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Monday, June 24

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Airbags

2 of 5 stars
Directed by Marc Forster.
Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman and Freddie Highmore.

The 1998 Best Picture winner, Shakespeare in Love, was the story of a young Will Shakespeare and his doomed relationship with Viola, which resulted in the inspiration for Romeo & Juliet, one of the Bard's finest works. I would hardly say it deserved its Oscar (The Thin Red Line did), but it was a smartly funny, entertaining bit of work, and it holds up to subsequent viewings. It was also totally made up.

Now, Monster Ball director Marc Forster's new film has lifted the basic story of a British writer whose work has been floundering of late and how he gains inspiration for a masterpiece from an ill-fated relationship. He replaces a fictionalized Will Shakespeare with a fictionalized version of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, crossbreeds it with the Terminal Illness Plot No. 2, and casts an actor who has been long overdue for an Oscar in the lead. In short, he's engineered the most shameless bid for an Oscar since The Door in the Floor.

In Finding Neverland, Barrie (Johnny Depp) is fresh off a flop when he meets a widowed Mrs. Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons in the park, befriending them instantly, to the chagrin of his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell). His friendship with Mrs. Davies and the boys, though platonic, leads to Mary's infidelity and their subsequent divorce. Barrie's adventures with the boys, particularly with the skeptical, but spirited Peter (Freddie Highmore), inspire him to create his next and greatest play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. In real life, Barrie wrote Peter Pan after two successes -- Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton, which are considered two of his finest plays. And, by the time Pan was produced, he had already known the Llewelyn-Davies children for nearly seven years. When Barrie met the two eldest boys, George and Jack, at the park in 1897, Michael, the youngest of the four children Foster's movie has him meeting, had not been born yet and Peter was still in diapers.

The logistics of filming an accurate depiction of Barrie's relationship with the children over the full ten year period would have required too many similar-looking child actors of various ages (or, perhaps, a huge special effects budget), so reducing the time frame to allow for one set of actors is understandable. Presumably this and other modifications to the timeline were inherited from Allan Knee's The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the play on which Finding Neverland is based.

The real Barrie often spent time at Kensington Gardens entertaining children -- that is where he first told George stories of his infant brother Peter flying out of his crib. It was not, as many very disturbed people would like to think, because of any sexual interest in them, but, more likely, because his own emotional growth had been so stunted that he never truly felt like an adult or comfortable among them. Biographies of Barrie reveal a figure so emasculated by his mother's rejection of him after the death of his older brother David that he attempted to replace David in her eyes, dressing and even acting like his older brother so that she would pay him any attention at all. His physical growth may well have been stunted, too; Barrie, at five feet tall, didn't grow any more after the age of 14.

The real Sylvia Davies was not home dying of a mysterious illness the night Peter Pan debuted, as she is in Neverland. If Mrs. Davies was home, she was probably nursing her infant son Michael with the husband she loved. Arthur Llewelyn Davies did die of cancer, but Barrie knew him for about ten years before that. Mr. Davies did not approve of Barrie's friendship with his boys for most of that time, but he and Barrie became close during Mr. Davies' illness and eventual death from cancer in 1907. The Barries divorced in 1909, a year before Mrs. Davies died. His relationship with her (as well as her boys) remained perfectly innocent, but still kind of creepy.

After the death of the real Sylvia Davies, Barrie secured his connection to the children by "accidentally" transcribing Mrs. Davies' will inaccurately, replacing a suggestion that the children's nurse "Jenny" should join them in their home with "Jimmy" (an event not mentioned in the film), and he raised them for the remainder of their childhood. Also not mentioned in the film are the deaths of the children. Michael, who had grown incredibly attached to Barrie, died in World War I. George and his "best friend" drowned together in 1921, very likely in a suicide pact. And Peter, tormented his whole life for being the namesake for Peter Pan, killed himself at age 60 by jumping under a train.

This is the Barrie that I would have liked to have glimpsed in Finding Neverland. Instead, we get schmaltzy scenes with canned dialogue eating up entirely too much time. The relationship between J.M. Barrie and the Davies family definitely has a story worth telling in it. That story is not Finding Neverland. If you're going to fudge the facts of the story, you should make it more interesting, not less. The deviations from the facts of the story wouldn't bother me if they made for a more engaging story. But when Shakepeare in Love did it, the sparkling dialogue by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard turned a potential train-wreck into a terrifically satisfying farce. Finding Neverland doesn't have half as much wit, depth or originality going for it to justify its liberties.

Forster does succeed on a visual level, though. The sweetly realized fantasy sequences of Barrie and the boys imagining they are pirates or in Neverland are beautifully done, evocative of the theatrical bits in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It also nicely pays tribute to Pan's roots in the stage, as well as lending the scenes an appropriate make-believe feel. Kids don't imagine things as if they were real, they imagine them as if they are larger than life. And in these brief, fantastic moments, the film has a life that its "real world" scenes do not. They almost make the whole movie worth watching.

Finding Neverland is playing at the Loews Esquire, AMC City North 14 and the Century 12/CinéArts 6 in Evanston. Depp and Highmore will be appearing opposite each other again in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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