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Finding Neverland

Movies | For young and old, this fact-based film will provide wonderful fodder for discussion and reflection

Issue: "Bush's moral mandate," Nov. 13, 2004

Finding Neverland (rated PG) is a joyous and moving account of the theater, the pain of loss, growing up, and a life of imagination. The fact-based film is most appropriate for mature teens capable of processing themes like death and the suggestion of adultery. But for young and old alike, it will provide wonderful fodder for discussion and reflection.

Neverland examines a brief period in the life of playwright J.M. Barrie, author of the children's classic Peter Pan. Writing in the park one day in 1904, Barrie (Johnny Depp) meets the Llewelyn Davies family of four boys and their widowed mother and immediately forms a bond with the children. Barrie's afternoon games with the boys-chasing Indians, sailing the high seas as pirates, exploring uncharted African territories-become the basis for Peter Pan, his most successful creation.

Barrie's friendship with the boys and their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet) grows while his own marriage crumbles. At the same time, the Davies family struggles to cope with sickness and death. Imagination-the escape to Neverland-becomes a key for all of them in dealing with the harsh realities of life.

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One of the most serious charges against Neverland is that it diverges from historical fact. The story is softened immensely by the elimination of Sylvia's husband from the start, while historical accounts record that her relationship with Barrie, in whatever form that took, began prior to her husband's death. But these liberties with fact strengthen the film, softening Hollywood's tendency to justify repulsive behavior in the name of artistic and emotional freedom. The story instead focuses on small choices and unintended consequences.

Throughout the film there is a wonderful tension between imagination as a tool for understanding and coping with reality and the inability to keep life from intruding upon a world of make-believe. In one powerful scene, the young Peter Davies (Freddie Highmore) violently rips pages from a journal given to him by Barrie. In it Peter had begun to write his own play. But facing the loss of another family member, he becomes disillusioned with the escape that fantasy offers.

That tension exists until the very end, when the film settles on imagination as an ultimate answer for understanding and dealing with life. The scene, between Barrie and Peter, is simultaneously poignant and empty, because it offers so little real hope. But it's a reasonable-and even appropriate-ending for a film that fails to understand imagination as a God-given gift, a means rather than an end in itself.

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