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Review: 'Finding Neverland' a joy to see

Fine performances from Depp, Winslet, others

By Paul Clinton

Finding Neverland
Johnny Depp, as J.M. Barrie, plays a game with Peter Llewelyn Davis, an inspiration for Peter Pan, in "Finding Neverland."
Johnny Depp
J.M. Barrie
Kate Winslet

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "Finding Neverland" is a beautifully crafted exploration of the many dimensions of the human heart.

The new film about Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie -- and his creation of the beloved character Peter Pan -- is deeply moving without being overly sentimental, due in large part to Johnny Depp's extraordinary performance in the lead role.

Get ready to adjust your tear ducts.

The film, set in Edwardian London, also showcases the terrific range of director Marc Forster, whose last film, "Monster's Ball," earned Halle Berry an Academy Award for Best Actress. His move from that starkly raw film to this magically enchanted -- albeit at times tragic -- movie displays a deep understanding of the language of cinema.

Based on Allan Knee's stage play, "The Man Who Was Peter Pan," the screenplay for "Finding Neverland" by David Magee is not meant to be a literal translation of the creation of "Peter Pan." Instead it's a rather fanciful take on Barrie's real-life relationship with the Llewelyn Davis family and how they planted the seeds for a lasting artistic achievement.

In a luminous performance, Kate Winslet plays Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a widow with four sons. Barrie, battling writer's block, meets the family one lazy morning in London's Kensington Gardens. The writer begins to befriend them despite the objections of his unloving and distant wife, played by Radha Mitchell, and the boy's stern grandmother, Emma du Maurier, performed beautifully by Julie Christie.

Touched by the fatherless boys -- Jack, George, Michael and Peter -- and their beautiful mother, Barrie begins to tell them magical tales to pass the time during their outings in the park. Through the playwright's vivid imagination he transforms his St. Bernard dog into a dancing bear, sticks into sabers, and small hills into pirate ships.

Innocence and wonder

Finding Neverland
Barrie develops a relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davis (Kate Winslet) and her children.

Over time, a deep bond develops between Barrie and all the members of the Llewelyn Davis family. Eventually he arrives at the point where he can't imagine his life without them. When tragedy strikes, Barrie becomes a true father figure forced to guide them through unimaginable grief.

Simultaneously, Barrie's writer's block disappears as he's inspired to put pen to paper and create the story of Peter Pan. The childlike innocence of the four boys, and their enchantment with his magical games, resonates deeply with Barrie and leads him to imagine a world -- Neverland -- where no one ever grows up. It's a place where real tragedy doesn't exist, and where that sense of wonderment and joy -- felt only by a child -- is never tarnished.

With "Finding Neverland," Magee and Forster -- just as Barrie himself did with "Peter Pan" -- have created a story aimed squarely at the child within all of us. Mixing reality and fantasy, along with scenes from the evolving stage production of Barrie's play, the film transports the audience to a world infused with wonder.

As always Depp delivers an astounding performance. He has the uncanny ability to express, with just a single glance or gesture, an entire encyclopedia of human emotions. Winslet is also exceptional in a delicate and finely tuned performance as the lonely widow nearly overcome with the task of raising four young boys.

Breakthrough performance

In a supporting role, Dustin Hoffman is delightful as Barrie's nervous, hand-wringing producer, an anxious man who predicts doom and gloom for the playwright's unconventional production about a boy who refuses to grow up. Christie adds an elegant element of understated class and refinement in her role as the overprotective grandmother who is deeply dubious of Barrie's involvement with her daughter and grandsons.

Mitchell, who will soon be seen as the title character in Woody Allen's upcoming film "Melinda and Melinda," also has a nice turn as Barrie's emotionally unavailable wife.

But it's 12-year-old Freddie Highmore as Peter -- the primary inspiration for Pan -- who will break your heart. Be warned: you'll need a tissue or three for the final scene. Depp thought Highmore was so good that he'll soon be sharing the screen with the actor again, as co-stars in director Tim Burton's film "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory." Highmore is playing Charlie; Depp is starring as Willy Wonka.

"Finding Neverland's" blend of magic, humor, human redemption, emotion and unconditional love is a deeply satisfying and potent mix. Indeed, as 2004 winds to an end, I'd rank it as one of the best films of the year.

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