Hook, Line and Sinking

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Movie watching makes children of us all. The infant it locates within every viewer is sometimes aggressive (when action films delight in breaking their expensive toys), often rude (when comedies exult in wisecracks and flatulence) and, once in a while, awestruck by the splendor of the imagination. Films that aim honorably at evoking childlike wonder are so rare, so vulnerable, that one wants to clap three times and shout, as kids do seeing Peter Pan, "I do believe in fairies! I do, I do!"--until the drab reality of a botched movie shakes an audience to its senses.

The urge to awe is stridently encouraged by Finding Neverland, a fictionalized account of the inspiration for James M. Barrie's tale of a boy who soars through eternal adolescence and takes a family of London kids along for the ride. In this version, based on Allan Knee's 1998 play, Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriends the young sons of socialite Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet). While she grows ill from tuberculosis, Barrie spins a fantasy world; it is therapy for the boys and a spur to his theatrical creativity. The result: Peter Pan, which turns 100 next month.

It's nice to see Depp, an actor who can do almost anything and who dares even more than he can do, radiate a demure if manly innocence instead of his usual piratical allure. Director Marc Forster can be lauded for executing a 180, from Monster's Ball to Tinker Bell. And there's a rooting interest in a film that portrays children as children rather than jaded sitcom brats and their adult friend as a generous, guileless soul rather than a sad and unsettling influence — a lost boy himself — like the pop-star resident of another Neverland who at 46 still imagines himself as Peter Pan.

Alas, the film takes ages to come to life. Instead of seducing the audience into Barrie's world, it assumes we will have brought the magic with us and need only a rouged-up, dewily rendered version of the true story. David Magee's script, which kills off Sylvia's husband and hurries along the dissolution of Barrie's marriage, also apportions blame far too blithely, turning James' wife (the lovely Radha Mitchell) and Sylvia's mother (the meanly used Julie Christie) into those familiar villains, small-minded grownups. Sylvia too is a stick figure: languishing like the heroine of a dime romance, she suffers severe attacks whenever a play is to be staged in her honor. Only toward the end, when Peter Pan is staged in her home, does the movie alchemize from the subpar into the nearly sublime by asserting that theatrical art, at its best, is a sweet affirmation of life and a bold defiance of death.

The rest of the time, the film stifles any impulse to believe in its buoyancy by being sadly earthbound. Peter and the boys may fly through the bedroom window; Finding Neverland takes a big, brave leap and lands splat on the sidewalk. By Richard Corliss