When Walt Disney was alive and in complete control of his company, he forbade any of his animated films from being sequelized for the big screen. It helped maintain the timeless feel of the animated classics, and also encouraged original thinking. When Walt passed away, the Eisner-era Mouse House delved a little into straight-to-video sequels but, with the exception of the 1990 misfire "The Rescuers Down Under," left the silver screen pretty much alone.
Then "Toy Story 2" made $485 million worldwide for the company.
So now Disney takes another stab at box office gold with "Return To Never Land" (IMDb listing), the 2002 sequel to the 1953 classic "Peter Pan." Set during World War II, "Never Land" picks up the story with young Wendy Darling all grown up and with two children of her own, a toddler son and a precocious pre-teen daughter named Jane. While her father is away fighting the Nazis, Jane takes it upon herself to protect the family from the threat of war. As Wendy regales her son with tales of her time with Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook, Jane remains a disbeliever. One night, the evil Hook returns to kidnap Wendy, but accidentally seizes Jane in the process. Taking her back to Never Land, Hook decides to use Jane as bait to get rid of Peter Pan once and for all.
The knee-jerk reaction to "Return To Never Land" is to scoff and bemoan the death of Disney's creativity with Walt's passing. And you would be right in suggesting that. By strip-mining their own property, Disney is treading dangerous ground from simply making magic to rather carelessly purchasing magic. Fashioning cheaply made knockoff sequels to "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas" for easy home video sales is one thing, but to send these pictures into thousands of theaters for scrutiny is a serious practice. The film has to be pretty good to make a leap of faith as large as that.
Thankfully, or mercifully if you choose, "Return To Never Land" is pretty darn good, thanks in part to strong direction by Disney lackeys Robin Budd and Donovan Cook, and a particularly breezy 64-minute running time. While the animation itself is missing the magic of the original, or at least is wanting the painstaking process that used to go into these productions, the spirit of the sequel isn't extinguished. You still get that pure shot of pixie dust magic when you see Peter Pan soaring in the London night.
The story is another matter entirely, as it weaves from a bold war-time setting to pure cartoon with scenes of Hook battling his way from an amorous octopus. The lack of true balance between the two sides of the plot leaves "Never Land" with an unstable mood, as if half of the film is filler, even for a picture this short. But as the film moves forward, it retains a sprightly, romantic view of Never Land, and maintains an entertaining air of delight for the course of the picture.
Most importantly though, "Return To Never Land" doesn't sully the name of the original film. The Peter Pan in "Never Land" is still the same precocious, borderline violent prankster who won't grow up as in the 1953 version. Thankfully, his 2002 incarnation doesn't stop the action to rap or make a "Sopranos" in-joke, as would normally be the case in trying to "hip" up such an old character. The filmmakers remain on tight terms with the original idea for the character, and the focus remains sharp. While it won't take any awards home for originality or artistic merit, "Return To Never Land" should keep old and new fans of the Pan happy, and also place a little pixie dust on their wallets. Walt would be proud.
Filmfodder Grade: B