THE TALE of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, and the children he spirited over the sleeping rooftops of London and on to Neverland -- was there a better bedtime story? Don't even try to convince me there was. I know what I'm talking about: I flew there, too. So did others. Millions of them. Many are now sad-eyed, earthbound grown-ups, dragging their briefcases on to the crowded Metro or cursing behind the wheel on I-95. But I daresay many can remember the gravity-defying exhilaration of pure belief.
"Finding Neverland," starring Johnny Depp, is for the ones who remember, or want to.
Who was the genius behind all this? Who dreamed up Peter, Cap'n Hook, Wendy, Tink and the Lost Boys? That would be Scotland's own J.M. Barrie, the subject of Marc Forster's quietly enchanting "Neverland," whose 1904 staging of the play "Peter Pan" introduced flight and fancy to a sedate English stage.
Played by Depp, James Barrie is a childlike soul, a soft-spoken yet charismatic clown who's all but absent from his marriage with Mary Barrie (Radha Mitchell), but who's readily available to four children he meets one sunny day in a London park.
His magical ways with them charm the heart of their widowed mother, the ailing Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). Despite hostility from Sylvia's magisterial mother, Emma (Julie Christie), James becomes an essential family member, supervising imaginary games and trying to animate young Peter -- still emotionally withdrawn after the death of his father.
These children, we rapidly realize, will soon become James's inspiration for Peter Pan and the Darling family. James's Newfoundland dog will also figure in the story. So will Emma, whose surrogate figure will be Cap'n Hook.
"Is he in trouble?" young Michael asks aloud when Emma sternly asks James to have a private word with her.
The real story, as many a world-weary adult might tell you, is far different. There were five children, not four. Barrie was inspired by three families, not one. The head of the Davies family was not dead when Barrie met them. And there's no way the 5-foot-1 Barrie resembled Depp, handsomest man on the planet. There is also that never-proven intimation of pedophilia on the real Barrie's part, suggested by his obsessive interest in children and an emotionally lackluster, almost asexual relationship with his wife.
But movies are about emotional truths. And scriptwriter David Magee (adapting Alan Knee's play) has taken that crucial time between Barrie's meeting of various children in the early 1900s and 1904 (when the play opened) and run with it. Flown with it, perhaps. How deeply appropriate for the man who conjured such blissful make-believe.
"Finding Neverland" is the story most people would want to hear, a film about the power of imagination in a hostile world. (There's an unintended chuckle, too, for Washington audiences, that has to do with "Redskins.") That world includes Emma's withering glances; Sylvia's onset of tuberculosis; Peter's resistance to fun; James's harried producer (Dustin Hoffman), who pressures him to write an instant and successful play; and the stares of those who disapprove of his peculiar relationship with someone else's children.
Depp is a charm. He becomes his own, subtly compelling Barrie. And his Scottish accent, I have to say, is more than close enough for Hollywood work. A man-boy who certainly ignores the responsibilities of his own marriage, he knows the score when it comes to preserving one's innocence. "Young boys should never be sent to bed," he warns Sylvia at one point. "They always wake up a day older." It's a super line for the movie, an even better one for life.
FINDING NEVERLAND (PG, 101 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable except the threat of a mother's death. Area theaters.