Growing up, Peter Pan was always in my consciousness in one form or another. I enjoyed it in many incarnations including the original book, the 1991 film Hook, and the 2003 live-action film. I even read the “Peter and the Starcatchers” book series, which acted as a prequel. However, my first introduction to the story was, like so many others, the 1951 Disney animated feature Peter Pan. I was in awe of the fantastic world that Walt and his team had created. I would often go to bed with the music from the film playing in the background, the songs becoming embedded in my memory over time. To this day, I have a fondness for the story and a warm place in my heart for the original film.
50 years after the release of Peter Pan, we got a sequel, produced by DisneyToon Studios. Unlike the previous DisneyToon sequels, Return to Never Land was released for the theatrical market, a curious decision that the company only made one more time before returning to their home video roots. The film, premiering in early 2002, picks up several years later during World War II. Wendy is grown and has kids of her own, including the no-nonsense Jane who doesn’t believe in Wendy’s stories about Never Land. However, when Captain Hook kidnaps Jane and takes her to Never Land, she begins to question what she believes is real.
Apart from the beloved characters and world, one of the most memorable things about Peter Pan is the story. It is original, yet simple but completely endearing. Obviously, this sequel cannot be expected to match or top that story and this sadly doesn’t come close. There is nothing especially interesting or special about the story presented here. It is essentially a rehash of the original. Peter and the Lost Boys welcome a girl to Never Land? Check. Captain Hook is pursued by a creature from the sea? Check. Tinker Bell in danger? Check. There is nothing new here.
As far as characterization goes, there isn’t much character development, which is to be expected. After all, Peter Pan never grows up physically or mentally so there isn’t much they could do with him. Wendy even hasn’t really matured despite being a grown woman. The only character development we see is that of Jane, with an arc that is painfully predictable. The Native American characters from the first film, such as Tiger Lily and her father are absent here, which is unsurprising and a wise choice considering their controversial history.
The music is probably the biggest letdown. The soundtrack includes two songs and they are not memorable or interesting, either musically or lyrically. The first one is “sung” by Jane, the same way Tarzan “sings” in that film. In other words, it is an inner monologue that is not mouthed by the character, a practice that Disney used heavily following the renaissance of the ’90s and one that I find rarely works. This could be because of my musical theatre background and my knowledge of how each song needs to actively move the story forward or develop the character in some way. Those things are difficult to do effectively if the character themselves is not singing. This is worsened by the fact that this song is one that screams the late 90s/early 2000s, painfully dating a film that is supposed to take place in 20th century London, rather than 21st century America. But I digress. The second song is a “regular” musical number, featuring Peter, the Lost Boys, and Jane. The less said about that one, the better.
This review probably makes the film sound much worse than it is. All in all, it is not terrible; just pointless. The best part of it, for me, were the shenanigans of Captain Hook and Smee which always make me laugh. The addition of the octopus, which replaces the crocodile, was a fun choice. For those who love the original film, it is nice to spend an hour or so with these characters again. Just don’t expect too much.
Next week, we will be watching Cinderella II: Dreams Come True.