In this movie based on a play (The Man Who Was Peter Pan) based on his life, famous playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) has just suffered a major theatrical flop and his marriage is floundering when he happens upon the widow Sylvia Davies and her four winsome sons at the park. The writer’s fertile imagination and the boys’ penchant for role-playing spark a fun-filled afternoon of playacting. One afternoon becomes two. Two become three. Soon Barrie is spending more time with the Davies family than he is with his own wife (Mary), time that rejuvenates his writing and brings new life to the grieving family ... and fuels the local rumor mill.
Barrie's role as the Davies boys' playmate and male role model takes on much deeper levels of responsibility and commitment when Sylvia's health deteriorates. But the whispering townsfolk, Sylvia’s critically outspoken mother (who is worried that her daughter is ruining her chances of finding a new husband by hanging out with a married man) and his wife's ultimatums weigh heavily on him. Ultimately, he chooses to ignore them all. He's too deep into the creation of Neverland, and it's his playtime with the Davies family that provides a steady supply of fodder for his story mill.
Many of the positive themes in this loosely biographical tale are closely dogged by negatives. But because of the director's admirable restraint in how he tells the story, its ups and downs can be easily utilized as discussion starters.
Barrie fills a void in the Davies' family life by being a fun-loving father-cum-playmate to the boys and a supportive friend to Sylvia (but at great cost to his own marriage and everyone’s reputations). He remains faithful to Mary (but the movie hints that his abandoned wife finds comfort in the arms of another). The season he spends with his pseudo-family inspires one of the world’s most beloved children’s tales (but it could be argued that Peter Pan perpetuates escapism and male immaturity, and that its theme of "letting kids be kids" is far more suited for the strict disciplinarians of the early 20th century than the looseness of the early 21st).
Elsewhere, Barrie encourages one of Sylvia's boys, Peter, to write down stories from his own imagination. When Peter destroys his journal in a fit of grief-borne anger, Sylvia lovingly mends the book and restores the boy’s spirit by telling him, “I’ve never been so proud of you.” When Barrie's theater producer expresses doubt that a play filled with fairies, pirates and Indians will appeal to a blue-blooded audience, Barrie asks for 25 seats to be held for young orphans. It's one of the film’s richest moments when the dirty urchins spread out among the stuffy crowd and turn their elders' cultivated sourness into warm smiles with contagious expressions of delight.
For Barrie, imagination reigns supreme over his kingdom of Neverland. He’s nearly evangelical about this humanistic approach to life, holding out his fantasy world to a dying Sylvia as something of a substitute for heaven. When a grieving Peter seeks comfort from Barrie, he replies, “She went to Neverland, and you can go visit whenever you want.”
Barrie isn't above questioning his own “just believe” philosophy, though. Trying to make Sylvia face the seriousness of her condition, he tells her, “You can’t keep pretending.” But by this time, she’s a true convert and reels him back into the reality of pretense.
In the production of Peter Pan, Wendy (the character inspired by Sylvia) asks the audience to help resuscitate a dying Tinkerbelle by clapping if they believe in fairies.
Sadly, Barrie and his wife have separate bedrooms and share little physical affection. But it's commendable that Barrie’s relationship with Sylvia remains platonic, devoid of even the most innocent of flirtations. He’s oblivious when thrashing waves leave her breasts rain soaked and nearly bare during an imaginary pirate play. The camera notices, however, lingering on her cleavage several times.
On several occasions, Barrie is made aware of spreading rumors about the inordinate amount of time he spends with Sylvia. When a friend intimates that some are even hinting that Barrie’s fondness for the boys is inappropriate, he reacts with righteous indignation: “They’re innocent children—how could people think such a thing?”
Barrie's (offscreen) biographers frequently speculate on the sexual nature of the “man who was Peter Pan,” assigning to him everything from impotence to pedophilia. The most likely theory, and the one supported in Finding Neverland, is that he was simply childlike and asexual in his relationships, probably stemming from the tragic childhood loss of his brother and subsequent rejection by his mother (a factual story Barrie shares with Sylvia in the film).
A “flying” boy is accidentally dropped from theatrical rigging, falls to the stage and breaks his arm. Peter smashes up the boys’ playhouse in a fit of anguished rage. The brothers play with pretend guns and swords, and two of them scuffle briefly.
Crude or Profane Language
Early on, Barrie blurts the s-word and refers to a “bull’s pizzle” in brushing aside someone’s opinion. The epithets “injuns” and “redskins” (common to the period) are used in cowboy-and-Indian play.
Drug and Alcohol Content
An actor drinks from a flask and a producer drinks from a cocktail glass; wine is served at meals and theatergoers imbibe after the curtain falls. The producer also brandishes a cigarette holder and a few background characters smoke cigars.
Other Negative Elements
The boys’ occasional disrespect of adults is often attributed to grief, but the only way they are taught to deal with it is through escapism.
Finding Neverland does a masterful job of illuminating the creative process. Real-life events are grasped by Barrie’s imagination and brightly translated into scenes of fantasy. In his mind’s eye, boys jumping up and down on their beds miraculously float out the window. Voilà! Peter Pan is born. So passionately consumed is he by the progression, and so alluring his faith in imagination, that others are drawn into its embrace.
It’s hard to measure the value of the pivotal role Barrie played in the Davies’ family during their time of need without taking into account the losses, though. His marriage and reputation (at least until his new play became a hit). Sylvia's social standing. And the substitution of fleeting escapes into an imaginary world for honest healing from grief and development of life skills in the boys’ lives (prompting comparison to today’s cultural obsession with entertainment).
Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet more than earn their keep here, delivering deep and enchanting performances. But what makes this film so engaging and fascinating—and keeps it from turning into yet another by-the-numbers biopic—is its nuanced attention to the way small decisions can so radically change your life. When Barrie comes home full of excitement from meeting the Davies family, Mary’s not jealous. Why not? Because her social antennae are up, and she promptly suggests they invite the family to dinner because Sylvia's mother “knows everyone worth knowing.” Then, instead of bridging the widening gulf between Barrie’s life at home and that with the Davies, the evening proves a disaster.
When Sylvia seems overwhelmed by the responsibility of mothering four wild boys, often letting them run amok, Barrie wholeheartedly encourages her laxity. Finally, Sylvia's mother tries to instill some discipline in the home. But while her instincts are right on, she's harsher than she needs to be. Instead of being lovingly firm, she brusquely undermines her daughter’s authority, realizing too late the damage she's done.
The story’s heart is captured when Barrie advises Sylvia, “Boys should never be sent to bed. They always wake up a day older.” But do they wake up wiser? And do they realize that a real-life Paradise exists beyond the Neverland of their dreams?