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On "Finding Neverland": What the critics said

Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore in "Finding Neverland."

J. M. Barrie: Johnny Depp, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies: Kate Winslet, Mary Ansell Barrie: Radha Mitchell, Emma du Maurier: Julie Christie, Charles Frohman: Dustin Hoffman, Peter: Freddie Highmore

Miramax Films presents a film directed by Marc Forster. Written by David Magee, based on the Allan Knee play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan." Running time: 101 minutes. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements and brief language).

"Finding Neverland" is the story of a man who doesn't want to grow up, and writes the story of a boy who never does. The boy is Peter Pan, and the man is Sir J.M. Barrie, who wrote his famous play after falling under the spell of a widow and her four young boys. That Barrie was married at the time, that he all but ignored his wife, that he all but moved into the widow's home, that his interest in the boys raised little suspicion, would make this story play very differently today….

"Finding Neverland" is, finally, surprisingly moving. The screenplay by David Magee (based on Allan Knee's play) and the direction of Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") manipulate the facts to get their effect; Sylvia's husband was still alive in the original story, for example, and her illness had not taken hold. But by compressing events, the movie creates for the Barrie character an opportunity for unconditional love. What he feels for the Davies family is disinterested and pure, despite all the appearances. What he feels for his wife remains a mystery, not least to her.

Read Ebert’s full review of “Finding Neverland”

The same week brings us "Kinsey," a film about a man who uncovered the truth about sex, and Finding Neverland, a film about a man who pretended that sex didn’t exist. So, it appears, did the filmmakers. According to a Laura Miller column in the New York Review of Books last December, J.M. Barrie, author most notably of 'Peter Pan,' decided to take his brother’s place when David Barrie died in a skating accident at age 13. To please his mother, he wore David’s clothes and spoke like him, and he never developed into adolescence. He was five feet tall and, it’s said, physically immature his entire adult life. "Finding Neverland" refers to none of this; neither does it suggest that Barrie’s preoccupation with children and his dogged "innocence" were anything less than wholesome. -- Peter Keough, The Boston Phoenix

A subdued and gentle Depp -- using a lilting Scottish accent, and physically reminiscent of 1950s' British heartthrob Dirk Bogarde -- is tremendously appealing as Barrie, while Winslet is all maternal gentleness in her role. It's a pleasure to see British cinema icon Christie have such a juicy role as the stern matriarch who opposes Barrie, while the young boys -- most especially the extraordinary Freddie Highmore as Peter -- are completely endearing. Hoffman is luxury casting in the relatively small role of Frohman, who in real life went down on the Lusitania.

Though children figure prominently in the story, and of course 'Peter Pan' is a family favorite, this film -- though completely unobjectionable -- is perhaps best suited to older adolescents and adults who will appreciate the film's bountiful virtues. Younger children might be disturbed by scenes of Sylvia's failing health. (Because of some thematic material -- marital discord and the mother's tragic illness -- and some mildly coarse language, the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents.) -- U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops film review

Like so many holiday movies with Academy Award aspirations, ''Finding Neverland'' is the kind of film where even the smallest crack has been sealed. Instead of real quirks, strange habits, moments of everyday gas, gurgle and grunting, movies like this give us sumptuous production design, meticulous costumes and stories meant to leave us dewy-eyed and thoughtful, if never actually disturbed. J.M. Barrie was a genius of sorts, a richly complex man who carved out a separate realm with the Davieses that helped shelter him from the storms inside and out. But 'Peter Pan' wasn't just a fanciful story about charming children; it was also about Barrie's own desire to never grow up, a yearning that the filmmakers chalk up to the banal desire of an adult trying to hold onto his imagination. -- Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

And though the film flirts with the suggestion that Barrie's relationship with the boys may have had unsavory connotations, something that has been much speculated upon, the evidence seems to indicate that Barrie, an extremely short and unattractive fellow with none of the dapper attraction of the handsome Depp, was probably impotent, and that was the source of the dissatisfaction in his marriage.

But then, the relationships between Captain Hook and Peter Pan and Wendy (not to mention the crocodile) had no real root in reality, yet they still contain the ticking of truth for anyone who listens. "Finding Neverland" may, in fact, be too reserved to have the emotional impact it seeks, but in its imposed constraints we can always see the frightened little boy in the man, and the importance of the role that make-believe plays in a world often too eager to tell us to accept things as they are instead of urging us to remake them by dreaming of how they could be. -- Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press

What Forster is interested in here is less a biopic than a mapped lunar landscape of one writer's imagination. Forster has some good ideas here: A few of the fantasy sequences in "Finding Neverland" are lovely, and he stages a few brief scenes from Peter Pan in a way that gives us a sense of the impact the play must have had on straitlaced, bejeweled Edwardian audiences. But if "Finding Neverland" shows a bit more grace and surefootedness than Forster's last picture, "Monster's Ball," it just doesn't have the buoyancy, or the resonance, that this kind of semifactual flight of fancy needs. -- Stephanie Zacharek,

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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