Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Dustin Hoffman
Big names, yes. But it's Freddy Highmore's performance as Peter, the boy who inspired Peter Pan, that makes this film. Highmore stares down everyone with soulful eyes throughout, daring anyone to help him deal with the pain of having lost a father and being on the verge of losing his mother. He and Depp drive the heart of this movie, giving me great hopes for the two of them in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, due this summer.
The movie's a tearjerker - designed to be one, and it succeeds with whimsical grace. Depp, the most open we've seen him at least since What's Eating Gilbert Grape, becomes writer J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. Barrie, trapped in a cold relationship with his wife Mary (a tremendous Radha Mitchell), and lost for inspiration after the flop of his play Little Mary, is sparked out of his doldrums by widow Sylvia Davies (Winslet) and her four children. Barrie begins spending all his time with the family, sparking rumours around town and further alienating himself from his frustrated wife.
Barrie, a bit of an odd duck in real life, is well known for creating incredibly sympathetic woman characters, likely as a result of the distance between him and his real wife. In Neverland, Barrie instead finds solace with Sylvia, until she develops consumption (why is it always consumption in these movies? Is it just because caughing up a fit is easier than showing, say, cancer of the jaw?). Depp, Mitchell, and Winslet all play their roles with great reserve, letting writer David Magee's adept script and director Marc Forster's able hand steer the film.
The highlight is when Barrie brings the production of Peter Pan to Sylvia's parlor in order to show her Neverland. It's a great moment, one which Forster directs with alacrity as Jan A. P. Kaczmarek's lush score lifts the film from a solid biopic to one of the great films of 2004. The next best moment, though, would have to be seeing Hoffman, playing Barrie's producer, sitting back on his armchair reading over the script going "Indians! Pirates! Smee!" I'm making a rule that Hoffman (Captain Hook in Hook) must be in all movies relating to Peter Pan in some way.
The rundown: Well acted, well written, and well directed, Neverland is solid in every aspect. Four stars, and I believe in fairies again.