Peter Pan was immortalized by Disney in 1953, but as with many of the great fairy tales that they have adapted, it’s easy to forget that there was an earlier spark. These stories do not begin and end with Disney. They have a far more complex origin story and ensuing history. So it goes with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Finding Neverland has a satisfactory periodness that reflects a bygone era neatly and without much-added schmaltz. Johnny Depp turns out to be thoroughly charismatic as 19th-century writer J.M Barrie, the mastermind behind Peter, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, and all the rest. But this is really the story about his inspiration for the fairy tale that defined his career.
Kate Winslet is a wonderfully benevolent free spirit who single-handedly raises a family of four boys. Her mother (Julie Christie) is a brusque rather domineering lady, but Barrie is still drawn to this family because they awaken his own imagination.
The film allows itself to be whisked away into glorious worlds, dreamscapes out of the minds of children with the wildest of imaginations, but it continually remains grounded in the story of these people: A writer, a lady, and her sons. It conjures up the fantastical whimsy of Tim Burton’s Big Fish while preceding similar narratives like Saving Mr. Banks rather effortlessly.
There, of course, are the expected difficulties. His latest play backed by the wealthy money bags Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) was a monumental flop and neither one of them can afford another such showing. Barrie also has trouble connecting with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and they slowly drift farther and farther apart right in front of each other’s eyes. They know it’s happening and still there’s very little they can do. Meanwhile, Sylvia Llewan Davies comes down with a sickness that she refuses to accept treatment for, but it becomes completely debilitating. Continually Barrie’s home life and personal relationships are intersecting and butting up against this world that he has created: Neverland
But the night of the big opening of his play arrives with much anticipation. There’s the normal stuffy crowd until a crowd of orphan children files into the performance, on Barrie’s doing. Because in some ways, they are the best critics. They know what they like and they are not afraid to show their approval or their derision for that matter. Their laughter spreads throughout the great hall and the show winds up a monumental success.
However, perhaps more importantly, the film has some final wisdom to dole out to anyone willing to take the time to be still and listen. Even if time is chasing after all of us like the famous ticking crocodile, that doesn’t mean we have to grow up too fast or leave behind the wonderment of youth. There’s still so much to see if only we had the eyes to see them. The clear, credulous eyes of a child. That’s some of what Peter Pan taps into as with all timeless children stories. Because they aren’t really children stories at all, but tales that touch each and every one of us through life and even in death. Finding Neverland remains a fitting reminder of that. Each person needs hope in something greater. It’s finding that thing which is paramount to every existence.