If you think you're immune to the charms of Peter Pan, give it another look. You can do so without popping in a sticky cassette from the kids' video collection or, even better, without trekking to a local auditorium to watch a wannabe Cathy Rigby tame the Lost Boys in an amateur production. Instead, just go to a movie theater playing Finding Neverland.
You'll discover that the well-known fantasy about the search for eternal youth grew out of author J.M. Barrie's scandalous friendship with a widow and her four sons. Sounds like it has all the earmarks of a period tearjerker, a wee bit of whimsy destined for PBS, right? But director Marc Foster, who guided Halle Berry to an Oscar in 2002's hard-bitten drama Monster's Ball, orchestrates a beautiful fugue on the consoling and regenerative effects of art and imagination.
He can thank the unlikely casting of Johnny Depp. Depp brings a steady, wise-yet-vulnerable, almost otherworldly quality to the Scottish playwright. And he may be thanking Foster from the podium this awards season.
Allan Knee's stage play The Man Who Was Peter Pan shouldn't go unmentioned, with one proviso. That title suggests the focal point of this screen adaptation is a man yearning to be a kid again. It's not, even though Barrie has child-like qualities that Depp communicates with precision and economy. (One quick scene echoes his flamboyant turn in Pirates of the Caribbean, but you'll marvel at how he conjures a completely different, more sober swashbuckler).
Nor is the movie a paean to the magic of the theater per se or the mechanics of the creative process. It tells how Peter Pan came to be; yet that isn't what you take away. The most profound implications of Barrie's famous work are communicated in a direct and emotional way. Not surprisingly, Finding Neverland literally means confronting death. It also demonstrates how the harsh certainties and abrupt calamities of life can be channeled into something that does more than pacify: artistic striving that sustains and energizes.
The movie begins in a London theater in the early 1900s with a reminder that the arts fail to grab hold more often than not. Opening night of Barrie's latest, a drawing room flop, leaves his American backer (Dustin Hoffman) disappointed and the author's wife (the lovely Radha Mitchell) irritated. She's primed to advance socially and becomes increasingly aware her husband isn't interested.
Their foundering marriage adorns one panel in the seamless backdrop. The practical necessity of finding his next subject sends him into the park the next day, where he meets the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played with stolid stoicism by Kate Winslet) and her brood. They become his muse and, as a more fraternal than paternal figure, he stokes their imaginations and belief in the power of make-believe. The son called Peter (Freddie Highmore) is pegged as a budding artist. A summer together as a quasi-family unit becomes the raw material of Peter Pan, with her haughty mother (Julie Christie) objecting and society folk whispering about the unorthodox attachment.
Soon enough events take a predictably somber turn. With great theatrical flourish, Sylvia's unnamed illness is woven together with the premiere of Peter Pan for a stirring climax that packs an emotional if tasteful wallop. One testimony to Depp's enormous talent is that the romantic bond between Sylvia and Barrie almost goes unnoticed. After you get accustomed to his brogue, you realize what a tremendously understated performance Depp is giving. Ethereal yet physically potent, his Barrie is no stiff Scot, nor does he wear his heart on his tweed sleeve.
The broader magic in Finding Neverland is how it extends the basic message of Peter Pan without petty psychologizing. This cogent, adult exercise puts the somber edges of the play into stark relief and then rubs them down but not away. The lush, pastoral production also places the work in its historical context. Any of Europe's lingering innocence will soon be shattered by World War I. In the meantime, Victorian England's preoccupations with class, manners, and religion are giving way to the dandyism and aestheticism of the Edwardian era.
The death of one parent -- or both -- doesn't seem monumental in comparison. But by celebrating the efficacy of creativity and imagination, Finding Neverland offers more than solace for anyone, young or old, coping with loss. Watch it and you'll never approach Peter Pan the same way again.
(Released by Miramax and rated "PG" for mild thematic elements and brief language.)