Prior to "The Triangle" in 2005, the SyFy network (back when it was actually Sci-fi) tended to produce one great miniseries a year debuting in December. Those early programs were dark, adult, sophisticated, and/or epic in scope and I eagerly awaited each year's entry. We saw the finale of Farscape in "The Peacekeeper Wars," the debut miniseries for "Battlestar Gallactica," the impressive revision of "Dune," its equally ambitious follow-up "Children of Dune" and the biggest and boldest offering to date--the marvelous "Taken." In recent years, SyFy has continued the tradition but with decidedly mixed results. While I've enjoyed most of them, they rarely impress me like the programs I mentioned. Lately, we're getting a lot of literary mash-ups such as 2007's "Tin Man" (Wizard of Oz) and 2009's Alice (Alice in Wonderland), so 2011's riff on the Peter Pan legend entitled "Neverland" seems to fit comfortably into the scheme of things.
Chaotic, anachronistic, and over-stuffed, "Neverland" is filled with great ideas but falls somewhere short of must-see entertainment. I'd still recommend it for its interesting take on Peter Pan, a prequel of sorts, but I doubt it's a program I'll be revisiting anytime soon. For the record, I absolutely loved the premise behind "Neverland." The construction of an alternate world (and how people arrive there) is quite ingenious and well done. I was captivated as the tale introduced its many characters and threw them together in this fanciful, and strangely ominous, land. Treacherous 18th century pirates, wayward English street urchins, noble American Indians all cohabitate with mystical forest sprites and dangerous crocodiles. As the show progresses, we see the myths behind the Peter Pan story come to light and how all these parties helped form the boy who will meet Wendy in future tales. Much of it is quite clever, and at the end of the first part--the show had surely exceeded my expectations. I did, however, feel that the second part lacked some of the wonder and charm that I experienced in the beginning. Maybe if the whole thing had been a bit shorter, it would have felt tighter and more satisfying overall.
The sets have an almost surreal and artificial appeal. They have the feel of animation come to life, and this otherworldly quality keeps "Neverland" visually interesting. The special effects are serviceable, if not spectacular. They are utilized much more as the tale progresses and something about the way Peter flew always struck me as hokey and unconvincing. I did, however, like the crocodiles. The biggest, and most pleasant surprise, was how good the cast was. Rhys Ifans is really terrific as the boys' mentor, Charlie Rowe makes a convincing Peter (he's particularly good in the more serious moments), and Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies) plays against type as a pirate leader. Keira Knightly lends her voice to Tinkerbell and is fine, and the great Bob Hoskins is (once again) underutilized as pirate Smee. The cast is really what makes this a success.
Again, I think if you loved "Tin Man" and "Alice," this absolutely plays to the same sensibilities. It's a good effort and I credit its cleverness in storytelling. Ultimately, it lacked the gravitas of my favorite SyFy miniseries, but I suspect it will find a big audience on DVD. It's pleasant in a family-friendly swashbuckling sort of way. One more shout-out to Ifans, though. I generally like him, but here he added a lot of dimension and shading to what might have been a one-note character. KGHarris, 12/11.