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Johnny Depp gets to play a pirate again, this time as J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. He dons the bandana and eye patch to amuse the children in his life, the sons of a woman who is not his wife.

Don’t Know Much About Biography

Pirates of the playhouse
Pirates of the playhouse

For better or worse, Finding Neverland is not so much a biography as a sweet, emotional drama. The main character did create Peter Pan, but that is not important. Any man with the same disposition would have made an equally good protagonist. Some facts of Barrie’s life come out in the details, as well as some fiction, but his renown has little to do with either Johnny Depp’s performance or Director Marc Forster’s focus.

Barrie (Depp) is married to Mary (Radha Mitchell). They have no children, which doesn’t suit Barrie at all. He loves kids, and at the park where he writes, he is more interested in amusing the kids than in ogling their mothers. Through repeated sightings he becomes familiar with the Davies family — four boys and a single mother (Kate Winslet), whose husband died of cancer.

Slowly, Barrie grows away from his wife and into the role of father for the Davies children. His love for the kids inspires him to write Peter Pan, which saves his flagging career as a playwright. (His wise and funny agent is played by Dustin Hoffman, who played Hook in Steven Spielberg’s take on Peter Pan.)

The movie glosses over some of the unpleasant facts of Barrie’s life. The movie makes Mary such a cold and aloof woman that we cheer their divorce. It also makes the boys’ mother more sympathetic than she perhaps deserves. But Forster and screenwriter David Magee (basedon a play by Allan Knee) are unapologetic. If they can wring a tear or a cheer from you by twisting the facts, then they’ll do so gladly.

Cautious Recommendation

My audience, including me, liked the film. The movie has played to positive response at several film festivals. Depp, Forster, and Miramax have all done well with this film.

But the gushy sentimentality is not honestly won. The movie wrings its approval from its audience, rather than earning it through sincerity and hard work. Granted, there are some very good performances, particularly from Depp and a young actor by the name of Freddie Highmore who plays the second-youngest Davies boy. But the emotional moments are calculated, planned, and scripted so that one feels more propagandized than moved.

Still, the movie earns a cautious recommendation because it is so successful at what it does. If you’re not turned off by good-hearted, two-hankie movies, give Finding Neverland a look. It does have a good heart. Just don’t kid yourself afterwards that you’ve actually learned anything real.