"Benny and Joon." "Edward Scissorhands." "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." "Donnie Brasco." "Sleepy Hollow." "From Hell." "Blow." I could go on with the list of uniquely intriguing films that feature wonderful Johnny Depp performances, culminating in the huge accidental commercial success of last summer's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." So just how do you follow up on being the outrageous and unconventional swashbuckling pirate Captain Jack Sparrow? Why, with a brilliantly understated turn as J.M. Barrie, Scottish playwright and creator of "Peter Pan," of course.
With a soft Scottish brogue and his usual amazing on-screen presence, Depp makes Barrie his own in "Finding Neverland" (IMDb listing). The key to the mystery of the man is revealed in part by the requirement Barrie made of his actors in the script for "Peter Pan": "All characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child's outlook as their only important adornment."
With this guiding principle in mind, an accomplished and talented team, including director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"), screenwriter David Magee, and actors Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman and Radha Mitchell, has brought an incredible, fantastical and deeply touching story to the screen.
Based loosely on Allan Knee's play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan," "Finding Neverland" paints a picture of Barrie (Depp) as a moderately successful playwright trapped in a conventional and empty marriage to Mary (Mitchell), from which he escapes through days spent at the park with his St. Bernard Porthos and fancy-free flights of his boundless imagination to a place he calls Neverland. One day at the park Barrie meets the four Llewelyn-Davies boys, George (Nicolas Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero), Peter (Freddie Highmore) and Michael (Luke Spill), and their mother, the recently widowed Sylvia Du Maurier (Winslet). Barrie quickly forms a deep and lasting bond with Sylvia's sons through magic tricks and illusionary plays, delighting in their youthful exuberance, sense of adventure and limitless imagination, which ultimately become his much-needed inspiration and the catalyst for "Peter Pan." It is a stroke of genius and an unprecedented success, much to the relief of his American producer Charles Frohman (Hoffmann), but just as he lets the public into the secret world of Neverland, a brutal twist of fate challenges all of Barrie's own beliefs.
"Finding Neverland" beautifully carries off a striking balance between reality and fantasy, guided by the expert hand of Forster, who has much improved since the flawed and much over-hyped ‘Monster's Ball." "Neverland" is brought to life by a terrific cast who all give memorable performances. Depp shines as bright as ever, but steps graciously into the shadows at times to make room for the real stars -- the Llewelyn-Davis boys, in particular Freddie Highmore, who is simply riveting as Peter, still grieving for his father.
It is a story, Forster says, "about the power of one man's creativity to take people to another world, and about the deep human need for illusions, dreams and beliefs that inspire us even in the face of tragedy." Or, as Peter puts it, "It is magical. Thank you."
Filmfodder Grade: A