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Return to Neverland
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Robin Budd (director)
Genre:   Fantasy / Animation
Released:   February 15, 2002
Review Date:  
Audience Rating:   Rated G
RevSF Rating:   5/10 (What Is This?)

Everything I needed to know, I learned from Peter Pan.

"I won't grow up,
I don't wanna wear a tie
And a serious expression
In the middle of July."

"Think of all the joy you'll find
When you leave the world behind
And bid your fears goodbye.
You can fly. You can fly. You can fly."

"This won't do.
What's the matter with you?
All it takes is faith and trust.
Oh, and something I forgot: Dust.
Just a little bit of pixie dust."

Peter Pan, in whatever form you choose - book, play, cartoon - is rife with metaphor… for whatever ails ya'… from staying young at heart, to finding something to believe in, to taking leaps of faith. Heck, Steven Spielberg, the guy with the world's most visible case of Peter Pan syndrome, felt the need to return to Never Land in 1991's Hook. Whether or not you thought that Hook was a good movie, at least you knew that Spielberg's intentions were true.

But when money-churning juggernaut Disney digs up a long-time icon and re-animates it for a whole new generation of "mommy I want that cereal, daddy I want that toy, Grandma I want to go to that movie, Grandpa buy me that video" Saturday-morning-cartoon-watching rugrats… well, it is a little suspect, don't you think?

Actually, it wouldn't be quite so suspect, if Disney hadn't made a habit of pumping out half-assed direct-to-video sequels for the last decade. I believe the first of them was a sequel to Aladdin, back in, what? '93, '94? I watched that one, and it wasn't too bad. Robin Williams wasn't the Genie, but Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson) did a pretty good job of pinch-hitting.

Unfortunately, Disney had hit on a quick and easy way to make money. There's gold in them thar' videotape hills. I miss the good old days when Disney's get-rich-quick scheme was to re-release the old movies. At least then you got a chance to see the classics in the theater (Disney's still doing that, but bigger and better. Beauty and the Beast got the IMAX treatment this year. Next year: The Lion King.)

Nothing says "We couldn't care less" like a direct-to-video sequel. Are there any animated movies Disney hasn't done a sequel for yet? Cinderella II is coming out soon. Cinderella II!!??!! How depressing is that?

If you could ignore Disney's awful sequel track record, the idea of returning to Never Land might be downright thrilling. But….

I don't know the history of Return to Never Land. I don't know if it was always meant to be a theatrical release. My guess is that it started out as another direct-to-video sequel, and somewhere along the line, someone changed the plans. Maybe they said, "Hey, this might actually be good enough to release in theaters." Or maybe they said, "Hey, we sure are losing a hell of a lot of money on that stupid California Adventure Theme Park. We need some cash, and we need it now."

Suffice it to say, I went into the theater expecting to witness a historic new low in the history of Walt Disney.

It's not quite that bad. Return to Never Land may be Disney's most offhanded animated movie release ever, but it's better than watching Pocahontas. The whole movie, I vacillated between being a grumpy movie critic and being a wide-eyed child.

Let's go with grumpy movie critic first.

The plot of The Little Mermaid II centers around Ariel's daughter, and uses her to tell essentially the same story as the first movie. Return to Never Land centers around Wendy's daughter, Jane, and reuses many of the same elements. Instead of a crocodile (with a ticking clock in its stomach) who wants to eat Captain Hook, we've got an octopus that makes a rhythmic popping sound with its tentacle suction cups. The few scraps of song throughout the movie are uninspired. Given Jane's attitude and voice, the animators should have made her just a little bit older, but instead, they made her a cutesy moppet. To see her bravely trouncing about WWII London with a siege helmet and her fluffy sidekick dog is to take a detour into DonBluthville.

The briskness of the movie is offputting. Its message is all about belief and faith and the power of magic, but there's no time to actually get absorbed into the fantasy. Things just happen because it's time for them to happen. And Jane's problem - that she's become prematurely "grown up" - doesn't hold as much import as it should, because it's simplistic and exaggerated, and because the developmental arc her character will follow is as predictable and predetermined as the two yellow arches at McDonalds.

And what's the message of this movie, really? That all the little tots should sprinkle glitter on themselves and jump off of rooftops? Poppycock. Given what an unpleasant stinkhole the world is, maybe we should be taking our kids to movies with more realistic messages. Like maybe: "Get over it, kid. There is no magic. There's no such thing as fairies (take that, Tinkerbell). And you can't fly unless you're willing to stand in line at the ticket counter at Continental or Delta."

That's one way to look at it. On the other hand, maybe fables that deal with the loss of innocence and the attempt to recapture childlike wonder have something important to say to both adults and children, even when the movie (Return to Never Land, for example) is far from masterpiece status.

If the downside of Return to Never Land is that there's nothing new and interesting in the movie, the upside is: the old stuff is still interesting. Given that Peter Pan was made nearly a half century ago, this sequel is surprisingly true to the original characters. Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook and Hook's sidekick Smee have all been carefully recreated. The character design and voices are ageless and still charming. Captain Hook still swings wildly from villain to buffoon. Tinkerbell still has a serious crush on Peter Pan. There's not one time that you'll think, "Smee would never do that." Or "Peter Pan wouldn't say that." It's almost enough to make you believe in the vision of animated life in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?… that Disney called up these characters, who were hanging out in a retirement community in Toontown, bored out of their gourds, and said, "Hey, let's make another movie. For old time's sake."

When I wasn't being annoyed by the pandering and simplistic plot, I was enjoying the idea that, somewhere, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell and Peter Pan and the lost boys are still out there, untouched by time, having their adventures.

Occasionally, I found myself laughing out loud, like when one of the pirates says of a captured, strung-up Peter Pan, "He's like a piñata", or when Captain Hook tells a sob story about his mother, and shows us a lady with hooks on both hands. The pirates have the same cartoony menace - all shadow and silhouette, gleaming swords and gleaming teeth - as the guards in Aladdin. The scenes with the floating pirate ship are mildly impressive, particularly when it barrels its way passed WW II airplanes. There's the thrill of seeing Peter Pan, gliding effortless through the air, arms stretched out like wings, with Tink at his side. And there's a great scene between Peter and a grown-up Wendy that manages to bring a tear to the old eye, and simultaneously remind you how vaguely kinky the whole Peter Pan / Tinkerbell / Wendy / Jane love quadrangle is.

To sum up, I am annoyed at Disney's penchant for plundering its rich past in hopes of scooping up quick box office booty. Nonetheless, it was quite nice to visit with some old friends for a while.

Recommended for lost boys and girls only.


-When RevSF Film/DVD editor Jason Myers watched Return to Never Land, he was very surprised to find out that the second star to the right is actually a psychedelic 2001: A Space Odyssey interstellar portal.

 
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