatever. Yeah, he messes with his looks in a fun way sometimes, but otherwise he merely rides that nicotine-sunken-cheeks thing all the way to the bank. The guy's popular, but so's toilet paper.

Ha! Easy, ladies -- put the pins back in the grenades; just kidding there. Depp is the finest screen actor of his generation -- possibly of our time -- and his penchant for playing fruits and nuts is on proud (if subdued) display in Finding Neverland. As Peter Pan's creator James Matthew Barrie, Depp amalgamates his effete, deranged, romanticized artists (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) his freakshow authors (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Secret Window), and his crackpot adventurers (Dead Man, Pirates of the Caribbean). Toss in a convincing Scottish brogue that may inspire jealousy in Ewan McGregor (or at least Fat Bastard), and we have a whole new reason to appreciate cinema's most creative chameleon since Peter Sellers.

The film itself is pretty and sweet but a tad soggy, perhaps from steeping in its own juices for a couple of years' worth of title changes and marketing strategies while other Peter Pan product and Wacko Jacko-brand Neverland business blew through the public consciousness. It's actually a peculiarly innocent and subtle project for director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Everything Put Together). In adapting Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Forster indulges in broad, maudlin melodrama via his favorite topics (lost children, family wreckage), but gradually, to his credit, he rises from the plentiful syrup to deliver touching poetry.

Is Finding Neverland an accurate biographical account of the life of Barrie? Hardly. But don't hold that against it. Think of this as a fantasia upon reality, Barrie's very stock-in-trade. We first meet him -- with Depp masterfully sporting his Buster Keaton deadpan -- in London, circa 1903, nervously gauging audience reactions to his latest play. His curmudgeonly benefactor, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, possibly a cuddly stand-in for Harvey Weinstein), repeats twice during the opening credits that it's "the best thing I've produced in 25 years"; the public response, however, is blasé. Barrie and his wife Mary (Forster fave Radha Mitchell) ride the torpor, but it's obvious that the famous writer requires fresh inspiration.

Immediately, the score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek ratchets the "heartwarming" up to 11, and in short order, Kate Winslet and a gaggle of cute little boys show up in Kensington Gardens just in time to adore Depp dancing with a large St. Bernard as if it were a circus bear. Winslet plays the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, who suddenly finds her four boys (Joe Prospero, Nicholas Roud, Luke Spill, and particularly the gifted Freddie Highmore as Peter) the object of Barrie's affections -- and source of his adventurous inspirations leading up to the writing of Peter Pan. Here, fact goes out the window -- Sylvia's husband actually knew Barrie for a few years before dying, and there were only three boys when Barrie introduced himself, etc. -- but the fiction is undeniably charming.

The film is designed to be as warm and comforting as a cup of Earl Grey, but some conflict is required. Alas, Hoffman's grumbling boss-man certainly doesn't provide any -- not demanding conservative revisions to the truly bizarre Peter Pan, or even proving dastardly enough to smoke. (It's indeed mysterious that Hoffman is still paid to mumble and loiter, but at least he's more comprehensible here than in Hook.) In a quick cameo as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Hart (Backbeat) questions whether Barrie's boyish interests are untoward, but this concern is quickly squelched.

Thus we turn to the ladies for trouble. As the boys' overprotective grandmother, of all things, still-sexy Julie Christie shows up to give Barrie some hell, but mainly she's just irritable (perhaps because she does not change clothes once over a period of several months). Adding friction, Barrie's wife Mary realizes that his passions lay elsewhere and takes up with another writer. Then there's Winslet as Sylvia, strangely steely and far removed from the "other world" she visited in Heavenly Creatures, but as tragedy looms, her connection with Barrie and his fairies becomes quite poignant.

The crux, of course, is the love of the lads, particularly Peter (Highmore is terrific and will return, with Depp, as the lead in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In more lurid hands, the film might have sensationalized Barrie's attraction to the boys, but although most of them grew up to meet tragic ends, his desire for their company has been reported across the board as chaste and true. (What may have occurred could be called "Christopher Robin Syndrome," as the son of A.A. Milne felt his childhood was stolen by his father to launch the Winnie the Pooh phenomenon.) The film addresses Barrie's own ruined childhood; his urge to reconnect to the whimsy of youth could ring true for many lost boys the world around.

Does anyone actually find Neverland? Yes, happily, they do, and these days at the movies, we couldn't ask for a better guide than Depp.


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