Tinker Bell dispenses a good deal of pixie dust in the course of the Disney company’s belated sequel to its version of “Peter Pan”–now nearly half a century old–but it results in considerably less magic than was the case in the original. As conventionally-animated children’s films go nowadays, “Return to Never Land” is decent enough–fast-moving, colorful and energetic–but it’s hardly an instant classic.
Of course, the 1953 feature wasn’t, either. By the standards of Disney’s earlier efforts, “Peter Pan” seemed a little thin upon its initial release. And while it came to be more highly esteemed in the memory when Disney’s later animated work proved increasingly anemic, a re-viewing still won’t enthrall you. (Its songs, for example, are distinctly second-rate; the good tunes often associated with it actually come from the 1954 Broadway version by Mark Charlap, Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolf Green.)
Even given all that, though, “Return” comes off very much second-best. The plot is far simpler, with fewer characters and twists. Set, in the framing sequences, in wartime London (the uniforms would indicate WWI, but the allusions to the blitz suggest WWII), the narrative centers on Jane (Harriet Owen), the young, self-reliant daughter of Wendy (Kath Soucie) who has lost her belief in her mother’s stories about Peter Pan. She’s soon kidnaped by Captain Hook (Corey Burton), who thinks she’s Wendy and whisks her off to Never Land as bait to capture his youthful nemesis. Peter (Blayne Weaver) rescues her, but she’s persuaded by Hook to help him regain his stolen treasure, promising he will return her home if she does so. Unfortunately, this leads to Peter’s capture, along with his pals the Lost Boys (a rather interesting bunch here), and only by recovering her faith (and thereby reviving a weakening Tinker Bell) does Jane gain the courage to save the captives and return home with her childlike trust restored.
Some old friends are absent here, and they’re missed. The tick-tocking crocodile is gone, replaced by an octopus who’s not nearly as personable. And the Indians have disappeared too, obviously because they’d now be thought stereotypes; only a forlorn shot of a totem pole serves as a reminder of their former habitation. The new songs (one written by They Might Be Giants), moreover, aren’t even as good as the bunch found in the original film; it’s a measure of the lack of imagination in this area that the final credits are accompanied not by a new tune, but the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 “Do You Believe in Magic.” The background score by John McNeely isn’t particularly memorable, either; he’s done great work as a conductor in the Varese Sarabande series of old soundtrack scores–perhaps that’s where his true talent lies.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with teaching kids that faith is a good thing, and the picture does boast a strong female protagonist, which is probably the proper route for a sequel in this gender- conscious time. (Jane, after all, becomes the first “lost girl” here.) Moreover, Burton does a good job of mimicking Hans Conreid’s intonations, and Jeff Bennett catches the muffled tones of the original Smee nicely.
All in all, “Return to Never Land” is a pleasant, if hardly irresistible, chance for baby-boomers to go back to a locale they probably remember with fondness, and their youngsters should find it a nice place to visit, too. The short feature (only 72 minutes with final credits) is preceded by a vintage Pluto cartoon from 1957. It’s a mawkish piece, typical of the Disney style, in which the mutt helps a fledgling bird to learn to fly. Too bad they couldn’t have tacked on a livelier, funnier Looney Tunes entry instead; but all franchises must be kept separate, I suppose.