JAN. 3 2014 SCREENING: NEVERLAND (2011)
Today marks the third of my reviews of weird, obscure adaptations of weird, well-known childhood favorites, with a look at 2011’s Neverland. I suppose it’s a bit of an odd choice to pair with a 1973 BBC adaption of Alice Through the Looking Glass and a Russian twist on The Wizard of Oz. In contrast to those two 1 hour little known and low budget films, Neverland is a 3 hour miniseriesthat received a slick, modern treatment on the Syfy channel. It simultaneously tries to be both a prequel to Peter Pan, as well as an “re-imagining” of the origin story that gives us a very different take on the source material. In many ways, it has far more in common with 2007’s Tin Man, or 2009’s Alice, with were similar revisionist takes on The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, respectively. However, it’s what I have to work with for now, so let’s take a look at how it sizes up.
To contrast itself with all traditional versions of the Peter Pan story, the premise has Peter brought to Neverland when he was a teenager, instead of an infant. This gives us an interesting new spin on the story, and nullifies a plot hole that never made any sense to me (if nobody ages in Neverland, why does Peter continue to grow until he reaches the age of 12-13ish or so?). It also gives us a very innovative introduction to the story, and sets up Peter Pan as a sort of Harry Potteresque take on Oliver Twist for the scenes set in London, then moves on to become a combination of The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars for the scenes set in Neverland. Peter Pan’s origin is not only changed, but the rest of the characters as well: the “James Hook” in this story is not a mustache twirling evil pirate, but an adult teacher of Peter in London who is eventually “adopted” by a shipload of pirates when he lands in Neverland. As it turns out, all the human inhabitants of Neverland are actually people from different periods in Earth history, that were brought to Neverland by some sort of magic orb. Once there, they cease aging and spend an eternity in this land, which is apparently now a planet in another galaxy. Got it?
The three hour running time actually allows this origin story to unfold much more smoothly than it sounds in a brief review, and the top notch special effects really aid in making the ludicrous story sound believable. Despite being a very different take on Peter Pan, I felt the miniseries captured the tone and feel of Neverland perfectly at various times… much of the island appears to be CGI, but it still has some beautifully rendered landscapes and completely captures the feel of what I expected Neverland to look like from other Peter Pan stories. Neverland contains all the elements we’re used to (a mermaid lagoon, the Lost Boys’ tree house, magic fairies, etc.) but it also expands on the story greatly by having a pseudo-scientific discovery as a major part of the subplot in the first episode, and severely bulks up Tiger Lily’s role in the story (Disney has been apologizing for decades because of its “stereotypical” treatment of Indians in the 1953 Peter Pan, so I was pleasantly surprised that this version of the story opted to give them a much bigger role in the story and a more realistic depiction of an American Indian tribe). Another big delight is that Bob Hoskins reprises his role as Hook’s right hand man, “Mr. Smee” after playing the role 20 years earlier in 1991’s Hook. It’s done as more of a homage since this film’s storyline obviously doesn’t line up with the 1991 movie, but it made me wish Hoskins had been in 2003’s Peter Pan as well. His presence really does a great job linking alternate versions of the Peter Pan story to the “official” version we’re used to.
Unfortunately, I can’t give this miniseries a really great rating because the format is not really well suited to this material (either a traditional two hour TV movie or a season long miniseries would have worked, but needlessly splitting one story into two 90 min. “episodes” just makes a overly padded 3 hour movie). The other major problem is that Neverland is very anti-climatic and disappointed me at the end. We have the obligatory scene where Captain Hook loses his hand to the crocodile in a fight with Peter Pan, but it’s surprisingly low key, and we never get a money shot of Hook being fitted with his infamous prosthetic hook device at the end of the story. Since Neverland is trying to be a “prequel”, I also expected that these strange versions of Peter and Hook would gradually morph into the traditional versions that we know and love over the course of 3 hours. That didn’t happen. A great plot point had the fairies punishing Peter by wiping his memory (which would have worked perfectly by explaining how he became a carefree mischief maker in Neverland who felt no connections to his earth origins), but then the miniseries had to needlessly undo this plot point. The miniseries actually ends with Peter in a business suit and he never dons his familiar green leafy tunic at any point in the story. Nor does James Hook show up decked in pirate garb at the end, or at any point in the entire miniseries. It’s implied he becomes leader of the pirates but its never shown. The miniseries actually ends with a last minute revelation that Peter has lost his shadow. Of course, that wink at the audience would directly lead to the events that started the original Peter Pan, except it doesn’t make sense since Peter spent many years in Neverland before he went searching for his shadow in London and met Wendy.
Overall, Neverland contains numerous hits and misses. It’s definitely worth watching, and I’m glad I added it to my DVD collection. It has enough fan service to make it a worthy entry in Peter Pan stories. At the same time, there’s just something missing that makes it feel hollow and unfulfilled. Not the best take you’ll get on Peter Pan, but certainly an interesting one.
** ½ out of ****