Long before Peter met Wendy – before Hook was a captain – they must have been transported to Neverland. How that happened is the tale told in Syfy’s new four-hour miniseries Neverland [Sunday, December 4/Monday, December 5, 9/8C].
Neverland opens in 1906, where we meet Peter [Charlie Rowe] and his band of boy pickpockets and layabouts as they are pulling a job. When one of them is caught, Peter arranges a rescue – both the job and the rescue orchestrated by musical cues he plays on a recorder.
Successful, they repair to their base to report to their boss, Jimmy [Rhys Ifans, Anonymous]. Jimmy has a new gig, but refuses to let the boys take part because it’s too dangerous – a move guaranteed to spark any crew into trying to pull it off, anyway.
The job seems to be going well, when things go sideways and the accidental rapping of a strange orb sends Peter and the boys into a strange world of white jungles, a city grown from trees and inhabitants ranging from Indians of the Kaw Clan to a pirate crew captained by Elizabeth Bonny [Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies] – and fairies, or rather, ‘tree spirits,’ who communicate by telepathy and fly because of a magical dust.
There’s also Dr. Fludd [Charles Dance], Alchemyst to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I. It’s he who hired Jimmy to steal the orb – and who created the city of trees to provide a utopia for science and research. Unfortunately, as brilliant as he is, Fludd turns out to be lacking in either common sense or prescience.
Written and directed by Nick Willing [Alice, Tin Man], Neverland is as much a spectacle as his other work. This time, however, it also features something lacking from much of his earlier work – fun!
Watching Peter and his crew react to their new surroundings – and Jimmy acclimating to his unusual new situation as captive of the pirates – is a great deal of fun. Who wouldn’t be baffled by a world in which such disparate elements as Indians, pirates and fairies [oops! ‘tree spirits!’] existed [if not entirely in co-operation]?
Given the odd world that was created by J.M. Barrie, it makes sense that someone would attempt to figure out a reason for it to exist as it does. Willing comes up with a cool reason for such an odd mix of peoples and elements to exist in a land where no one ages, but perhaps takes it a step too far in trying to make it science fiction instead of fantasy. There’s a point at which the magic falters, briefly, before the story regains its fantasy legs and carries on.
Although Willing has a lot to explain [why pirates and Indians; the how of their presence in this strange world; why Peter and The Lost Boys wouldn’t return home, given the chance; how Jimmy became the one-handed Captain Hook – and, of course, how do Peter and Tinkerbell (voiced by Keira Knightley) become friends] he does, for the most part, succeed grandly.
Neverland feel like a real place, with its unique rules and geography. The cast is pretty much excellent – though Q’Orianka Kilcher [The New World, Sons of anarchy] is perhaps a bit more stilted than the role calls for [probably more of question of direction than performance], and Cas Anwar’s Starkey is very much a one-note character.
Where the casting is most important is in the roles of Peter, Jimmy and Elizabeth Bonny – and Rowe, Ifans and Friel are quite delightful in the roles. Rowe, particularly, makes us believes that Peter, street lad and pickpocket, is genuinely an innocent.
Ifans’ Jimmy is a bundle of well-masked rage – until he doesn’t have to be – hidden beneath the faded genteel exterior that makes him seem like a fallen gentleman rather than a villain. Friel is a mass of tattooed ennui, provoked into enthusiasm by the appearance of new people to give her new knowledge and new goals.
Willing keeps things moving, while not forgetting about the character beats that support the story. We are drawn into the action by the characters and then whisked away by the adventure.
Even in the rough cut made available for review, most of the effects are very effective, and the cinematography is excellent.
Neverland may well be the best work Willing has done. It’s energetic, heartfelt and – most importantly – fun.
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Photo by Patrick Redmond/courtesy Syfy