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Return to Never Land: Pixie-Powered Edition DVD Review

Return to Never Land (2002) movie poster Return to Never Land

Theatrical Release: February 10, 2002 / Running Time: 72 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Donovan Cook, Robin Budd

Voice Cast: Harriet Owen (Jane, Young Wendy), Blayne Weaver (Peter Pan), Corey Burton (Captain Hook), Jeff Bennett (Smee, Pirates), Kath Soucie (Wendy), Andrew McDonough (Danny), Roger Rees (Edward), Spencer Breslin (Cubby), Bradley Pierce (Nibs), Quinn Beswick (Slightly), Aaronn Spann (Twins)

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By Aaron Wallace

The Disney sequel has long been associated with a direct-to-video release; mention one and you'll conjure thoughts of the other. Starting with The Return of Jafar in 1994, Buena Vista Home Entertainment has issued an unending slew of sequels to the chagrin of some fans and the appeasement of an apparently eager public. When work began on Return to Never Land, an animated sequel to Walt Disney's 1953 Peter Pan, the project was intended to be the studio's latest home video debut. Somewhere along the way, though, the movie was upgraded to a theatrical release
and in 2002, it became the first proper sequel to a Disney animated classic that DisneyToon Studios released to theaters nationwide.

If nothing else, Return to Never Land is evidence that a theatrical release does not guarantee superiority. In the sizable pool of Disney sequels -- just about all of which have gone straight to video -- the Peter Pan follow-up sits squarely in the middle. Efforts such as Lady and the Tramp II and the recent Cinderella III easily surpass it. Never Land isn't merely a retread of its source material, however, and that is an attribute that makes it stand out from less ambitious follow-ups.

The movie is set in the midst of World War II, as the children of London are evacuated to the English countryside to spare them the risk of bombing. Now grown up and married, Wendy struggles to break the news to her children, Jane and Danny, who are holding out hope that their father returns from combat unharmed. Wendy regales the younger Danny with stories of her own adventures in Never Land while the more hardened Jane scoffs at their incredulity. She's made a believer soon enough, though, when Captain Hook breaks into the Darling home (Wendy has apparently inherited it) and kidnaps Jane in the mistaken belief that she is Wendy herself. Whisked away to Never Land, Jane is just the bait Hook needs to prompt another showdown with the one and only Peter Pan. The whole thing plays out a little too closely along the lines of Hook (Steven Spielberg's wonderful 1991 film) but while the similarities are noticeable, it's far from a blatant rip-off. Naturally, Hook is the better Pan sequel, but comparing a DisneyToon production to a big budget blockbuster isn't really fair.

Peter and Tink -- still flirting after all these years. Like Pride Rock upon Simba's return, Never Land is less glorious the second time around, even from the vantage of Hook's CG-aided ship in the sky.

The World War II setting is an unexpected one, lending a welcome, albeit slight, edge to the proceedings. When the many bland contexts in which this second Pan story could have been told are considered, the direction chosen suggests some inspiration. The setting is even more effective as a tool for lending greater weight to the emotional center of the story, which gives Jane far more attention than Wendy ever had in the original. Though neither original nor overwhelming, Jane's central journey towards faith is easy enough to invest in for an hour or so. The character is made more accessible to the audience when her sympathetic childhood is relayed early on. The magic of Never Land is, as in in the original, made relevant by its direct impact on a family in the real world and the film never loses sight of that.

Aside from the story, three aspects of Return to Never Land are particularly worth discussing: animation, voice acting, and music. The first of these marks the most significant gap in quality from the original film. The animators at the now-folded DisneyToon Studios have improved considerably over the years, with each feature seemingly surpassing the previous in terms of animation. By 2002, things were looking pretty good and indeed, Never Land's art is solid. Nevertheless, the flattened backgrounds, occasionally off-model characters, and inconsistent fluidity that mark television animation are all present here. As a result, the movie feels cinematic at times and downright cartoonish at others but of course the dazzling 1950s animation is never even challenged, let alone rivaled.
The movie employs quite a bit of CGI, creating visuals that looked more impressive five years ago when CGI was newer and all the rage than they do today. I suspect the computer graphics might have been partly responsible for the movie's trip to theaters, a hunch that the trailer supports. The flashy digital imagery is thankfully relegated to appropriate things like Hook's ship, however, and largely left out of the characters, who still look like they were actually drawn (though with modern sensibilities).

Forty-nine years after Peter Pan, a reunion of the original voice cast is out of question. Disney resultantly turned to their stable of voice actors to match the originals as best they could. Corey Burton is astoundingly good as Captain Hook, capturing Hans Conreid's performance with amazing accuracy. Tinker Bell's voice is pretty faithfully recreated too, though that didn't require much work. The rest of the transitions aren't as smooth. Blayne Weaver is instantly distinguishable from Bobby Driscoll but comes close enough to overlook the discrepancy. The same cannot be said for Harriet Owen, who does a fine job as Jane but comes nowhere close to imitating Kathryn Beaumont when she briefly attempts to voice young Wendy at the movie's opening.

Hook puts on a cunning performance when confronted by Jane. If you've ever wondered what Wendy looked like in between Kathryn Beaumont and Maggie Smith, here's your answer.

And speaking of bad vocal performances, let's not overlook Jonatha Brooke, who wrote an excellent anthem for the movie in "I Try" but renders it impotent when she sings it herself. She does a better job with a new take on "Second Star to the Right" but, like most of the movie's music, it's pretty forgettable. While not a straight musical, characters do occasionally break into song while a nondiegetic soundtrack is favored at other times. The score is rather bland and Saturday morning cartoonish, matching the sometimes tiring visual gag sequences. A notable exception is the opening overture, which effectively puts one in a Peter Pan mood.

More than just diverting but ultimately unremarkable, Return to Never Land is likely to be appreciated by children and Disney fans but isn't destined to endure as anyone's favorite. The movie was first released to DVD in 2002 but remained in print for only a matter of months. Long unavailable, it returns to DVD this week as a new Pixie-Powered Edition, perhaps the silliest title ever bestowed upon a home video release. The new edition isn't particularly thrilling, I'm afraid; for more on that, read on.

Buy Return to Never Land: Pixie-Powered Edition on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, French, Spanish),
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 27, 2007
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase with Embossed
Holographic Cardboard Slipcover

VIDEO and AUDIO

Return to Never Land is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 widescreen and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. The picture quality is quite excellent, as is expected for such a recent movie. Though the visuals themselves are sometimes limited by the lower budget, lesser studio production, the DVD leaves no complaints. Without the original DVD release in my possession, I can't compare the two, but UltimateDisney.com's review suggests that the video quality was similarly excellent on that edition (again, no surprise for a 2002 movie).

Audio comes by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, which is also satisfactory. The presentation would have benefitted from additional rear channel activity and increased bass, but as it is, there is a fair amount of channel separation and occasional booming where appropriate. Like the picture quality, the audio track doesn't give rise to much complaint.

Captain Hook is seen in rough form in one of the disc's two deleted scenes: "When Jane and Hook Meet for the First Time". Spin the wheel and you might be lucky enough to waste a lot of time... the painfully slow Quest for the Light game is one to avoid. The world's most famous fairy tinkers with a bell in this preview for "Disney Fairies".

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, and PACKAGING

Bonus features are divided into three sections, the first of which is Deleted Scenes. Selecting "Lost Treasures" launches a 52-second introduction to the deleted scenes by co-producers Chris Chase and Sharon Morrill. From there, a sub-menu is activated and two brief sequences become available: "Where Jane and Hook Meet for the First Time" (2:04) and "Gift for Tink" (1:46), both presented in a combination of rough and finished animation.
The first is rather self-explanatory and was cut merely for time; the second represents an abandoned storyline. Each is introduced by Chase and Morrill, who have interesting things to say. Frustratingly, one gets the distinct impression that they stayed around to talk about additional scenes, none of which are offered here.

The second section is Games & Activities, inside which there is only game: "Tinker Bell's Challenge Game: Quest for the Light". The premise is that Tinker Bell's light is fading and the only way to save her is to say you believe match things and answer trivia. Players are prompted to spin a flower wheel and play a ridiculously slow-loading series of overly easy and inane games. Don't waste your time.

The third and final section is Magical Fairies Moments, which presents three 90-second vignettes that are either excerpts from the upcoming "Disney Fairies" titles or merely promotional shorts (let's hope it's the latter). The first, "Rosetta & The Flower", features an exaggeratedly Southern fairy. "Iridessa & The Lightbugs" unsurprisingly finds a different fairy illuminating lightning bugs. Finally, the most interesting is "Tink & The Bell", which depicts none other than Tinker Bell herself in an all-new setting. Though Tinker Bell will reportedly speak for the first time in the new "Fairies" releases, she's completely silent here.

Clearly, the slate of bonus features for this DVD is quite inexcusably small. While one wouldn't reasonably expect Disney to produce much new content for this release, the studio could have at least ported over all the material from the original DVD release, which was pretty light itself. A music video for Brooke's "I Try", a story time activity, and a different game have all disappeared in the re-release. Even less understandable is the absence of the theatrical trailer or any kind of promotional material that would acknowledge the film's significance as a theatrical release. An audio commentary might be too much to ask for (though it shouldn't be), but certainly something as simple as a music video isn't. Jesse McCartney's excellent, recent cover of "I Try" would have been prime material for this release but not even that is included.

The main menu is rather simplistic, with a boring bit of score playing while Peter Pan peeks at Tinker Bell, who is laughing in the midst of a surely unhealthy amount of pixie dust. To even see the menu, you'll have to bypass Disney's FastPlay, which automatically plays the movie and a few previews and bonuses upon disc startup.

The disc is packaged inside a standard black keepcase, which is adorned with an embossed, holographic slipcover that is impressively textured and shows off nice-looking cover art. Inside the case are a chapter index, a Disney Movie Rewards Magic Code, and ads aplenty.

A number of sneak peeks can be found on the disc. They are: Tinker Bell, Wall•E, High School Musical 2: Extended Edition, 101 Dalmatians: Platinum Edition, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True - Special Edition, The Aristocats: Special Edition, Snow Buddies, "Wish Gone Amiss", and "My Friends Tigger & Pooh". There are also spots for "Disney Fairies" books and the Disney Movie Rewards program.

Peter rescues Jane from a perilous dive. Peter, Jane, and the lost boys have some fun with Hook's stolen treasure, but danger lurks nearer than they think.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Return to Never Land is a movie worth seeing for anyone with passing interest. Exhibiting some creative effort, the final result lies somewhere between what you would expect from a Disney sequel and what you would expect from a Disney theatrical release. Lapses into cartoon tendencies aside, there's nothing especially offensive about this production, but it turns out that the return trip to Never Land that the title promises just isn't as exciting as it was the first time around.

The new Pixie-Powered Edition DVD offers pleasing picture and sound but a paltry platter of bonus features. It's painfully apparent that the only reason for this reissue is Disney's desire to drum up enthusiasm for the upcoming "Disney Fairies" DVDs, in which Tinker Bell is front and center. Still, those who don't yet own the movie can now happily add it to their collections. The previous DVD offered additional bonus features but none of them are worth tracking it down for. Likewise, none of the new supplements on this edition are worth upgrading for. If Return to Never Land sounds like your cup of tea, then don't hesitate to pick it up -- just don't fret over which edition you choose.

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Related Reviews:
Peter Pan (Platinum Edition) • Tinker Bell • Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure • Finding Neverland
The Jungle Book (Platinum Edition) • Disney Princess Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams • Meet the Robinsons
Wish Gone Amiss • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe • Monsters, Inc.
Pixar Short Films Collection, Volume 1 • The Pixar Story & To Infinity and Beyond! • Ratatouille
My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Super Sleuth Christmas • Sing Along Songs: You Can Fly - Peter Pan
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time • The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause • Mickey's House of Villains
The Lion King II: Simba's Pride - Special Edition • Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure • Snow Dogs
Recess: School's Out • Teacher's Pet • A Goofy Movie • The Return of Jafar & Aladdin and the King of Thieves
Gargoyles: Season 2, Volume 1 • Darkwing Duck: Volume 2 • DuckTales: Volume 3 • The Fox and the Hound 2
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: The Friendship Edition • Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers

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Reviewed November 28, 2007.