If there's any studio that knows its way around the world of animated features, it's Disney. From its first black and white animated shorts with Mickey up through its collaborative, computer-generated efforts with Pixar, no company has created, produced and/or marketed as many well-known characters, films, shorts and TV programs. While they've had their share of missteps along with all of the success, no other studio is as synonymous with animated fare as is Disney.
One of their more beloved, if not quite classic efforts was 1953's "Peter Pan." Featuring the title character, along with Wendy, Michael, John Darling, Captain Hook and one nasty crocodile, and based on James M. Barrie's play, the film arrived near the end of Disney's first good period of such films.
Possibly setting the record for the greatest number of intervening years between an original film and its subsequent sequel, we now have "Return to Never Land." With the film seemingly initially targeted for a straight to video release - much like "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride," "The Return of Jafar" (the sequel to "Aladdin") and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II" - the studio apparently noticed the recent stellar success of kid-based films and decided to release it onto the big screen first.
That pattern follows the case of "Toy Story 2" (although it was eventually earmarked for theatrical release before it went into production), and the philosophy is sound in that even if such films flop at the box office, they'll still have a chance in the home video market that's notoriously rewarding for animated offerings.
Then again, perhaps the studio figured they had a decent little film on their hands despite the lack of high profile or recognizable vocal talent on the soundtrack or seasoned veterans of the animated feature world working on it. Guess what? They were right, at least to some degree.
While certainly no classic - as it's not in the same league as its predecessor - and featuring both varying levels of animation quality and a predictable storyline, the film is rather enjoyable, occasionally delightful, and should entertain kids of all ages, particularly if they're young or at least young at heart.
As written by Temple Matthews ("The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea") and directed by Robin Budd (making his feature debut after working in various ways on other animated projects) and Donovan Cook (also making his debut after directing animated TV shows), the story picks up in WWII London with Wendy now a grownup with two kids of her own. She, of course, recounts stories of Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Never Land to soothe and entertain them.
Her older daughter, however, now views such characters and tales in the same vein as Santa and the Easter Bunny, particularly in light of the backdrop of the war raging outsight her bedroom window. Still harboring a grudge, Hook flies there in the now airborne Jolly Roger and kidnaps the daughter - thinking she's Wendy - hoping to use the hostage to catch Peter. From that point on, Jane tries to get home while dealing with Peter and Hook.
To some/many, that will obviously have more than passing similarities to both the original film as well as "Hook," Steven Spielberg's 1991, live-action film that had Hook kidnapping Peter's children (thus forcing him to revisit his youth to save them).
In addition, and partially because of that, little if anything the film offers - as far as the plot is concerned - will come as much of a surprise to adults or savvy kids. Both will easily know where things are headed and will probably recognize that the film's giant octopus has simply replaced the menacing crocodile from the first picture.
For those interested in or concerned about the film's artistic value - from a visual perspective - the blend of traditional, hand-drawn and computer-generated animation is rather uneven at times. Some of it looks quite good - if clearly not groundbreaking - such as the scenes set in war ravaged London, while other parts sadly have the appearance of some Saturday morning TV cartoons.
All of that said, the film's target audience of young kids probably won't notice or care about such criticisms and instead will only be interested in whether it entertains them or not. For most, the answer should be a resounding yes. The story zips along at a fast pace, there are only 2 musical numbers to slow things down, and there's plenty of kid-oriented action and humor.
While none of the character's voices come from audibly recognizable talent - which can actually be a blessing since in some films that proves to be distracting - their vocal work is all quite good. Harriet Owen (various English stage and TV productions) hits the right notes as the plucky protagonist,
Blayne Weaver (making his vocal debut) sounds right as Peter, and Kath Soucie (the "Rugrats" TV shows and movies) has the appropriate motherly sounds to her delivery.
It's Corey Burton ("Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Mulan"), however, as Captain Hook who obviously has the most fun with the part and delivers the most entertaining vocal performance of the lot. Whether it's doing the menacing bit - possibly imitating Jack Nicholson from "The Shining" when he announces "Hellooooo Wendeeee" -- or cowering in fear, Burton delivers the perfect vocal tics and nuances to make the character work.
Certainly capable of entertaining the little ones and clearly nowhere as bad as I feared before seeing it, the film obviously isn't a classic, but it's an enjoyable diversion that most adults probably won't mind sitting through. "Return to Never Land" thus rates as a 6 out of 10.