THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


We all know the story of Peter Pan, but how many of us know its origin? More likely, what we know is the Disney version of the tale, which kept certain elements but downplayed others. Finding Neverland is the story behind the story – a depiction of how this classic tale came to be in the first place. It’s a real eye-opener that gives us new respect for what Peter Pan is really all about.

Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, the British playwright who, when we first meet him, is seeing his star fade somewhat. After much success on the stage, Barrie’s more recent plays have failed to bring him the acclaim his earlier ones received. His financial backer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), likes Barrie but wants a hit. While sitting on a park bench one afternoon, Barrie meets a widow named Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her young sons Jack, George, and Michael. The kids have wonderful imaginations that come out in their fantasy play, and Barrie is immediately drawn to them. Day after day, he spends time with the family to engage in story-telling and role-playing. They devise stories of pirates and magical flying abilities and man-eating crocodiles.

Barrie shares a strained relationship with his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell), and his newfound free-time activity does not sit well with her. Others in town question Barrie’s motives for spending so much time with the Davies family. Some think he’s having an affair with Sylvia (he’s not), while others question his motives for hanging around young children (he’d never dream of anything inappropriate). Instead, what is happening is that he is taking all these play activities and using them as inspiration for a new work. He’s also becoming a surrogate father to the boys. Their common love of fantasy and imagination unites them; they genuinely “get” each other.

Eventually, the play is ready to hit the stage. To make certain that the stuffy theater types understand his motives, Barrie arranges for children to be in the audience. Unsurprisingly, the kids love it and the adults thereby recognize its appeal. Most movies would have ended here, but Finding Neverland goes on to show us what happens after Peter Pan’s inception. This is where its heart truly lies. Things happen to draw Barrie even closer to the family and we see just how much they have meant to him, and vice versa.

I was unfamiliar with the backstory of Peter Pan, and that made Finding Neverland a real discovery for me. How many of us knew what a personal, emotional, and heartfelt tale this was? You would never guess it from the Disney animated version, that’s for sure. The film shows us how the themes and characters of Peter Pan were lifted from Barrie’s relationship with the Davies family. At its core, Peter Pan is about the fear of growing up, of having to stop living a life of play and start accepting the harder truths of the world. These boys – who have lost their father – teeter on that edge. They have experienced great sadness, yet struggle to not grow up too fast. Barrie is their Peter, coming in and making them believe in the healing power of imagination.

Johnny Depp is an actor who always amazes. Last year, he dazzled in two showy roles: wacky Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean and a bizarro FBI agent in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Now he’s gone the exact opposite, giving a quiet, introspective performance as J.M. Barrie. This is a performance of great subtlety; Depp makes us feel the character’s inner life of imagination. It’s as though Barrie is as alive and fantastical on the inside as he is reserved and quiet on the outside. Kate Winslet also shines in her role of an emotionally overwhelmed woman who finds a much-needed friend in the author.

The heart of Finding Neverland, however, is the way it draws parallels between the story of Peter Pan and real life. Great storytelling often does have a basis in reality. Even if the tale being told has elements of fantasy, it can still be rooted in something personal and real. This film helps us to understand that Peter Pan was not just a story about a boy who didn’t want to grow up, or a pirate with a hook for a hand, or a hungry crocodile. Rather, it was about the loss of innocence and the traumatic arrival of maturity. It was about the love of a family and the need to have faith during times of crisis. Neverland, we learn, wasn’t just an imaginary place. For J.M. Barrie and the family he adopted, it was very real indeed.

( 1/2 out of four)

Finding Neverland is rated PG for mild thematic elements and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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