This may sound odd but I had to grown into liking Peter Pan. Like Alice in Wonderland for me, it was just not one I understood when I was a kid. Why wouldn't you want to grow up? Of course, it's only once you're grown up that you understand how utterly awful it is to be grown up. Peter Pan knows what's up. So, it's only over the last few years that I've really come to appreciate the Peter Pan myth. I finally read the original story, got hooked on the Peter and the Starcatchers series (which is now a play coming to Broadway that I'll miss...bother) and re-watched Hook after all these years and understood that as a kid, I didn't get half the jokes! So, how I made it until now without seeing Finding Neverland, especially when it has some of my favorite actors and actresses, is puzzling.
The film tells the story of how J.M. Barrie, on the heels of a giant flop of a play, is inspired to write one of the most beloved children's stories of all time. Barrie, played quite endearing by Johnny Depp, meets a widow and her four children in the park one day, a family which is badly in need of some imagination since the loss of their husband and father. Barrie, in an unhappy marriage, brings laughter and fun into their lives forever changing them and him. It's an unconventional relationship that society predictably condemned them for but results in a play about the possibilities of childhood and the power of the imagination.
I really enjoyed this film. The acting was wonderful from both Depp and Kate Winslet who plays the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and I had forgotten how talented Freddie Highmore is. His portrayal of Peter Pan's namesake steals the film in my opinion. The kid even brought tears to my eyes and there were no animals in peril anywhere - impressive indeed! I can usually care less about humans dying in films (animals though? I am a blubbering mess).
Of course with a film like this I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes and thinking, "Sure, I bet that's exactly how that happened. Yeah right." And I did do that a little at first with this film until the first, what I suppose would be best called, magical realist scene where Barrie dances with his dog in the park which he is pretending is a bear at the time. The scene then alternates between the real scene and a magical scene where Barrie is dressed as a ringmaster of a circus who actually is dancing with a bear. These surreal scenes, sprinkled throughout the film, broke the pretend/real barrier and convinced me that keeping to the facts which inspired the film was not the primary goal of the story. Once the filmmakers got that across to me, I was willing to not wonder so much about the facts.
It is those scenes of pretend, scenes that exist only in the minds of the characters themselves, that are the most fun in the film. However, my favorite scenes of the film were those of Peter Pan's opening night. Between the audience, the actors, and the set design, it was really a wonderful sequence of the story. Watch the film for these scenes at least - the illustration of what kids know that grown-ups have forgotten was quite brilliantly presented and reminds you that Peter Pan is not simply a story for children - it has something fundamentally important to teach adults as well.