Having been a bit out of touch, I came across The Promised Neverland by accident, read a line of a review somewhere, thought it sounded interesting, needed a 12 episode series to watch and there it was top of my Crunchyroll queue so I hit play… (And it has since been released on blu-ray by Anime Ltd.)
Strange how these things happen.
In my opinion, The Promised Neverland is a series best approached knowing as little as possible. So I’m stuck with a tough review because, in the spirit of giving away as little as possible, I don’t plan to give too much away. It’s ironic because The Promised Neverland is not a series that is mean with its reveals, far from it, but it does frequently and subtly wrong-foot you, something that I felt was delicious throughout.
Anyway, some story stuff:
It’s 2045, and in an isolated orphanage, 37 children are looked after with affection by their ‘Mama’. The three brightest pupils there just happen to be the eldest: Emma, Norman and Ray – aged 11 – and they live contentedly, playing tag, looking after the younger children, until young Conny is adopted and Emma and Norman learn that the outside world is more sinister than they might believe…
[Insert dramatic music!]
Early on, The Promised Neverland reminded me of Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence, a film I enjoy a lot (more than most, I suspect). Both worlds are slightly magical, slightly unreal, slightly fantastical, and exist in a very enclosed, almost hermetic setting: it’s all in the spirit of magical realism. Also both have a sense of unease that cuts through the idyllic setting. The children are boisterous, enjoying life yet when we see them early in the first episode being tested in an exam, the point of which is not clear – it looks like they are just scanning barcodes – leaves you asking: why? There’s something unsettling, disturbing in the almost mechanical nature of the testing. I know when I was at school I hated exams but it didn’t make me question the outside world (beyond wondering why anyone would by choice make someone else have to sit an exam: coursework please) but in The Promised Neverland it does. There’s something about the inexplicable nature of it and the emphasis on the scores – who has top marks? – that gently teases out a sense of unease. Kids are competitive but this seems different. Still it’s hard to put your finger on why. Is it just your imagination?
Yet it’s offset by the energetic children who all clearly love one another. There’s no pecking order, no bullying, just love, affection and then there is Mama, loving and loved by all.
Yet something seems off. Like a little bit of grit in the corner of your eye, irritating, niggling away.
As we begin to understand the situation that children are in, the strengths of the show really come to the fore, being: character and storytelling. For a story that gives away quite a few secrets within the first several episodes, the pacing is surprisingly spot-on. If anything the reveals work because they are necessary to set up the remainder of the story, where Emma, Norman and Ray must plan (I’m not saying what, you may notice) and act. Plus, the reveals can sometimes be almost obvious (even I got them, which is pretty unusual, I’m good at being dumb when it comes to plot twists) but each one tends to come with the addition of fleshing out one of our protagonists, a reveal of story and of character simultaneously, which adds depth to both aspects. More importantly these reveals are well paced, and feel natural and in keeping with how the characters are portrayed. As such The Promised Neverland allows us to strip back layers within our characters so that we understand the motivation of the key people we meet. They become fully fleshed out and human. We might not always agree with some of the characters’ actions but what motivate them frequently are honest and understandable and relatable.
True, there are some initial broad-brush characterisations: Mama is loving, maternal; Emma is the most physically active and capable, and nearly as motherly as Mama; Norman is the thinker, the strategist, the psychologist; Ray is the conniver (in wartime he’d be the one that nicks your watch then sells it back to you). Importantly the series pulls you into the shadowy reaches of the story and makes you care about the characters at the same time as leaving you wanting to find out how the story will end. I’d just watched Wolf’s Rain (for the first time) and I realised halfway through if I never saw the end I’d not care. I’d care if suddenly I was unable to get to the end of The Promised Neverland because its story is compelling, with just enough darkness and yet also frequently a lightness to it. For all the frequent tension, it never becomes overbearingly tense. The show beautifully balances mood and tone so that the comedy never overtakes the sinister and vice versa. A hard act to manage but The Promised Neverland genuinely delivers.
So, you guessed it folks: loved it, really did. Do I have gripes, of course and frankly one major one. A minor is that you could argue most of the children – and many are very young in the show – often act, both mentally and physically, as if they were a few years older than they are. But that’s easily overlooked especially when thinking of it from the magical realism perspective. The major one is Sister. Sister who? Well, Sister joins Mama early on, in looking after the children and Sister disturbed me from the start. Why? Sadly her character design is a terrible black mammy stereotype – something that sits badly with me considering how much I enjoyed the rest of the series.
The animation is crisp and has a simplicity about it that is matched by the series. It may not be the most visually beautiful series around (it’s not bad, it’s just not striking as some are) but it doesn’t need to be. Sister aside, the characterisation and storytelling are magnificent and The Promised Neverland does what it sets out to do brilliantly and if you’ve not seen it then do so. Right now if you can. And if not right now, well, then in five minutes time. Or once you’ve done doing something less important than watching The Promised Neverland. Series 2 it seems is destined to appear whenever covid allows. I look forward to binging it like I did this one.