At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Screenwriter David Magee offers us a fictionalized account of how James Barrie came to write the beloved Peter Pan. No doubt many of the complex reasons of why the author transferred his affections from his wife to the widowed mother of four boisterous boys are left out or glossed over—after all, this is a story-driven film, and not a biography. Directed by Marc Forster (he directed Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball), the film imaginatively takes us into the mind of a man who has not forgotten what it is like to be a child, full of wonder, joy and the exuberance of life.
The film opens with James Barrie (Johnny Depp) attending the opening night of his current play. It flops, leaving its author in a quandary. Then, as now, in the entertainment business you are considered only as good as your latest work. His wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) apparently is not much comfort. Fortunately producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), still believing in him, invites Barrie to write a new play. This must be done quickly because Frohman has leased the theater, so the seats must be filled soon if he is not to lose his investment. Seeking inspiration, Barrie spends time at Kensington Gardens, where that inspiration comes through his meeting the four boys of the Llewelyn Davies family.
The four boys—George, Jack, Peter and Michael (Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, Freddie Highmore and Luke Spill)—are playing when one of them interrupts Barrie, who is sitting on a park bench. Barrie enjoys this, and engages the boys in a game of imagination. The grown man dances with his large dog, and when the skeptical Peter says “It’s just a dog,” Barrie exclaims that it is a dancing bear—and through the magic of the camera, we see what he, and at least three of the boys, see, a big, dancing bear.
Barrie meets the boys’ mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet), who apologizes for her sons’ interrupting him. Barrie brushes this aside, and makes sure that he sees the family again on future park excursions. He invites the family to dinner in his home, something that Mary is not overly happy about. Nor does she approve of his spending more and more time with the family. Mary is joined in this disapproval by Emma du Maurier (Julie Christy), Sylvia’s mother. Barry’s behavior—he wrestles with the boys, flies kites with them, dresses up in costumes with them and stages mock pirate fights—is not only silly to her, but his attention to her daughter seems scandalous.
Barrie completely wins over the boys, except for the ever-skeptical Peter. During a staged play Peter says that the king’s scepter is “just an old hunk of wood.” He boldly asserts to Barrie, “You are not my father.” If Barrie is the man who has not grown up, then Peter must be the boy who has not experienced childhood, perhaps because of his father’s recent death. Sylvia, who has developed a serious cough, is reluctant at first to accept Barrie’s favors, but she also is won over. Still Peter holds out, refusing to be reassured by Barrie that his mother’s coughing fits are not serious.
All along we see the idea forming in Barrie’s mind for his new play, which he wants to call “Neverland.” During a raucous pillow fight in the boys’ bedroom the idea for the children to fly is born in the author’s mind. Soon he has his hero, Peter Pan, the boy who does not want to grow up, ironically based partially on the boy who has grown up too soon. When the play is finally presented to the Davies family, though sadly not as he had hoped, it is delightful to behold who first responds to the plea from the “stage” to “Believe,” lest Tinker Bell die.
Although it plays with the truth, like most such films (Sylvia’s husband was actually still alive when “Peter Pan” was written), the film succeeds in suggesting how a child-like imagination can work magic on an audience. The suspicion of London society that Barrie’s obsession with the Davies boys might be a case of pedophilia is discretely handled. Johnny Depp again shows what a versatile actor he is, affecting a believable Scottish brogue (at least on this side of the Atlantic). Kate Winslet is as glowing as ever as the health-impaired Sylvia, and young Freddie Highmore is so outstanding, that Johnny Depp convinced Tim Burton to cast the boy in the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
1) What qualities in James Barrie do you think are those that Jesus admired when he made his statement about those who would enter the kingdom of heaven?
2) What is required to be able to see a bear in “just a dog” or a bejeweled scepter” in “just a hunk of wood”? How does this brighten our lives?
3) Do you still have this childlike quality? Or do you feel it slipping away, as in the case of Jesus’ disciples, and most of the adults around Barrie? What can nurture the childlike spirit and keep it alive till the end of our days?
4) Barrie talks with Sylvia’s mother, telling her about the death of his brother when he was a boy. What effect do you think this, and his family’s subsequent actions, had on his development?
5. Millions of people, and not all of them children, have responded to Peter Pan’s urging to “Believe!” What power is there in belief? (Other synonyms for the word?)