August 10, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

A little sweetness can be a beautiful thing. Too much, however, and you’ve got yourself a Robin Williams clip reel. Of course, the goal is to make audiences weep like little girls chopping onions and not have them resent you for it in the morning. That’s the idea if it’s Academy Awards you’re after. And since ”Finding Neverland” may wind up being Miramax’s best hope for statuettes this year, you better believe that’s the idea.

Fortunately, ”Neverland” features a stud farm of Oscar pedigree. In addition to ”Monster’s Ball” director Marc Forster and three-time nominee Kate Winslet, there’s Johnny Depp, hot on the heels of his Best Actor nod as Captain Jack, playing prominent Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie, a misunderstood, boyishly mischievous eccentric. In other words, a character right in Depp’s wheelhouse. The film traces Barrie’s touching friendship with a widowed mother (Winslet) and her sons who inspired Barrie’s masterpiece, ”Peter Pan.”

”Neverland” has been awaiting release for over a year, hindered by Universal’s 2003 ”Peter Pan,” which was contractually allowed to bow first. Now that it’s opening, the film may steam up some literary scholars who argue that Barrie’s life may not have been as pure as Neverland. ”There were a couple of ways you could go with Barrie,” says Depp. ”One was riding on the coattails of all the negative hearsay. The possibility that maybe he was a little sideways with the children. But f—, that’s an obvious way to go, isn’t it?”

Winslet, who, it should be noted, played Wendy in a stage production of ”Peter Pan” at age 15, says Depp was perfectly cast: ”He’s like Peter Pan.” In fact, Depp got along so well with one of the child actors, 12-year-old Freddie Highmore (who plays Peter), that he helped him land the role of Charlie in his and Tim Burton’s upcoming ”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Winslet adds that during one stuffy dinner scene in the film, Depp secretly rigged a handheld whoopie-cushion device that had the child actors nervously giggling exactly as the script called for. ”The boys didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” she says. When reminded of the whoopie-cushion incident, Depp cracks up, then deadpans, ”There are certain elements of boyhood we can’t escape. And farts will always be funny.” And in the right hands, maybe even a little bit sweet.

WHAT’S AT STAKE Depp’s long-overdue first Oscar.

101 minutes
Julie Christie,
Radha Mitchell
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