Return to Never Land is Peter Pan Lite, if I can say that without conjuring images of low-fat peanut butter.
As revisited in this minor Disney-nouveau sequel to the studio’s beloved 1953 Peter Pan, Never Land has the same air of lighthearted whimsy and high-flying imagination. Yet something’s been lost: a darker undercurrent that ran through J. M. Barrie’s original play and novel and was discernible even in the Disney version.
Fairy tales require something dark and challenging at their center to make them work (a point I recently explored in my review of The Wizard of Oz). The original Peter Pan had something of the depth of a fairy tale: Its Never Land was a joyous, carefree place, but there was also something terrible and rather heartless about it, and for a particular reason: There were no parents there, and in particular no mothers. Never Land was a place of orphaned Lost Boys with no one to tell them stories or tuck them in at night. Even the pirates were held spellbound by Wendy’s hymn to motherhood, and Smee wept over his "Mother" tattoo.
This sequel — the first Disney sequel to get a theatrical release, though it looks and feels like direct-to-video material — is lighter and frothier than the original. It’s still entertaining enough, with fast-paced excitement and colorful imagery that children will enjoy, and a sweetly nostalgic spirit that will appeal to parents. Yet the poignant image here is not children who lack parents, but a child who lacks a childlike spirit of wonder and fun. Imagination, not family, is the driving value.
Which is not to say that Return to Never Land is bad, or anti-family, or anti-parent. On the contrary, it takes a warm view of family life, and of parents particularly. Recent Disney theatrical releases haven’t always been family-friendly (see my article "Quo Vadis Disney?" for more info), but last year’s direct-to-video sequel Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure was very pro-parent and pro-family, and this sequel shows a similar sensibility.
Like the dénouement of Barrie’s original story, Return to Never Land depicts a grown and married Wendy (Kath Soucie) who has two children, older Jane (Harriet Owen) and younger Danny (Andrew McDonough). But this Jane, unlike Barrie’s, is less imaginative and fanciful than her mother Wendy, who still retains her youthful sense of wonder and delights in telling stories of Peter Pan to her young son, just as she told them to her brothers John and Michael when she was a girl.
These stories, alas, no longer hold the appeal for Jane that they once did. She has, it seems, grown up too fast, or in the wrong way. Even when she finds herself actually spirited off to Never Land and meets Peter Pan face to face, Jane can only conclude that she must be dreaming. Clearly, this is a girl in desperate need of an infusion of faith and trust and pixie dust. The pixie dust is readily available; the faith and trust will take some doing.
Jane’s disenchantment with the world is understandable, if unfortunate: She lives in 1940s London during the Nazi air raids, her father (a gentle man with nothing of the angry bluster of Wendy’s father) is away at war, and the government is about to evacuate the children of London to the countryside (a scenario that also played a role in the prologue of C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).
In a nice detail, the windows in Jane’s bedroom have taped X’s across the panes to strengthen them against shockwaves. These windows — unlike those of her mother’s childhood nursery years earlier, which were left open for Peter Pan — are kept latched; but her first visitor from Never Land is not Peter, and it turns out that the latch can be opened from the outside by a hook slipped between the frames. Captain Hook, it seems, lacks any concept of how people age outside of Never Land, and has mistaken Jane for Wendy, whom he wants to kidnap to use against Peter.
The appearance of the flying pirate ship over the roof of the house is a great effect, and the subsequent voyage over the rooftops of London (and, in a nod to the original, past the luminous face of Big Ben) is visually impressive. I’m not sure, though, that we needed the computer-generated kaleidoscope effects that preceed the arrival in Never Land; as if the Jolly Roger were rocketing through hyperspace. That never happened before.
On the other hand, this isn’t quite the same Never Land, but a kinder, gentler version. Take the ticking crocodile — the one that developed a perpetual hankering for pirate captain after Peter cut off Hook’s right hand and fed it to the reptile. It’s been replaced by a literally and figuratively toothless octopus — a big, blobby orange invertebrate that seems to know it suffers from the comparison, judging from its bizarre habit of trying to tick just like the crocodile, as if it too had swallowed an alarm clock. (Maybe it’s trying to unnerve Hook? Or perhaps it suffers from identity crisis: Smee calls it a "sea urchin," yet the official website, after identifying it as an octopus, proceeds to refer to it as a squid!)
Nor is Hook himself half so menacing as he was in the original. When we first met Hook in Peter Pan, we saw him casually shoot one of his own pirates for bothering him with his accordion playing. Granted, that wouldn’t go over in today’s world; still, the man was a terror. Look how he chained Tiger Lily at Skull Rock, made Wendy walk the plank, and stuck Tinker Bell in a lantern. Here, only Peter is really menaced by the old codfish. (Incidentally, neither Tiger Lily nor any of the Indians puts in an appearance here, an understandable nod to political correctness.)
Another element from the original that’s been watered down is the theme of jealousy, an important part of the way the story dealt with grown-up roles. In Peter Pan, Tinker Bell was dreadfully resentful of Wendy getting anywhere near her man, and the mermaids in the lagoon were just as catty to her.
In Never Land, Tink (who still has her 1950s figure, thanks for asking) starts off jealous of Jane, but they end up bonding after Jane’s renewed belief in fairies brings Tink from the edge of death — even though it was Jane’s disbelief that put her life in jeopardy in the first place. (Incidentally, this business of faith and fairies comes straight from Barrie’s play, in which Peter appeals to the children in the audience to clap if they believe in fairies in order to save Tink’s life.)
As this suggests, Never Land isn’t interested in exploring grown-up roles the way Peter Pan did. Jane never acts as a surrogate mother to Peter or the Lost Boys as Wendy did; instead, she becomes "the first Lost Girl." Peter Pan depicted a young girl modeling the role of a wife and mother; this sequel depicts a young girl embracing childhood and fun and playfulness. There’s nothing wrong with that; but it lacks the substance of the original.
At 72 brief minutes, Return to Never Land never runs the risk of becoming boring, or particularly moving. The pop tunes by Jonatha Brooke did nothing for me, either.
In spite of all these shortcomings, I enjoyed this brief return to Never Land. The writing is sharp if unambitious, the animation and voice work nicely evocative of the original, and there are clever touches here and there. It’s a shame to see the studio once capable of producing Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast reduced to this; but at least it’s harmless fun, which is more than I can say for most of Disney’s recent theatrical releases (cf. last year’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
If this sequel lacks the fairy-tale depth of the original, it’s still reasonably successful as a tribute to wonder and imagination at any age. Return to Never Land is a valentine to adults who have grown up but never grown old, to parents who seek to pass on their own childhood worlds and stories to their children. In other words, it’s about parents who enjoyed Peter Pan bringing their children to Return to Never Land. That’s all right, I suppose.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.