Why was Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll’s fondness for young children so innocent and Michael Jackson’s so not-innocent?

Movie reviewer James Bowman hits upon the answer to this question in his piece on Finding Neverland, a three handkerchief flick about J. M. Barrie, the creator of another great Victorian child–Peter Pan–and one of the best movies of the season:

“One problem with the otherwise excellent Finding Neverland is its title. Perhaps its Swiss director, Marc Forster, didn’t realize that many Americans would think the movie had something to do with Michael Jackson and so miss what is in fact a touching little biographical essay about the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, marvelously played by Johnny Depp, and his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies family — in particular a boy named Peter (Freddy Highmore). But in a way it does have to do with Michael Jackson too. For it is important that Neverland mean Never. It is by definition a place removed from reality and the film-makers, including David Magee who adapted a play by Allan Knee, sometimes show signs of repeating Mr Jackson’s mistake in trying to make it really exist.”

In Finding Neverland, J.M. Barrie, a playwright who has just had a flop, meets the Llewelyn-Davies family in the London park where he goes to write. Mrs. Llewelyn-Davis, Sylvia, played beautifully by Kate Winslet, is a socially-connected recent widow with a brood of little boys to bring up. All the actors are just great–from Julie Christie, who plays Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies’ mother to the wonderful Newfoundland dog who plays–well–a wonderful Newfoundland dog, J. M. Barrie’s beloved pouch who was the model for Nana in Peter Pan.

It was the Llewelyn-Davies boys who inspired Barrie’s most famous play, and the scenes of his playing Indians and pirates with the boys are beautifully done. Sylvia is suffering from some wasting away disease, and it’s clear that the boys will soon have neither mother nor father. I won’t tell you much about the plot–except, of course, as I’ve said, you’ll need a handkerchief.

In the hands of many directors, this would have become a screed against convention. Although our society deplores the Neverland of Jackson, our intellectuals are also ambivalent about the natural restraints that prevent Peter Pan’s Neverland from becoming something sick and hideous.

Bowman notes:  

“Above all, the movie is deserving of praise for the restraint with which it shows us what in less sensitive hands would doubtless have been the entirely destructive and loathsome forces of Edwardian ’respectability.’ These are a constant irritant to Barrie’s affection and compassion, but they never seem merely arbitrary or stupid. Respectable society is embodied in Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie), widow of the popular cartoonist and novelist, George du Maurier who, with his most famous work, Trilby, gave us the hat of the same name, the character of the evil genius, Svengali, and ultimately The Phantom of the Opera. In one scene the imperious Mrs du Maurier dismisses Barrie brusquely, warning him away from too great intimacy with her daughter. George, the oldest of her grandchildren who loves Barrie now consoles him: ’She just doesn’t want to see mother hurt anymore.’”

There was one unfortunate moment. I noticed it and shuddered, but James Bowman said it better than I could:

“Most disastrously, after setting up an enormously moving conclusion, they put into Mr Depp’s mouth the merely facile consolation to a child on the death of a beloved parent that the charms of Neverland are always there to escape to, that you can go there in ’imagination’ and ’any time you want.’”