It’s become something of a holiday tradition — every couple of years, Syfy turns out a star-studded prequel to a beloved children’s story — “Tin Man” in 2007, “Alice " in 2009. This time, it’s J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” that goes through the mirror darkly in “Neverland,” a cleverly conceived, at times visually lovely, but criminally long imagining of how Peter became Pan.
It’s difficult to imagine a more oft-told tale than “Peter Pan,” which, in recent memory has been made into two live action films (“Hook,” “Peter Pan”), and a newly conceived stage adaptation, while its factual origins (“Finding Neverland”) served as an Oscar vehicle for Johnny Depp.
Prequels are always a dangerous business, but writer-director Nick Willing starts off with great promise, introducing us to a sleeker, silvery version of Tinker Bell (voiced by Keira Knightley) in a far-off fantastic land before showing us Peter (Charlie Rowe), the Artful Dodger-like leader of a group of pickpockets in Victorian London.
Borrowing unapologetically from Charles Dickens, Willing has also given the boys a Fagin-like mentor — Jimmy Hook, played by the astonishingly versatile Rhys Ifans (“Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio”). He does his level best to keep “Neverland” from collapsing into a low-rent fantasy mash-up, and he is aided at certain points by Anna Friel, who plays a deliciously bad pirate queen named Elizabeth Bonny, with Bob Hoskins reprising his “Hook” role as her sidekick Smee. But their performances are quickly overwhelmed by the cumbersome length and weight of the production.
Neverland turns out to be the place where the four corners of the universe meet, populated by tree spirits and humans who have stumbled in at different points in history via a magical orb — Bonny and her pirate band, Tiger Lilly (Q’orianka Kilcher) and her tribe and finally Peter, Hook and their gang.
Having discovered the mineral dust that makes the tree spirits fly (pixie dust to Pan purists), the pirates are determined to find its source. When Hook realizes he could take some back to his own time, “Neverland” enters the realm of eco-fantasy, in which the forces of the industrialized, modern world are pitted against the agrarian types, here the Indians and the tree spirits.
All of which is fine too, as are the various relationship subplots. Unfortunately, what should have been two hours is closer to four, giving the viewer far too much time to notice the repetitive nature of the scenes and the cinematic mimicry of “The Lord of the Rings,” which makes “Neverland” seem worse.
It’s too bad because there are some wonderful moments — Peter’s need for Hook to be good is genuinely moving, and Friel’s villainy is first-class. I can’t say I bought Knightley as tree spirit, but the various lost boys were fine and fun and touching. Unfortunately, Syfy decided the back story to “Peter Pan” should somehow be bigger than the original, and though you can tweak, or retell to your heart’s content, it never pays to try to outshine a masterpiece.
When: Part 1, Sunday 9 p.m.; Part 2, Monday 9 p.m.
Rating: TV-PG-LSV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)