Finding Neverland‘s central conceit is that Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie found inspiration for Peter Pan through his relationship with a beautiful widow and her tragedy-scarred sons in 1903 London. Except the story isn’t true. Marc Forster’s film, adapted by David Magee from Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, is the sort of far-fetched make-believe Barrie became famous for, and as such comes off as a pointless exercise in faux-biopic cleverness. And irrespective of its historical accuracy, this fictionalized account of the creation of Peter, Tinkerbell, and all those forever-young lost boys is a cloying ode to the power of imagination and the relationship between life and art that’s as subtle as the maniacal, moustache-twirling Captain Hook.
Barrie (Johnny Depp) has just suffered another stage failure when, by chance, he meets single mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sprightly boys, one of whom—Peter (Freddie Highmore), of course—has been so wounded by his father’s death that he’s seemingly lost every trace of youthful whimsy or inventiveness. The writer, an eccentric man more interested in working and playing juvenile games of cowboys and Indians than spending time with his dour, oft-neglected wife (Radha Mitchell), soon ingratiates himself in the family’s life as a surrogate daddy/husband figure, much to the chagrin of jealous Mrs. Barrie and Sylvia’s cranky, overprotective mother (the always regal Julie Christie). Before long, he’s channeled his carefree days spent flying kites and lunching with the Davies clan into a unique play about young immortals and dastardly pirate ships, and—despite the professional risk—convinced his skeptical theater-owner employer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) to stage the lavish kid’s production.
Unlike Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education—which also traces the indistinct boundaries between fiction and reality—Forster’s film, by clumsily dramatizing every one of Barrie’s flights of fancy, leaves no room for the audience’s own imagination. Furthermore, the director’s depiction of the “real life” origins of Pan’s most famous moments (kids bouncing on beds and out the window; Hook’s curved, steely hand) is both exasperatingly precious and, since the film is essentially made-up, entirely unpersuasive. A stuffy literalism is omnipresent throughout, from Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s overbearing, calculating score to the script’s insistence that characters discuss every single one of the film’s themes during Sylvia’s cough-induced third-act calamity. Despite such maudlin, emotionally manipulative material, Depp exudes boyish mischievousness as the Pan-like Barrie, and his easygoing rapport with the Davies kids (all of whom fall just short of annoyingly precocious) helps partially offset the story’s shameless reliance on heartstring-pulling. A climactic makeshift performance of Peter Pan taps into the limitless, transcendent power of playing pretend, but by and large, the cumbersome Finding Neverland never gets off the ground.