When he debuted on stage in J.M. Barry's play in 1901, "Peter Pan" became one of those characters that have since been embedded into a timeless childhood iconic. My first introduction unsurprisingly was first seeing the famed 1953 film from Walt Disney Animation Studios and it's simply a fun film to watch with its childhood glee and innocence as well as its sense of fun. It's a delightful film to watch and it was only a matter of time until it got a sequel courtesy of DisneyToon Studios. However, unlike many of their sequels which went straight to DVD, this sequel to "Peter Pan" went to theaters instead back in 2002 and it was called "Return to Never Land". As a whole, I thought the film was a very mixed bag. On one hand, it's way better than the other direct-to-DVD sequels, including the inept "The Jungle Book 2" which was also released to theaters and has a lot of good ideas that are sprinkled throughout. However, it's a film that has a lot of problems and does start to fall apart midway through. It's kind of a shame because there were a lot of good ideas in this film.
Several years after the events of the first film, Wendy Darling (Kath Soucie) has grown up, married, and become a mother to a daughter named Jane (Harriet Owen) and a son named Daniel (Andrew McDonough). However, England is thrown into World War II and Wendy's husband Edward is sent off to war and Jane is forced to grow up faster than expected due to the Blitz terrorizing London. While Wendy tries calming Daniel down with stories about Peter Pan, Jane has dismissed them as childish nonsense which only gets worse when she finds out that she and her brother are being evacuated from London to the country as a government order. That night before she is to leave, Captain Hook (Corey Burton) and his crew including the bumbling Mr. Smee (Jeff Bennet) fly into London aboard the Jolly Roger covered in pixie-dust, kidnap Jane mistaking her for Wendy, and sail to Neverland to try to lure Peter Pan (Blayne Weaver) into his trap. Naturally, Peter along with Tinker Bell saves Jane and takes her to his hideout in Hangman's Tree where he and the Lost Boys (Spencer Breslin, Bradley Peirce, Quinn Beswick, and Aaron Spann) live. Desperate to get home and unable to fly, Jane decides to learn how to be a Lost Boy with help of Peter and the other Lost Boys while Hook plans his revenge to get back his treasure and capture Peter Pan.
In preparation for this review, I decided to rewatch "Peter Pan" to refresh my memory of the film and see how well it holds up. Overall, while not perfect, it still has a sense of charm and glee to it that makes it unique from other Walt Disney Animation Studios films. When it comes to this film, there are parts that I really do like and there are other parts that did severely disappoint me. It's one of those films that really split me down the middle because I did see a lot of effort and great ideas here. The story does get off to a great start. J.M. Barry never wrote a sequel to "Peter Pan" though he did write a brief epilogue in which Peter comes back for Wendy's daughter Jane and how they fly off to Neverland for more adventures to come. However, one thing this film does that's unique is have the film start off during the beginning of the Second World War. Barry never lived to see the beginning of the war which is when his epilogue was untimely set so it makes sense for Jane to lose all faith and hope during a dark time when London was being bombed by the Nazis. Even Captain Hook kidnapping her and taking her to Neverland and having Peter rescue her and teach her about not growing up too fast is a really good idea and I liked that direction. This was something Steven Spielberg attempted to do with "Hook" back in 1991, however, I didn't really care much for that film, mainly because it suffered due to the tiresome overworked father trope. Having a young girl being kidnapped and learn not to grow up too fast worked for me a lot more. I also like the film using the idea of Tinker Bell being revived after someone says they don't believe in fairies, an idea the first film discarded. However, much like "Hook", the film for me started to fall apart after Jane arrives in Neverland. This film doesn't really have many new adventures for the characters to go on as it only revolves around Jane partaking in a treasure hunt with Peter and the Lost Boys and also being tricked by Hook into telling him where the treasure is which only reminded me of the first film and the adventures Wendy, John, and Michael went on and Tinker Bell being tricked by Hook. The film does have a nice ending, but the middle and the climax just weren't as good. I also want to add that this film does have a plot hole with the location of Peter and the Lost Boys. In the last film, Hook and the pirates clearly found Hangman's Tree where Peter Pan was hiding, but they seemed to have forgotten that in this film as Peter and the Boys still live in the tree as if nothing happened. It really bugged me a lot.
As far as the animation goes, I'm also a little mixed on it. I want to start off by saying that the background and art direction in the film is fantastic. This film really perfectly mirrors the beautiful colors that Mary Blair picked out for the first film with the gloomy and blue tone of London and the warm and bright green colors of Neverland. The look of the film perfectly matched the first film and I have to applaud the background artists for their hard work in matching the look. The character animation of the film is mostly passable. It obviously isn't as good as the original film due to the low budget and does have a little bit of that digital gloss that I don't like, but it gets the job done and I don't think it was as distracting as I thought it be. The computer-animated elements of this film though really stood out like a sore thumb. It sadly hasn't aged very well and elements including a whole sequence where Hook's CG ship sails through a CG render of London with Nazi bombers flying around it have aged poorly. It really stood out badly while watching it. And then there are the characters of the film which I'm a little torn about. I think Peter still has the cocky personality that he has from the first film and I do like they tried to differentiate the Lost Boys and it was nice seeing their rambunctious sides. I also think Captain Hook and Smee are still delightful though I think they made the latter a little too stupid since he was gullible but not an idiot and I also didn't like Hook wanting to be after treasure as well. I think just wanting Peter Pan was enough, especially given that he lost his hand to the crocodile who has vanished in this film and was instead replaced for some reason by a hungry octopus who uses popping sounds to symbolize the ticking alarm clock from the crocodile. I didn't really get why they ditched the crocodile for the octopus and the film doesn't explain why even though Hook stated he was able to get rid of him. I also did like the brief time Wendy had in the film, even if I wished Disney used Kathryn Beaumont to reprise her role (she did record all of her lines, but she was replaced last minute for some reason) and I also wished I knew what happened to John and Michael, though their absence didn't really bog down the story for me.
Honestly, "Return to Never Land" is a film I'm very mixed on. The story has some good ideas but falters in the middle, the animation has some great backgrounds but other mixed results, and the characters have some good development ideas even if some bizarre directions were taken. Honestly, I don't think this is a terrible film but it is a missed opportunity. It certainly wasn't a dreadful return to the land where you never grow up, but I wished it could've been better.