‘Neverland’ Is a Deft Blending of Sorcery, Spectacle, and Emotional Struggles

Could James Matthew Barrie have ever envisioned, as he began writing a play about a magical boy in Victorian England, that his story would remain a fountain of drama over a century later? Known by various titles, Peter Pan soon evolved into a novel, but most alive today best recall the several film and TV adaptations, particularly Disney’s vivid 1953 theatrical cartoon, which lives forever in home video and a popular theme park ride.

Producer Robert Halmi is well-known for his elaborate semi-historical television movies with above-average production values, but here eschewed the idea of a literal Pan remake, instead fashioning a colorful prequel to Barrie’s immortal tale, titled Neverland.

Amazingly, Halmi’s latest opus premiered on the SyFy Channel, home of such “classics” like Rock Monster and Sharktopus. No longer content to follow the Ed Wood cinematic playbook, the network is gentrifying, and Neverland exploits this shift with style and depth.

Peter (Charlie Rowe), no longer the wholesome, effervescent imp, is recast as a Dickensian street urchin and petty thief, in a nod to Oliver Twist, prowling the alleyways and rooftops of a luxuriant CGI replica of Edwardian London. And the Dickens novel isn’t the only source writer/director Nick Willing borrows from. Shades of Pirates of The Caribbean, Harry Potter, The Lost World, Avatar, Star Wars and The Lord of The Rings are all in evidence here, as if the filmmakers felt it necessary to toss in the entire kitchen sink of tweener-friendly fantasy elements.

Peter’s caretaker is one Jimmy Hook (a snarling Rhys Ifans), a shadowy Faganesque toff, ostracized from cafe society, and eager for revenge. Peter and his friends – the erstwhile “Lost Boys” serve as Hook’s criminal crew, and of course none can imagine the life-altering journey they’re about to embark on.

Among the villains they encounter is Elizabeth Bonny (Anna Friel), captain of an avaricious band of swashbuckling cutthroats. The beady-eyed Friel plays Bonny with obvious frisson, too much, some would say, as her performance sometimes lapses into camp theatrics, and occasionally seems a tad modern for an Old World gal of the early-18th century. I’m guessing she’s loosely based on the legendary Anne Bonny, an English piratess active during the period, though it seems unlikely she would have commanded a group of male privateers, given the rigid gender stratifications of pre-industrial Britain. Among her sidekicks is Mr Smee(the redoubtable Bob Hoskins), delivering some much-needed comic relief as a quick-witted, unpretentious Cockney seaman.

Of course, Tiger Lily (a solemn Q’orianka Kilcher), the Pocahontas of the piece, is present, along with her tribe, the Kaw, and Tinkerbell, or “Tink”, as our hero lovingly calls her, is an artfully conceived forest-dwelling-sprite voiced by Keira Knightley. In Willing’s conception of Tiger Lily and her people, the thematic elements of Avatar are most explicit, in that we have a group of indigenous people, living sustainably within the natural landscape. They’re forced to defend their environment against invaders seeking to plunder precious hidden resources. Kind of reminds one of the blue-skinned woodland creatures of Cameron’s movie, and Stephen Lang’s predatory militarized assault force which attempts to subdue them.

On that note, George Lucas rears his head when we meet the enigmatic Hooded Man, who becomes a guide/protector to young Skywalker… er, Peter. It’s impossible to miss the parallels between this figure (a stately Charles Dance) and Alec Guinness’ wise grandfatherly Obi-Wan. Like young Luke, in Neverland, Peter Pan – and the surname is never used – is ultimately a Conradian quest narrative, of a laddie innocent in the sinister ways of the world, who must eventually “grow up”, learn to utilize newfound supernatural abilities, and prevent a tragic occurrence. There’s a touch of irony here, as Peter, especially in Barrie’s original work, rejects the notion of growing older, and thus facing adult responsibilities and adult heartbreak. Still, Peter shares the unconscious longing of all children to discover uncomfortable truths yet simultaneously maintain a kid’s carefree manner.

The interplay between Ifans and Rowe are the heart of the tale, as we witness the complex web of love, confidences, and betrayals which lead the pair to become mortal enemies. Ifans also appears in the imminent Marvel Comics reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, and I’m eager to catch his work in that promising film. His Hook seems to have genuine affection for young Peter, but we don’t learn why until the final act.

Admittedly, Neverland doesn’t delve too deeply – at least not textually – into issues of youthful guilelessness, coming-of-age, or the elegaic feelings of getting old. It’s a quick-paced adventure yarn, aimed at a specific audience, not the somber Finding Neverland, Marc Forster’s middlebrow rendering — with a too-alluring Johnny Depp — of Barrie’s relationship with Llewelyn-Davies family, which inspired the author’s creation of Pan. It has more to offer, however, than swordplay and scenery. And truth be told, its fencing sequences are less than thrilling, anyhow.

Some genuine pathos — and surprising darkness – grounds the action, and it’s infinitely more compelling than P.J. Hogan’s well-intentioned though dull 2003 Peter Pan, which teeters between faithfulness and revisionism. The special effects also seem complimentary to the story, never cumbersome; an particularly impressive creation is a monstrous ten-legged crocodile, a leviathan who would make short work of Lake Placid‘s already fearsome beast.

Extras are copious for a TV project, including very brief interviews with the four of the principals, a demonstration of green screen technology featuring scenes from the film, and a fascinating collection of artwork and storyboards from the production; sadly, the board images are too miniscule to really be enjoyed. Lengthiest is the featurette Neverland: Access All Areas, running 22 minutes and chock full of details, and Willing makes it clear that the bulk of the shoot took place in a green room; there is no tangibly physical representation of Neverland. Also, a leftover sailing galleon from Roman Polanski’s Pirates was used as Bonny’s ship. Finally, we get the obligatory promotional trailer.

Neverland is a deft blending of sorcery, spectacle, and convincing emotional struggles. No one can deny that it’s derivative of countless forbears, but it remains a compelling story and perhaps the most rigorously creative staging of the Pan legend. I expect that Barrie himself would concur.

RATING 7 / 10