A recent story in New York magazine wondered whether Johnny Depp would survive respectability, but I always liked to think it was more a question of whether his sudden respectability would survive him. The magazine was right to worry, though. Depp's typical careening lilt of rock 'n' roll is gone from ''Finding Neverland," a movie in which everything is on its best behavior, including him.
Now to be fair, the movie takes place over a few months in the life of the Scottish playwright and novelist J.M. Barrie. It dutifully tells the story of how his career turned around after he met kindly English widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. And it explains how Barrie's witnessing the boys' ability to jump up and down on their beds, perform their own plays, and be utterly, relentlessly perceptive inspired him to write ''Peter Pan" for the stage.
Depp coasts through this movie, hardly breaking a sweat in his tuxedoes and tweed suits. In making Barrie a lonely fellow with a hole in his soul, he's never been classier, but ''Finding Neverland" is a movie -- a family-friendly, Miramax one at that -- that's cruising Oscar voters by using a well-scrubbed Depp like a hood ornament. The drama and juicy bits in Barrie's biography are airbrushed away. (Ian Holm played Barrie in a less manipulative 4-hour version of this story on British television in 1978.)
In his real life, which ''Finding Neverland" picks up in 1904 London, Barrie was scandalized for spending more time with the Llewelyn Davies than with his own wife Mary (Radha Mitchell). This receives a passing mention or two, but the movie is not about Barrie or how ''Peter Pan" changed his career, not really. It's too gushy, mushy, and blah for the contours of a life. ''Finding Neverland" is about the Triumph of the Creative Spirit -- over snooty, unsubstantiated gossip, over an artistic slump, over the endless disapproval of glacial women, namely Mary and Sylvia's mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie). Mitchell's performance and her scheming character are so much like Christie's (cold, cold, cold) that it's tough to tell which was the true inspiration for Dr. Hook.
Instead, we get a lot of biopic boilerplate that manages to distill the author's life and ''Peter Pan" to a digestible message: Believe! Mrs. Barrie and Madame du Maurier are shrews until they're no longer able to resist Barrie's storytelling powers. Even the doubts of Barrie's faithful producer (Dustin Hoffman) are extinguished on ''Peter Pan's" opening night.
In scene after scene, Barrie challenges the Llewelyn Davies kids to embrace their imaginations. On a kite-flying excursion, Michael (Luke Spill), the littlest, is told that only if he believes he can run fast enough will he get his kite airborne. Nobody mentions a stiff wind or that the tail might be too long -- except for Peter, the second youngest. Played by the rather astonishing Freddie Highmore, Peter is the only child whose fatherlessness seems to have created a total character, albeit one whose skepticism seems extreme, in the same way his grandmother's forbidding nature is extreme. The movie looks better for having won them over.
Nonetheless, ''Finding Neverland" pumps a lot of its thematic gas into Barrie's relationship with Peter: Who, we're supposed to ask, is the adult here? But answering that would mean we'd have to see both man and child as people, when they're really just instruments in the film's bid to install a lump in your throat.
Initially, it seemed that director Marc Forster (''Monster's Ball") had found a method to let us inside Barrie's mind by using cutaways to what he's telling the boys to imagine. A dance with the Llewelyn Davies dog becomes a waltz with a bear at a circus. This strategy is reminiscent of the one Tim Burton used last year in ''Big Fish," another runny movie about life, deathbeds, and the human imagination as an expensive coloring book.
''Finding Neverland" is like a Burton movie made by the Merchant-Ivory team, which is to say that respectability and mannerliness block out all the enchantments. (This is the sort of movie in which someone is always being asked to leave a room so two people can talk alone.)
Good taste runs amok. The movie is careful to offend no one, which, in a more dramatically told film might not be as irritating. A moviegoer's ability to predict who will die and who will thaw should not stop a person from being moved when a character turns up dead.
But ''Finding Neverland" risks nothing, showing Barrie as a lovable, avuncular eccentric, who blows into the lives of grieving children and brings them joy, fun, and useable lessons. It's a portrait of the artist as Mary Poppins.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.