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The film begins with the opening night of James' most recent play, Little Mary, which flops. Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), his producer, decides to finance his next play anyway--James just hasn't written it yet.
Out in the park with his dog some time later, James encounters the four Llewelyn Davies boys and their widowed mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet). He strikes up a friendship with the five of them, particularly Peter (Freddie Highmore, in his first well-known role), who has become very serious as a result of his father's death. James, Sylvia, Peter, and Peters brothers (George, Michael, and Jack) proceed to have all sorts of wacky boyish adventures together, occupying almost all of James' free time. The relationship between James and Sylvia draws the ire of both James' wife, Mary (Radha Michell), and Sylvia's mother, Emma (Julie Christie)--the former because she's afraid she's losing her husband to another woman, and the latter because the scandalous (though false) rumors about Sylvia and James are ruining Sylvia's chances at getting remarried.
Through his adventures with the boys, James is able to get the inspiration for Peter Pan, but all is not well this side of Neverland. Sylvia is becoming quite ill, but refuses to seek treatment because she doesn't want to upset the status quo. Peter is quite aware of how serious the situation is and throws a tantrum because the adults are going to start lying to him. Especially once Sylvia's condition starts getting worse, Emma tries to keep James away from her children and grandchildren.
Despite some initial hangups, Peter Pan ends up being quite the success, much to Charles' surprise. Due to Sylvia's illness, only Peter is able to make it on opening night, leading James to, well, that would spoil the rather heartwarming ending.
Though most of the film is a fairly straightforward period piece, the first half has several (often extended) Imagine Spots by James Barrie, showing his overactive imagination and inspiration for various parts of the play.
As a result of this film, both Freddie Highmore and Eileen Essell (who played the elderly Mrs. Snow, one of James' biggest fans) were suggested by Johnny Depp for the more recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptation, playing Charlie and Grandma Josephine, respectively. Additionally, this movie happens to feature three actors who played recurring characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean series: Johnny Depp as James M. Barrie and Captain Jack Sparrow, Mackenzie Crook as Mr. Jaspers (the usher) and Ragetti (the pirate with a wooden eye), and Angus Barnett as Mr. Reilly (the actor playing Nana) and Mullroy (one of the two comic relief redcoats).
Finding Neverland won the Academy Award for Original Music Score. It was also nominated for Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, Adapted Screenplay, Leading Actor (Depp, as previously mentioned), and Best Picture.
- Asexuality: James
- Bittersweet Ending: Peter Pan is a success, but Sylvia's illness catches up to her. Still, Peter starts writing again, James shows him the power of his imagination, and Emma reconciles with James.
- Call Back: "It's a secret." ("It's a play.")
- Calling the Old Man Out: It ends up being George, of all people, who stands up to Emma in the end.
- Deadpan Snarker: Charles. "Now my nightmare is complete," indeed.
- Death Is a Sad Thing: The Llewelyn Davies boys have recently lost their father at the time the film begins. Peter, in particular, is most affected by it, acting rather serious as a result.
- Definitely Just a Cold: Sylvia tries to downplay her illness; Peter, who is rather unhappy with this sort of thing, anticipates it an preemptively lashes out.
- Disappeared Dad: Mr. Llewelyn Davies has died before the film began, leaving his sons in the care of their mother.
- The Edwardian Era
- Fake Brit: The American Johnny Depp as the Scottish James M. Barrie
- Growing Up Sucks: James firmly believes this, and tries to stop Peter from growing up so quickly.
- Heel Face Turn: Emma is not a true villain, but she is the character most antagonistic to James. Her attitude changes completely as a result of seeing Peter Pan and Sylvia dying.
- Honorary Uncle: James is explicitly called "Uncle Jim" and "Uncle James" by the boys, though given his personality, he's more of an honorary big brother.
- Imagine Spot: James is prone to these, typically as a fantastic overlay on what's actually happening
- Imagine Spotting: The final Imagine Spot is shared by James, Sylvia, Emma, the boys, and the actors.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Sylvia starts getting quite the cough near the halfway point of the movie; both James and Peter are quite aware that things aren't going to end well.
- Intergenerational Friendship: James and the boys, helped along by James' childlike nature (and to a lesser extent, by the maturity of both Peter and George).
- Making the Masterpiece: James working on Peter Pan
- Man Child: Though James is (mostly) capable of taking care of himself, he has an air of immaturity and childlike wonder about him, and he clearly has much more fun playing make believe with the Llewelyn Davies boys than he does socializing with adults.
- Mr. Imagination: James spends the entire film imagining a more fantastic version of the events he's experiencing, ranging from games with the boys (a western shootout with the boys as cowboys and James as a native; a pirate ship with the boys as pirate captives of James and Sylvia) to "enhanced" versions of the events he's seeing (raining in the theater as his play bombs; the boys starting to fly as they jump on their beds).
- Never Say "Die": The PG-rated movie has no problems with death, but some of the characters (such as Mrs. Snow) do end up avoiding the word, consistent with Victorian sensibility.
- Parental Substitute: James, to the boys
- Promotion to Parent: George, the eldest son, starts taking more responsibility for his brothers as the story goes on, causing James to comment on him becoming an adult.
- Romancing the Widow: Rumors of this arise as a result of all of the time that James spends with Sylvia--the reality is more of a platonic variation; Emma is rather annoyed with James because his attentions are keeping this from legitimately happening to Sylvia (her daughter).
- Show Within a Show: Both of James' plays--bits of two different productions of Peter Pan are shown on-screen. Some of the actors playing actors are only credited by the character their character plays.
- That Liar Lies: "Stop lying to me! I'm sick of grownups lying to me!" Peter really hates it when adults downplay the severity of the situation.
- Triang Relations: Though it's actually a Type 7 [James (A) romantically loves his wife, Mary, (B) and has a strong friendship with Sylvia (C)], Mary and others think of it as closer to a Type 4 [Mary (A) loves James (B), who is thought to be having an affair with Sylvia (C)]. Of course, it turns out that Mary wasn't entirely faithful to James as a result of all that.
- Verbing Nouny
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Notably, the above Heartwarming Crowner was invented for the film. Barrie wasn't really worried about adult attendees not "getting" the spirit of the story, and if there had been a problem, there were plenty of children already in the audience. See the trope page for further details.
- Will Not Tell a Lie: James refuses to lie to Peter, who refuses to believe him since he believes that adults are never honest with children about the serious stuff.
- Wise Beyond Their Years: Peter has a severe case of this, though George also shows signs of maturity in the second half.