This 2004 movie is loosely based on ("inspired by true events" is how it's delicately phrased in the opening credits) the story of James M. Barrie and the Davies children who inspired him to write the much-beloved classic Peter Pan.
Based on the play "The Man Who was Peter Pan" by Allan Knee, the movie - which hews closer to Disney than to actual events - presents an attractive and charming tale of a lonely playwright, Barrie (Johnny Depp) who befriends a young widow, Sarah Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet), and her four sons. Ignoring the jealousy of his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) and the disapproval of Sarah's mother Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), Barrie woos the boys with make-believe games, while their mother comes to rely on him for an idealized kind of romance devoid of sexuality or consummation. Barrie, whose most recent play opened to tepid reviews, is inspired by the boys to write his wildly successful play "Peter Pan"; and though the producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) is skeptical about how audiences will react to a story about fairies, lost boys, and ticking crocodiles, in the event the play is a huge smash.
The movie is blessed with a strong cast. Depp is wonderful as the man who longed to remain a boy and struggled to find happiness in his life. He seems to feel no more than a chilly and distant attraction to his wife (he is rumoured to have been impotent), and though she is portrayed here as a social climber, the audience feels sympathy when she finally takes a lover and leaves her husband. His friendship with another man's offspring - and his chaste admiration of their mother's struggle to raise a family on her own - become the emotional centre of his life, and his desire to please and amuse them lead him to write his masterpiece. Winslet is equally good as the no-nonsense mother who focuses on what matters most - her sons - letting the housework slide and ignoring a worrying cough that eventually turns out into galloping consumption. It's nice to see an older Julie Christie as the rigid grandmother with a heart of gold, and Hoffman's laconic support for Barrie's fancies is fun. The kids are good too, with the exception of the youngest, who is a bit wooden; the older boys are appealing, and Freddie Highmore, who plays Peter, is great as a jug-eared, liquid-eyed sensitive young lad.
Some panned this offering as insipid drivel, others loved its childlike innocence. I won't deny that it's a sentimental movie - how could I? - and I do think it would have been improved by being a bit more edgy, but it's still an enjoyable treat. The special effects are restrained enough to be magical without taking over the movie and becoming its focus. Though the real story is more prosaic than what is presented in the movie - when Barrie met the family the father was alive, and even present at the premier of the play, to give just one example - the fictionalization works in this family-centric movie that will delight viewers of all ages.
The movie was directed by Marc Forster; the screenplay by David Magee was nominated for an Academy Award. Johnny Depp was also nominated for best leading actor, and the film had nominations for art direction, costume design, editing, and musical score, though the latter was the only category in which it won.
It's not a great movie, but it's a good one. Recommended.