Somebody, somewhere, hates imagination. In some Dickensian institution where children wear lace-up boots and stare glumly at their porridge, a wicked, wrinkled figure reflects gleefully that they will never hear of talking animals and flying ships. We know that such a killjoy must exist, because Finding Neverland is so heroically opposed to him. Throughout the film beautiful figures keep imploring us to welcome the liberating power of imagination, and they must be talking to somebody. I attended a screening for movie critics, and these tend to be more hard-boiled than most, but I still didn’t spot anyone shaking his fist at the screen like Snidely Whiplash. I did eventually hear someone gently snoring.
Every culture has its favorite stories, and here’s one of ours: a good guy rises up against the sour, fun-hating oppressors, and teaches them a thing or two. Maybe he’s the stranger who comes to a stuffy town and teaches it to dance; maybe he’s the student who comes to a stuffy school and teaches it to party. (Teaching a virginal teen to get over her prudish hang-ups is popular storyline, too.) In any case, the story always concerns a Messiah of Fun who rescues others from their horrid straight-laciness.
Straight-laciness is now so despised, however, that it’s hard to find anyone who can plausibly champion it. Fun-haters are less believable than talking animals, so moviemakers who want to play this comforting, familiar tune must turn back the clock. Finding Neverland turns it back a full century, giving us J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) in 1904 London. His latest play has just opened to a disappointing response, and in case such a tricky plot point might be too subtle for you, you are shown people going into the theater saying “I love opening night!” and coming out saying “Absolute rubbish!”
This movie doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Exposition is announced like a train arriving on Track 12. Just-pretend is rendered with exacting realism. When Barrie meets a family of boys and their widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), in a park, he entertains them by saying his dog is a dancing bear, then waltzes with its paws on his shoulders. We see Barrie and dog, then cut to a clip of Barrie in a circus tent, wearing a top hat and waltzing with a character in a bear suit. Did you miss it? We’ll cut back and forth a few more times, to make sure you get the point. Likewise, when Barrie plays cowboys and Indians with the children, scenes of backyard dress-up are intercut with an authentic sagebrush setting. When they play pirates, it switches from homely playacting to a sequence that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Depp himself would, however. His delightfully oddball performance in Pirates last year was so original that it won him a supporting-actor Oscar nomination. Here he is studiously quiet, wide-eyed, and asexual, recalling nothing so much as the whimsical, limited Sam he played in Benny & Joon. Passive, reflective, and prettily costumed, Depp’s Barrie is like one of those black plastic garden ponds: limpid, mysterious, and five inches deep.
In the context of this plot it is necessary that Barrie be sexually blank. He is in an unhappy marriage which he will not betray, and when he strikes up a friendship with the fatherless boys it does not involve a romance with their mother. (A friend warns Barrie that rumors are circulating, and this is why society is shunning the fatherless family; we cut to a plump matron frowning at Sylvia. Get it?) Barrie’s attitude toward Sylvia remains one of concern, not romance, and [SPOILER ALERT] when her serious illness becomes undeniable the concern only deepens. The Peter Pan story is presented as a way Barrie has devised to introduce her boys to the wonders of imagination, to console them for her loss. The one truly effective moment in the film is when we see the dying Sylvia rise and walk into the Neverland set, toward the waiting crocodile (earlier, a character had helpfully informed us that the ticking croc symbolizes Time, chasing us down). As each step brings her nearer, the other characters and visual elements slip away, and finally darkness cloaks the scene.
Nicely done, but far more superficial than Barrie’s own version of the story. Peter Pan is a play thoroughly concerned with sexuality, specifically the awakening of an adolescent girl who must choose between intoxicating, dangerous fantasy (Pan, Barrie tells us, is “gay, innocent, and heartless”) and the everyday heroism of being a wife and mother. Barrie’s notes require that the same actor who plays Wendy’s father also play Captain Hook, a figure Wendy feels confused emotions toward: “When she saw his dark eyes she was not afraid, but entranced.” There is some complicated stuff going on here, and it is a play for grownups to ponder, not one merely to teach children that imagination is fun. (If you’d like to take a look at the real “Peter Pan,” rent J. P. Hogue’s 2003 film version.)
No such meatiness here. When Sylvia dies, Barrie instructs her son Peter (Freddie Highmore), “She’s on every page of your imagination. You’ll always have her here. She went to Neverland and you can visit her there any time you like.” Peter asks, “How?” and Barrie continues, “By believing, Peter. Just believe.”
Well, this is pure, double-filtered, lemon-scented hogwash. No grieving child should be loaded up with such malarkey–burdened with the obligation to materialize his own dead mother through mental exertion, burdened to think that the inevitably fading or fluctuating memory is his fault because he failed sufficiently to “believe.” Contrary to popular opinion, believing don’t make it so. There is a reality about life after death, a “so,” that exists whether we believe in it or not. We don’t know much about it and can prove even less, but that doesn’t mean imaginary projections will constitute reality if we squeeze the sides of our head hard enough. Believing in belief is a useless, superficial exercise. Real human conviction and experience travel in less predictable patterns–as real playwright J. M. Barrie knew.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.