Surrounded by a forest and a gated entrance, the Grace Field House is inhabited by orphans happily living together as one big family, looked after by their "Mama," Isabella. Although they are required to take tests daily, the children are free to spend their time as they see fit, usually playing outside, as long as they do not venture too far from the orphanage—a rule they are expected to follow no matter what. However, all good times must come to an end, as every few months, a child is adopted and sent to live with their new family... never to be heard from again. However, the three oldest siblings have their suspicions about what is actually happening at the orphanage, and they are about to discover the cruel fate that awaits the children living at Grace Field, including the twisted nature of their beloved Mama. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
The Promised Neverland is a great psychological thriller manga, but this adaptation trades complex psychological warfare for conventional horror. The mystery is simplified, the characters lack depth due to the absence of inner monologues, and the artwork is mediocre. In spite of these shortcomings, constant tension and decent scares make it watchable.
This adaptation strived for a tense atmosphere with exciting horror. On the other hand, the manga focused on the lingering psychological horror born from the characters’ gradually learning about the hellish dystopian world they live in, as well as their strategic planning to escape it. The story’s premise is still very enthralling: A farm for demons where the livestock is children and brains are the most desirable part of the body, disguised as an orphanage. Tension consumes this entire show.
What I find most compelling about The Promised Neverland isn’t just the premise, rather the ultimate goal is for every kid to escape certain death at the farm. Emma, Norman, and Ray are capable enough on their own, but Emma is so empathetic and selfless that she is determined to save everyone. Rooting for her, purely based on her motivations is easy. Is she a simplistic character? Sure, but seeing her sacrifice everything to save the kids is endearing. Norman and Ray have their own motivations, slightly more complicated. Ray, a brooding pessimist is puzzle box himself, clearly to be unpacked in the later episodes of the season. He directly contrasts Emma, and seeing their morals clash is captivating. Norman, on the other hand, is motivated by Emma. He sees her as a beacon of hope. His supportiveness makes him likable, and he possesses the most skill of the three. However, he’s quiet. Without the inner monologues, he lacks depth. The issue is, there is not an overwhelming amount of depth to the main characters. It’s not a good sign that they are the three most developed characters in the show. The mass of orphans can be condensed into one character because they have little to no personality, give or take a couple of them. Reminiscent of Attack on Titan’s cannon fodder characters who exist to die violently, the kids exist for one purpose, to be saved by Emma and look cute. Many of them go the entire show without having a single line.
For only eleven years old, they’re all understandably far smarter than most of us were at that age; their intensive education is necessary for their brains to be top quality food. Their intelligence slightly hampers believability, especially considering it is never explained what about their education led them to be this way. I consider it an unimportant oversight in the story because the three main characters make smart decisions when in complicated situations. There’s no frustrating dumb kid trope here, at least among our protagonists. What would have made the characters more convincing is the inclusion of the inner-monologues so they could give us moment-to-moment insight into their state of mind and their in-depth strategizing. One of the most exciting aspects of the manga is watching one of the leads stuck in a seemingly impossible situation only to escape it with their wit, which we get to see on display. As for the villains, the keeper of the orphanage, Mama is an intimidating figure that lends the show most of its stakes. She is used to dump exposition and world-building, but never quite becomes the sympathetic and unstoppable determined force that she is in the manga. It’s a shame the show opted for faster pacing at the expense of the psychological elements.
The characters encounter obstacles in the way of their goals as they learn more about the mysterious setting and Mama. It’s an addictive story with procedural progression. Even when the only onscreen action is just long stretches of talking, it is still entertaining. Standard shot-reverse-shot camera work is used for much of these, with the occasional brooding long shot or creative panning shot using the CGI background. The low droning of tense background music works well at maintaining the atmosphere. If only the mystery wasn’t just too easy to predict, it would have been a great show. The incredibly on the nose foreshadowing, highly telegraphed twists, and the overdone reveals make payoffs less impactful than they should be. We’re given blatant clues to piece together the mystery, but they make twists far too obvious. Thankfully the plot moves from one plot point to the next within a few episodes, making it easy to jump on the rollercoaster ride.
Modern horror has been saturated with cheap shock factor, it’s so refreshing to see a show—especially an anime—convey horror through patiently building tension. It’s worth applauding Neverland for its generous lack of jump-scares. Scares are the main goal of this adaptation, different from the more psychological-thriller approach of the manga. Facial expressions are more exaggerated, sometimes so much that it’s overbearing. Music is used to build tension in place of the character’s thoughts. The orphanage is moodier than its paperback counterpart; hallways are caked in darkness, shadows lurk around every corner. The soundtrack is good during scary scenes, as well as the kickass opening and ending songs.
Obscuring the setting in a show like The Promised Neverland is a necessary part of the mystery. Information is slowly revealed to us throughout the show. Sadly, the setting for this first season is rather threadbare. It’s just an orphanage surrounded by forest. There is slightly more to it of course because this is a mystery, but it’s not enough to justify the lack of significance to the vast majority of the environment. It would have been far better if there were different hints, easter eggs, and red herrings giving us small pieces of information about the outside world. When characters are trapped in an enclosed space with the goal of escaping, there needs to good reasons to anticipate the reveal. Grace Field could have been an enthralling setting if more time and attention to detail went into crafting it; with a mystery embedded into the world, the payoffs would be far more satisfying. Detracting further from the world is the drab background art and washed out color pallet of mostly browns and greens.
Numerous well-executed shots make up for lackluster backgrounds and art inconsistencies. The CGI is used to great effect when it allows the camera to freely move and rotate around a scene. The first-person point of view shots from the character’s perspective offered some of the best tension in the show; as one of our heroes walks down a dark silent hallway, it leaves you in anticipation for something to jumpscare us right as we turn a corner. Whenever the director placed us right into the perspective of a character, the show truly shined as an engaging horror. Even after the monsters are offscreen, there’s always anxiety-inducing shots interspersed in each episode: occasionally the camera is fixed to the swinging of a clock’s pendulum to ensure the stress never ceases until the ending credits roll. The panning of the camera down a CGI hallway or up a flight of stairs shows a constant movement of the main characters and the villains like a game of cat and mouse. Aside from the scares, it is impressive how often crowds of the children are animated separately without any CGI, thankfully there are none of the janky crowds Cloverworks uses in their other anime.
[Final Score: 6/10]
I am a huge horror fan; when I heard The Promised Neverland was getting an adaptation I was ecstatic. While it didn’t live up to my expectations, it was a decent show. However, if you want a more complete experience with this story, I suggest reading the far superior manga. Hopefully the second season will have more psychological elements, better writing, and improved visuals to fulfill the potential that this season failed to achieve.