In January 2019, the Jackson estate issued a press release condemning the film, saying: “The two accusers testified under oath that these events never occurred. They have provided no independent evidence and absolutely no proof in support of their accusations.” Despite protests by Jackson fans, the Sundance Film Festival issued a statement that it would not withdraw the film. Reed said: “I believe anyone who watches this film will see and feel the emotional toll on the men and their families.” At the Sundance premiere, Robson and Safechuck received a standing ovation. They said they had received death threats from Jackson fans. In the Guardian, several journalists predicted that Jackson’s music would be reassessed following the documentary.
In February 2019, the Jackson estate petitioned a court to compel HBO to cooperate in arbitration regarding its plan to broadcast the film. HBO cannot be sued for defamation, as Jackson is dead; instead, the estate claims HBO violated a 1992 agreement to broadcast Jackson’s concert film Live in Bucharest: The Dangerous Tour, when HBO agreed never to “disparage” Jackson’s public image. On the day of the HBO Leaving Neverland broadcast, the Jackson estate released the concert on YouTube.
On February 27, 2019 The Southern Christian Leadership Conference wrote a letter to HBO asking the network to reconsider airing Leaving Neverland explaining that “These same allegations, when raised in trial in a court of law during Michael Jackson’s lifetime, affirmed his innocence”. Actor Corey Feldman, who was friends with Jackson during Feldman’s childhood, said that Jackson did not act inappropriately towards him, and called the documentary “[one-]sided.”
On Rotten Tomatoes, Leaving Neverland holds an approval rating of 96% based on 56 reviews, with an average score of 7.68/10. Its consensus states: “Crucial and careful, Leaving Neverland gives empathetic breadth and depth to the complicated afterlife of child sexual abuse as experienced by adult survivors.” On Metacritic, it holds a weighted average of 85 out of 100, indicating “universal acclaim,” based on 20 reviews.
In Entertainment Weekly, Kristen Baldwin gave the film a B grade. She criticized it as “woefully one-sided” and concluded: “As a documentary, Leaving Neverland is a failure. As a reckoning, though, it is unforgettable.” In The Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg wrote that Leaving Neverland “is nearly as much about the 20+ years during which Robson and Safechuck held onto secrets or even lied and covered up the truth — and the damage that can do — as it is about the alleged crimes themselves.” He concluded that “it’s doubtful you’ll feel exactly the same after watching”. The Daily Telegraph awarded it five out of five, describing it as “a horrifying picture of child abuse”.
David Fear wrote in Rolling Stone: “By offering these men a forum, this doc has clearly chosen a side. Yet the thoroughness with which it details this history of allegations, and the way it personalizes them to a startling degree, is hard to shake off.” IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote that the film was “dry” and “hardly great cinema”, but that it was “a crucial document for a culture that still can’t see itself clearly in Michael Jackson’s shadow”.
Alissa Wilkinson described the documentary as “a devastating case against Michael Jackson” that “may forever change the legacy of the pop icon.”