There’s an old saying in showbiz that a magician never reveals his secrets. The magician obviously doesn’t want to put himself out of work, but he also recognizes that, to an extent, the audience doesn’t want to know how the trick works, because it’s more fun on some level to accept that something magical just happened.
“Neverland,” the latest Syfy re-imagining of a beloved public domain title (following 2007’s “Tin Man” and 2009’s “Alice,” all directed by Nick Willing), isn’t big on belief. In providing an origin story for Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Neverland itself, it wants you to know exactly how the magic works, how every trick is done, and why J.M. Barrie was foolish to not give everything a proper name, date and location.
It is, unsurprisingly, not the least bit fun.
Airing Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m., “Neverland” is less a miniseries than a dramatized collection of footnotes. We learn how pirates and Native Americans came to be in Neverland – learn, for that matter, exactly where and what Neverland is, in far greater detail than the old “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.” We find out what exactly the fairy dust is that lets Peter fly – not that a miniseries as leaden and serious of purpose as this would use such a phrase as “fairy dust.” (Suffice it to say that the bit about thinking happy thoughts is right out.)
And mostly, we get a whole lot of dull backstory about who and what Peter (Charlie Rowe) and Captain Hook (Rhys Ifans) were before they each came to Neverland – and about the shared bond they have that’s not really present in either J.M. Barrie’s writing or the famous Disney animated film.
Borrowing liberally from Dickens, Willing’s script posits that Peter and the Lost Boys were once part of a gang of orphan thieves in London, working under the careful supervision of former society swell and expert fencer Jimmy Hook. A magical orb accidentally brings the crew to Neverland, where some fall under the sway of a pirate ship captained by the bold Elizabeth Bonny (Anna Friel), while others wind up befriending the Indian tribe whose members include Aaya (Q’orianka Kilcher from “The New World”), better known in earlier stories as Tiger Lily. Along the way, we meet an Englishman (Charles Dance) who explains even more of the science of Neverland, as well as Tinkerbell, who here is a silver CGI fairy with the occasional voice of Keira Knightley. (If you didn’t know that it was her, you would never notice it was anyone of note, especially given how sparse her dialogue is.)
There’s a lot of angst, especially the more we find out about Hook’s past and reasons for making Peter his protégé, but all of it feels as leaden and earthbound as all the technobabble about how Peter can fly. Even Bob Hoskins, once again playing Hook’s right-hand man Smee, seems to be having less fun than he did with the role back in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” which previously seemed to be the gold standard for misunderstanding what made people enjoy the Pan story in the first place. (Anna Friel at least seems to take some pleasure from getting to dress like a pirate for a few hours, but you know Bonny’s not long for the story, given where Hook has to end up.)
Some stories don’t need explanation. So many times watching “Neverland,” I was reminded of the Superman comics I read as a kid that were written by authors who felt like times had changed and they had a responsibility to provide elaborate, vaguely science-sounding theories for how, say, Superman could carry a large boat through the air without the laws of physics breaking the ship apart in his hands. The attempts to explain it actually made the stories seem sillier than the ones that took his powers at face value. The ship doesn’t break apart because he’s Superman, you know? End of discussion; now go tell a good story about the guy.
In both cases, what’s intended as a way to take these familiar, beloved characters seriously actually does the opposite. It says that the things that made us care about these characters is irrelevant. It says that they can’t possibly be worthy of our time unless we give a vaguely adult-sounding explanation to every fantastic thing they do.
And, as “Neverland” unfortunately shows throughout, when you spend all your time and energy explaining how the trick works, there’s precious little left to entertain the audience.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org