The bad news is that Disney seems determined to produce a sequel or two for every classic film they’ve ever released. Brace yourself for “Snow White II,” “Pinnochio II,” and “Sleeping Beauty II.” It’ll happen. But the good news is that in the case of “Return to Never Land”—the studio’s 2002 return to “Peter Pan”—the animation may shift gears, but it’s nearly as strong in many places. And the storyline? If you could somehow put the original out of your mind, this screenplay from Temple Matthews (“Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea” and “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas”) manages to offer a kinder, gentler version of the J.M. Barrie classic tale, with more political correctness.
At least the Disney crew avoids the creative pitfall of simply continuing the original adventure of Captain Hook’s never-grow-up nemesis right where it left off. Instead, a generation has passed, and Wendy, whom we last saw at the end of the Victorian era, has gained twenty-some years since her time-travel to Never Land. Now she has a teenage daughter named Jane (Harriet Owen), who, like her mother once was, is a disbeliever in need of a little magic.
The plot kicks in when the men are leaving to fight in WWII and the children are being sent away to the country —as actually happened in August of 1940, when British children were shuttled out of London to places as far as America. Jane stays behind, and one evening during an air raid she’s abducted by Hook and his pirate gang. After that, it’s truly a return to Never Land, because the basic structure of the first film evident with only slight tweaking.
Jane, rendered cynical by her father’s going off to war and the announcement that the younger children must be sent away to ensure the survival of Great Britain’s future generations, had thought her mother’s Pan tales little more than imaginative drivel. “Return to Never Land” is the story of her own return to childlike belief—a belief that could at some point save the twinkling little fairy Tinker Bell’s life. Along with Tinker Bell’s near demise, the war scenes are the only intense moments in a film that otherwise is quite suitable for children of all ages.
Replacing the ticking crocodile is a rather large octopus that’s played for comic relief, his two eyes twitching in rhythm as a kind of biological clock. It’s just as fun as the crocodile, and younger children may be less afraid of it because of the blob-like way animators rendered it. Thankfully missing from Never Land this time around are the less-than-politically-correct (“Uggh!”) Indians. There’s also less emphasis on the Lost Boys being orphans and needing a mother, so there’s correspondingly less potential trauma for young viewers susceptible to separation anxiety. Likewise, Tinker Bell is less jealous and malevolent this time around, a softer character—as if the studio was laying the groundwork for the “Tinker Bell” Pixie Hollow series that would be launched six years later. The studio thought enough of it to release it in theaters instead of direct-to-video.
At times, the animation looks quite similar to the original film, but other times it has a hazier, gauzier faux-watercolor look to it. But some sequences stand out, like the anchor of Hook’s pirate ship ripping up shingles and bricks as the pirates beat a hasty exit out of London. Or any of the animated sequences involving the octopus. The animation style tends to vary throughout the film, but the color palette is as consistently bright as the tone. “Return to Never Land” is a cheerier film than “Peter Pan,” and parents who object to the original for various reasons will find this one a gentler, friendlier option for young children. Adults, however, will find this way too similar structurally to the 1953 animated classic, and "Peter Pan" remains the superior film.
As I said, the style of animation varies throughout the film, and so do the levels of color saturation. Sometimes it’s tied to emotion, other times it seems to be linked to situation. I tried to pinpoint an exact pattern and failed, but the varying animation styles was something that my ‘tween-age daughter noticed too. Scenes with Hook and his crew look as if they could have come right out of the 1953 movie, and in general this sequel looked far less like Saturday morning TV animation than most. “Return to Never Land” comes to 50GB Blu-ray disc via a flawless AVC-MPEG-4 transfer. It’s presented in 16x9 widescreen.
The audio is an industry standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1 with additional audio options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish. As with the video presentation, it’s solid. You can especially appreciate the blank canvas of sound field when the octopus appears and his movement is brought to life even more with sound effects. Songs are also rendered with clarity, but mixed so they remain in the background. Dialogue is nicely prioritized. Overall, it’s a solid audio experience.
As with the DVD release, the bonus features are a modest affair. All we get are five deleted/unused scenes (total runtime, eight minutes) shown in various forms of early-stage animation: “Jane and Hook Meet for the First Time,” “Gift for Tink,” “I’ll Try,” “Hook’s Song: I’ll Give You One Guess,” and “Lullaby: Second Star to the Right.” Young fans of the Pixie Hollow series might appreciate five clips (total runtime, six minutes) from the “Tinker Bell” movies, but other than that there’s just a Jonathan Brooke music video from the DVD release and the usual sneak peeks.
Your reaction to “Return to Never Land” will probably depend on your age. “Peter Pan” has far more interesting home-life scenes and characters, with Tink’s jealousy, Tiger Lily’s capture, Pan’s resistance to growing up, and a bomb threat to Peter played more for dramatic effect than anything in the sequel—which is tame, by comparison, but successful in what it attempts to do. It’s good that the sequel can be watched as a stand-alone film, because I suspect many parents will use this one as a “starter movie” and wait to show the 1953 classic until the children are old enough to handle darker themes.