In 1994, in an attempt to better profit from its intellectual property, Walt Disney Pictures released a direct-to-video sequel to their hit 1992 animation Aladdin. The Return of Jafar was a low-budget production but also a runaway hit, grossing US$300 million from a US$5 million investment. As a result, Disney went ‘all-in’ on direct-to-video animation. A third Aladdin was released in 1996, followed by Pooh’s Grand Adventure and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Princess in 1997, Beauty and the Beast: Belle’s Magical World, Pocahontas II, and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride in 1998. In 2008, incoming animation head John Lassetter pulled the plug on the entire operation out of concern that the cheap, throwaway sequels had damaged Disney’s brand. In-production sequels to Dumbo and The Aristocats were cancelled, leaving a grand total of 30 sequels, prequels, and spin-offs on retail shelves.
Most of these films were genuinely awful, featuring poor writing and both ugly animation and weak design. Some, in fact, are so bad – hello to The Hunchback of Notre Dame II – that they would easily rank among the most cynically exploitative works ever made by a Hollywood studio. Had he not immediately followed their cancellation with the launch of cheap Pixar spin-off Planes, filmgoers worldwide would have owed John Lassetter a debt of gratitude.
Most were awful, but a few sequels actually rose above the pack: not great cinema, by any stretch, but at least watchable – even somewhat enjoyable. Some even received theatrical releases, including the somewhat odd ‘midquel’ Bambi II (it is set between the death of Bambi’s mother and the end of the original film). Another theatrical release was Robin Budd’s 2002 sequel Return to Neverland, a next-generation follow-up to Geronomi, Luske, and Jackson’s Peter Pan (1953).
Decades after her own trip to Neverland, Wendy Darling (Kath Soucie) lives in a Blitz-torn London caring for her children Jane (Harriet Owen) and Danny. Jane, who refuses to believe in her mother’s Peter Pan stories, is inadvertently kidnapped by the pirate Captain Hook (Corey Burton) in the belief she is Wendy. Rescuing her upon her arrival in Neverland, a delighted Peter (Blayne Weaver) thinks Jane will be the perfect Wendy replacement. All Jane wishes to do is somehow find her way home.
The bulk of Return to Neverland can be best described as ‘inoffensive’. It replays an awful lot of the same beats as the original Disney film, albeit with fewer characters and a smaller scale. The animation, while no match for the hand-drawn techniques of 1953, manages to hold its own much more confidently than many other Disney sequels. Computer-generated animation is well used in tandem with the traditional work, enabling the film to generate three-dimensional London cityscapes and a very cinematic flying pirate ship.
This blend of traditional cel art and CGI is best utilised during an early action sequence as Hook’s ship sails through London in the middle of a German air raid. The incongruous appearance of a flying galleon among swarms of fighter planes makes for a tremendous image, and a wonderfully entertaining scene. An early sequence sees Jane make her way through the London streets in a similarly fraught air raid. The use of the World War II setting shows so much promise, adding a level of threat and maturity to what is otherwise a fairly anodyne film. It is ultimately more frustrating than entertaining, however, as a far greater opportunity to invest in the World War II setting has been left on the drawing table.
The notorious representation of America’s First Peoples that plagued the 1953 film are quietly side-lined beyond a passing shot of a teepee village. The mermaids have been given Little Mermaid-style shell brassieres. A massive octopus has replaced the original’s giant crocodile, and is a well-designed and animated highlight.
In the end, Return to Neverland is a broadly enjoyable diversion for children and a small treat for Peter Pan fans. Is it worth the collective damage to Disney’s brand at the time? Probably not. Give it another few decades and the 1953 film will still be around entertaining children. It seems likely no one will remember the 2002 sequel at all.