REVIEW: Neverland [TV Series]



Earlier this month, Syfy debuted a new mini-series, entitled (you guessed it) Neverland.

This adaptation of J.M. Barrie‘s famous world and its two main characters (Pan and Hook) is premised upon one really interesting question:

What if Peter Pan and Captain Hook had been friends?

That question, which is realized in the mini series, opened up (literally) an entire new world for the show’s producers, who largely re-imagine Peter’s first adventure, but who stay true to several of the story’s key elements.

Totaling in almost two hundred and forty minutes to its completion, Neverland is the most ambitious project in Barrie’s world since the cult classic Hook, which debuted as a major motion picture starring Robin Williams as an adult Pan, in 1991.The only character from that movie to reprise his role in the mini series, however, is Bob Hoskins as Smee. (The statue that Robin Williams awakes on at the conclusion of Hook does make a cameo appearance in the antique shop Peter and the Lost Boys raid in the beginning of the series.)

(NOTE: The 2004 film, Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie is omitted from this discussion because it does not deal with Neverland as an actuality).

The story begins, not as one might expect (in turn of the 20th century London, but instead) in the mid 1700’s, aboard a ferocious Pirate Ship that has just defeated a vessel and won its prize. That prize, which is a mysterious orb, is the catalyst that unravels the remaining plot, and serves as the key to Neverland. (More on this later)

The story then shifts to the familiar beginning- London in the early 1900’s. We see a boy hovering above and orchestrating pick pocketing partners with the tunes of his flute. Here I must give tremendous credit to the show’s writer and director, Nick Willing: from the very beginning, there is no doubt who Peter is. Even before he could fly, he was a leader, he was fearless, and the addition of the recorder (which later serves as heavy symbolism for primal innocence and savagery) is one of the first true nod’s to Pan’s famous instrument since the Disney adaptation.

Again, Neverland prides itself on all of the things the famous Disney cartoon and Hook left out- from the emphasis of the recorder, to a desire to get home, rather than to stay in Neverland, nothing in this version is as you might expect. Indeed, however, no greater liberty is taken than the way into Neverland.

As anyone familiar with the genre might tell you, there are only so many ways that fantasy can be done. While modes of the “high fantasy” class (which most often take place in alternate or entirely different worlds, such as J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Middle Earth, or Christopher Paolini‘s Alagaësia) do not require entry, and their inhabitants have no knowledge of Earth, some worlds do. In these alternate types of “high fantasy”, though, (like Lewis‘s Narnia,) a knowledge of Earth does exist, and  access to the additional world require some sort of entry- an owl, a map, a cupbard, a ring, or some other device is needed to port from the real word. One of the famous exceptions to this rule, however, was Neverland. To get there, one simply needed to fly to the second star to the right, and go straight on ’til morning, That exception, though, is blown apart by the inclusion of the orbs in the tv show.

Entirely dependent on a magical artifact they cannot replicate and do not understand, Peter embarks on a personal journey as a boy seeking to become a man, and ends his journey as a boy seeking the thrills of a thousand and one adventures without a thought of adulthood. The show, true to the original story, favors a naturalism and innocence; this standard hallmark of fantasy is well done however; again, the prominence of music comes to mind. In addition, however, the “injuns” (Barrie called them the Red Skins) stand as a clear protagonist group, and guardians of purity.

While the plot of the mini-series does not lend itself to anything shocking, there were refreshing revelations: such as why the pirates hunt the injuns, how the Pirate Ship arrived in Neverland, and why Tinkerbell never hangs out with any of her fairy friends.

The time I’ve spent on the plot should be refreshing to the reader- it means that there was an enjoyment and ease to the story that was not hindered by poor acting or low budget visuals. Luckily, (aside from fairies) Peter is the only one who flys, and his moments in the sky are neither better or worse than Williams’s in Hook. The acting is superb by nearly the entire cast, with Rhys Ifans (Hook), Anna Friel (Captain Bonny), Charlie Rowe (Peter), and Raoul Trujillio (Holy Man) all turning in truly high quality performances, especially considering that this movie was not made with a Hollywood budget. The only noticeably weak performances came from O’orianka Kilcher, who at times looked awkward on screen, but nevertheless turned in a recognizable rendition as Tiger Lilly (whose true name is Aaya).

As a television show, Neverland does everything a story of its caliber might promise an interested viewer: it pays homage to Hook and to Barrie’s Pan, it provides something fresh and viewable, it serves as a portal fantasy, and it provides escapism without sacrificing the humanistic elements of betrayal, innocence, and the space between them, which adds the missing layer of depth that separates a plausible escape from a good story.

Indeed, this is where Neverland’s success is most greatly measured: for it is not a story about fairies and a flying boy set in a timeless land (as one might perceive it to be); rather, it is a cautionary story about the dangers associated with power, and stands in and of itself a defense of morality. And as any leader might tell you, when you can get people to stand behind an ideal, they will remain loyal as long as they live. Such is the same with a viewing audience, who should find Neverland a delightful and compelling adventure.