Josh Bell

Only part of the appeal of a good biopic is that it's true. The other part, as with any good movie, is that it's a good story, something that draws you in and feels real even if it's only partly true or not true at all. The makers of Finding Neverland, about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, think they've got a great story, so they're not so much worried about what's true. The problem is they're wrong, and all they've got is a predictable, manipulative, mediocre film that's about a great story, and what's true would probably have been a lot more interesting.

The true parts that actually end up in the movie are basically this: In 1904, Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), after a string of high-profile disappointments, wrote a wildly successful play called Peter Pan that appealed to both children and adults, inspired in part by his friendship with the young sons of Sylvia Llewellyn Davies (Kate Winslet). Anything beyond that diverts from the truth, as director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) and screenwriter David Magee present a world in which Sylvia is conveniently widowed as she meets Barrie, her children are winnowed down from five to four, and any hint of impropriety is excised from Barrie's relationship with the children.

That's not to say there was any impropriety, but there certainly was talk, and Barrie was a more complex man than the playful man-child that Forster has Depp embody. In taking care not to risk anything prurient or untoward, Forster has made a film that's sanitized and bland, replacing passion with maudlin melodrama. Finding Neverland is a tearjerker of the first order, never wasting an opportunity to shamelessly tug at the audience's emotions, whether it involves Sylvia's ominous coughing or Barrie's inspirational speeches to young Peter (Freddie Highmore), the model for his play's title character.

Depp does what he can with the part, adopting a convincing Scottish brogue and injecting some genuine feeling into a script that is all contrived emotion. The few scenes in which we get to see the actual Peter Pan acted out on stage serve only to remind us of what a great, complex and moving story Barrie's play actually is, and provide a contrast to the calculated, simplistic and sloppy film that's been built around it.

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