Promises of the Promised Neverland
Anime thrillers generally have it tough. Be it the classic carefree anime nature or the fact that animation can’t create a tense atmosphere as easily as real movies, there’s something that has always been missing for me in terms of this genre. And so comes Yakusoku no Neverland, a highly anticipated adaptation of a famous thriller manga, whose fans have been making me more and more excited with their constant praises and promises until I started thinking it could be the next great thriller after Higurashi. And while I can already say now that all of these promises haven’t been kept, I can also say that Neverland is surely a project worth following.
The setup of Neverland is certainly an interesting one. Innocent children trapped inside an orphanage that is much more dangerous than first meets the eye, trying to overcome their cruel fate in a war of brains and logic. I’m not ashamed of saying that, as far as anime setups go, Neverland has one of the most intriguing story ideas I know of. It promises a lot. From genuine thriller to psychologic struggles and growth of childish characters. Amazing, right? Well, not so fast here. You see, despite the setup seeming quite amazing on paper, it becomes clearer and clearer with time that certain decisions were made in order to save the author of developing otherwise key elements to a show.
Namely, the children.
Trust me, I have nothing against children. Well, in anime they tend to be annoying but that’s beside the point. The point here is that making the characters small children doesn’t save you from developing them. The author (and many other people, apparently) however, doesn’t seem to think the same way. Because the only thing he bets on in dangerous or emotional situations is that you’ll care for these characters because they’re children. You get it, right? Children are innocent, they’re cute, nobody can touch them. Harming little children is so taboo in fiction it could almost be considered a myth, at least in the West that is. Hence, putting small children through danger immediately makes the viewer emotionally invested. Except I’m a bitch without morals, and I care way more about characters that deserve it instead of those who’re simply made to be that way.
The reason I’m saying this is because this anime has no idea what the term ‘character-development’ means. Norman is cool and intelligent and sometimes tends to get all intense because apparently, that’s what makes him human. That’s it. Ray is even worse. For as cool of a character he is in terms of calmness and smarts, it’s no exaggeration to say that the first signs of something that could vaguely be considered his development appear just towards the very end of the anime. One of the two at least passable characters in this regard is Emma, partly because of her glorious ahoge, and partly because you can consider her tone shifts between hope and despair as development if you squint hard enough. That said, I wouldn’t say that watching these three operate is boring. No, it’s not, but that’s more because of what they’re saying rather than why they’re saying it. In other words, I wasn’t watching Neverland because I was invested in these character’s lives, nor have I ever really cared about them escaping from the farm, I was watching Neverland because interesting stuff was flying out of their mouths… Interpret this however you want. Moving on.
I find it very weird that Isabella, the villain, is without a doubt the single most fleshed-out character of the series. The reason I find this weird is because she has a real presence in roughly half the episodes, and even when she does it’s mostly from the POV of others. The person behind the ‘Mom’ mask comes clear only very late into the series, and even then I feel like she should’ve had much more time dedicated to her. Why? Because she is a pretty damn good villain. She’s in total control of the situation and makes it a real challenge for the kids for the entirety of the series. She has her mask on for most of the time, but even that mask has cracks that let us see more of her. She even gets a helper at one point in Krone. However, her entire existence was basically filler. But she’s a psycho so she fits the Neverland family quite well. I think?
You know what, let me start over. I don’t want to keep sounding all pretentious here. The fact of the matter is that Neverland doesn’t need top-notch characters to be effective. The story and mystery should be able to carry the show by itself with only a slight character development happening along the way. I certainly find it sad that the series is not even able to accomplish that slight character-development, but it’s not yet a lost cause. Because if you haven’t noticed, there’s still a story to tell.
And a story to tell it certainly is. It’s packed with plot-twists, sudden revelations and tons of genuinely good moments that keep you at the edge of your seat. Sometimes it maybe gets a bit too over-the-top and unlogical, but this is fiction, and I don’t want to dwell on it too much. For all we know, “fetus memory” is actually a thing in their world. Who cares anyway? The story of Neverland is entertaining and that’s the main point. It’s a never-stopping battle of wits where people have to seriously challenge themselves in order to outsmart each other. And it gets harder and harder, more complicated and more complicated, until it … loses its flair and originality.
The thing is, you can only come up with so many plot-twists until they become predictable. Neverland’s main issue is that it’s simply way too mysterious for its own good. The amount of plot-twists and problems that occur on an episodic basis is so huge there’s no way a mere 12 episode series could make full use of them. And so whenever a plot-twist is solved or taken care of it immediately gets forgotten for the rest of the series. Moreover, after the kids resolve a certain thing, something else pops up out of nowhere to block their way once again. People don’t want to admit it, but this is very similar to how certain isekais (for example) handle their writing. Except instead of the MC pulling out solutions out of his ass, it’s the author pulling out plot-twists instead. Like the revelation at the end of episode 9. Something like that, in my humble opinion, was totally uncalled for and I’d much rather see it completely cut off and have the saved time used elsewhere, either for clearer explanations of past events or just simple development.
I’ve also found it quite annoying that cliff-hangers get used to the point of tedium. From episode 3 onwards literally every episode ends in the most intense moments just for us to wait another week for its resolution. This wouldn’t be so bad if I was marathoning the show, and for anyone reading this I suggest you absolutely should, but watching this weekly very much hindered the overall experience because the best parts of the anime were divided in half in between episodes. And nothing kills the mood like having to wait a week for a resolution. One could argue that this is not necessarily a flaw of the show itself and rather of the TV format, but when the cliff-hangers are just total baits in half the cases I can’t say the show wasn’t guilty as well.
And so Neverland comes out with its last ace up the sleeve, its atmosphere. Which it does quite well. Not in the terms of intensity or thrillingness, because I think it had its shortages in those two as well. What I’m talking about here is the blending of the fake world and the real world. Of the kids that think everything is okay and the kids that know the truth. This part of the anime was done masterfully and fully took advantage of the farm area the story was set up in. Kids run around playing tag in good-looking animated sequences while thinking of their next step in the process. Genius. This is the one area where I cannot praise the show enough. The atmosphere in serious scenes also isn’t bad by any means, but still lacks a certain something. Maybe it’s an OST that’s missing in most climactic moments, or maybe it’s a more unique director vision that would make the scenes more personal. I don’t think the director of Neverland is necessarily a bad one, but I wouldn’t call him a good one either. He gets the job done, but he doesn’t take risks. Which is very weird to me considering how unique of a story he got here in Neverland.
A unique story that, however, isn’t all that well written. In which we come to a problem I don’t think many people realize. That writing Neverland isn’t inherently hard or challenging. The plot-twists are simple. There’s little to no continuity between events. Minimal fore-shadowing. The characters are bland. It relies on asspulls – ending of episode 1, for example, or things being done off-screen on multiple occasions. There’s a lot of things Neverland does average to poorly.
And this is the biggest but(t) of this entire review: Neverland is just a pretty damn entertaining series. It’s not as hard as it seems like, it’s not as complex as it seems like, but for most of its run, it’s still very good in terms of entertainment that only starts to deteriorate once you’ll start thinking about it on more critical examination.
It’s a show that certainly has its appealing moments. Still, considering its setup and good early episodes, its latter parts leave a lot to be desired, often making me feel like the author should’ve passed on some of his ideas in favor of general consistency.
But as it stands right now, Neverland is just a decent show with tons of miss-used potential. And although I’m certainly not giving up on this franchise as a whole, I genuinely wish the upcoming continuation keeps its feet on the ground a bit more.
Because as a great philosopher once said: “The simpler, the better”.
(I’m just making a fool of myself, I have no idea who actually said that.)