Finding Neverland

In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp plays an eccentric but ultimately successful artist whose romanticized take on childhood innocence becomes a major theme in his art and personal life. A real-life Peter Pan, he frequently engages in elaborate games of dress-up and make-believe with little boys. When disapproving types question why a grown man would spend so much time playing with other people's children instead of devoting more energy to his loveless marriage, he expresses shock and horror at their suspicions.

No, it's not the Michael Jackson story, but it's damn close. Jackson would, in fact, no doubt covet Depp's role in Finding Neverland, a maudlin, leaden biopic about the relationships that inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan. Directed by Marc Forster, who employs the same thudding earnestness he brought to Monster's Ball, the film documents the friendship binding unhappily married playwright Depp, seriously ill widow Kate Winslet, and Winslet's four rambunctious boys. As they all immerse themselves in fantasy, Radha Mitchell and Julie Christie provide grim counterparts as, respectively, Depp's chilly wife and the boys' stern grandmother, twin pillars of sentient ice who believe that adults should behave like adults and children should behave like adults, too.

Finding Neverland makes adulthood, as represented by Mitchell, Christie, and Dustin Hoffman (as a skeptical producer), look predictably grim, but it never imbues its portrayal of childhood wonder with the requisite pixie dust, either. Part weepy drama, part misty-eyed ode to innocence, the film makes Depp's moony-eyed dreamer a paper pixie-saint, leaving gifted child actor Freddie Highmore with Finding Neverland's most complex and rewarding role. As the boy who lends Peter Pan his name, Highmore gives the film some bracing, refreshingly dark undertones with his rage and despair at the impending death of his beloved mother. Forster's movie doesn't want to grow up, but it doesn't seem to understand childhood, either. For a film about the life-affirming power of imagination, Finding Neverland displays precious little of its own.

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