Peter Pan has pirates and mermaids, and children who can fly. When I showed the Disney version to my three year-old, he got so excited he jumped up and down squealing on the couch. Yet the strapping swashbuckler is only half of what’s there. In the new movie Finding Neverland, we are shown the actual creation of Peter Pan. This grounds the material and illuminates it for adults.
Is is London in 1903. The Scottish playwright James M. Barrie, Johnny Depp, is coming off a play no one liked — least of all himself. His life has become dark and sad.
He finds himself wandering in the sunshine and green of Kensington Gardens. Here he first sees the widow Sylvia Davies, played by Kate Winslet, and her four boys. He is smitten by the family. Soon he is spending all his afternoons in the garden of the Davies’ house, playing pirates and Indians with the kids. As he observes them, he is also catching the ideas that will later form Peter Pan. He doesn’t much notice that his own wife is slipping away, or that the town wonders why a famous married man is spending so much time with a widow and her sons.
Barrie especially loves the most grave of the boys, Peter. Barrie’s own brother died young. He knows how pain can rob you of childhood. One day, Peter surprises Barrie with a little play he’s written. But Sylvia has a coughing spasm. Having seen his father die, Peter concludes that his mother is dying too. "I’m not blind," he says, "I won’t be made a fool!" He tears his play to shreds. What’s the point of pretending in a world of such tragedy?
Stephen Spielberg tried to film Neverland in his movie Hook. He spent $100 million to visualize everything for you, and ruined it. In Finding Neverland, a key conversation shows a different purpose. The boy Peter complains that a stage prop, a golden scepter, is really just a painted block of wood. Barrie tells him that our imaginations transform it into finest gold. With its humble props, Finding Neverland invites us to meet it half way. We may be surprised by the power of the emotions it evokes in us.
Imagine opening night of Peter Pan in 1904: a theater filled with serious people who paid good money to see serious work. Onto the stage walks a guy in a dog suit, who sets about making beds in a nursery with his teeth and paws. It’s absurd. They should have walked out. At the climax, Tinkerbell has been poisoned. She’s just a lightbulb on the stage, growing dimmer. Peter turns to the audience and says, "If you believe in her, she will come back to life. Clap if you believe in fairies." The orchestra had been warned to be prepared to clap if no one else did. But the applause was like thunder.
Belief is seeing beyond what’s in front of you. The movie shows us Neverland was not created but revealed; J. M. Barrie saw into a place that existed. Children have believed in it for a hundred years. The deepest truth about dreams, which children know but adults forget, is this: they are real.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.