This much we know. James M. Barrie was inspired by his friendship with some fatherless boys, including one named Peter, to write one of the most enduring and beloved stories of all time, “Peter Pan.”
The story of the man who wrote about the boy who would not grow up has inspired this movie, loosely based on Barrie’s relationship with the Davies boys and their mother.
As it begins, Barrie is an playwright whose most recent show was not successful. His producer (Dustin Hoffman) is getting impatient. So is Barrie’s wife (Radha Mitchell), who finds him frustratingly distant.
One day, Barrie peeks through a hole in his newspaper (his wife has cut out a bad review of his show) and sees the Davies children playing in the park. Captured by their boyish imagination and touched by their loss, he begins to tell them stories. Their innocent fantasies, tinged with sadness, inspire him to write a play about a boy who stays young forever.
His relationship with the boys causes trouble with their grandmother (Julie Christie), who thinks it impairs her daughter’s chances for re-marriage. It puts more distance between Barrie and his wife. Outsiders wonder if there is something improper going on. But all Barrie wants is to play pirates and Indians. The boys help him find enchantment — they show him Neverland, and he shows it to the world.
The movie has some lovely images. Barrie and his wife open their separate bedroom doors. Behind hers is a bed. Behind his is…Neverland. And as in the timeless play itself, the pleasures of endless childhood in a world in which we lose a little more youth every day are movingly portrayed.
Depp, Winslet, and Christie give touching performances, but the question for a movie like this is whether it is as illuminating or entertaining as the work we see created. In this case, the answer is no. The fantasy sequences have more power and the glimpses of the play itself are more appealing than the framing story. You keep wanting to tell them to get out of the way so that you, too, can get back to Neverland.
Parents should know that the movie has some very sad moments and the plot focuses on children who lose both parents. There are non-explicit issues of adultery and a very low-key reference to possible improper interest in the boys. There are tense family situations and confrontations.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Barrie wanted to play with the boys and why he was sorry to see them grow up. What is the best part of being a child? What is the best part of being a grown-up?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the many versions of Barrie’s story, including Disney’s Peter Pan, the recent Peter Pan (the first live-action version with a boy in the lead role), and the Broadway musical version, especially the ones starring Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. They should also read some of Barrie’s other plays, including “What Every Woman Knows,” “Dear Brutus,” and “The Admirable Crichton.”