“Return to Never Land” represents a passable follow-up to the venerable Peter Pan story and mercifully, at 72 minutes, is exactly half the length of the last attempt at same, Steven Spielberg’s lamentable “Hook.” Although Disney isn’t saying so now, this Walt Disney Television Animation production was originally conceived as a straight-to-video release along the lines of the recent sequels to “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Lady and the Tramp” and the imminent “Cinderella II,” and it’s at least a cut above some of the division’s five previous bigscreen offerings, such as “The Goofy Movie” and “The Tigger Movie.” As such, it would seem to justify the decision to go the theatrical route for a quick payoff over the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend and for a short time beyond prior to a long life on kids’ vid shelves, where Disney’s 1953 animated “Peter Pan” remains a staple.
For a modern animated effort that grafts CGI work onto traditional ‘toon techniques, “Never Land” has a harder-edged look but at least doesn’t betray the old school Disney style exemplified by its predecessor. Storywise, scripter Temple Mathews found a simple way of recapitulating James Barrie’s story of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys’ ongoing battle with Captain Hook while updating the sensibility of the girl at the center of it.
Set during the London blitz, tale presents Peter’s former partner in adventure, Wendy, as the mother of two, Jane and Danny. Latter is an eager lad who craves his mother’s tales of Peter Pan. But Jane is a serious, pragmatic sort who disdains her mum’s “silly stories” and announces with annoyance that, “I’ve no time for fun and games,” what with the war going on and her father gone.
Back in Never Land, Captain James Hook, well restored from having been consumed by a crocodile decades earlier, is still having no luck winning as much as a single skirmish with his eternal nemesis Peter Pan. But managing to get his ship, the Jolly Roger, covered in pixie dust, Hook flies it to London and kidnaps Jane, in the mistaken belief that she is Wendy, who he would use as bait for the mischievous boy in green.
Succeeding in threading through an onslaught of German bombers on the way out of London, Hook loses Jane to Peter shortly after arriving back in Never Land. But even a spectacular airborne tour of the island in Peter’s arms isn’t enough to convince the stubborn lass to emulate her mother and stick around for a bit of fun. So it takes the rest of the colorful movie for Peter to pry Jane from Hook’s clutches — the buffoonish pirate has her convinced that he is the only one who can return her to England — to make her “believe” and therefore able to fly, and to prevail over the hapless Hook one more time.
With Peter and Hook quite set in their ways at this point, Jane provides some welcome gravity, at least in comparison to those around her, as well as a character arc; her dilemma of feeling incapable of the faith required to believe in fairies, pixie dust, et al., is nicely caught in a fine song, “I’ll Try,” written and sung by Jonatha Brooke.
One of the few changes wrought on the original is the famous ticking croc having been replaced in Hook’s nightmares by a giant octopus that pucks its suckers upon approaching its prey.