Rated G - Running Time: 1:12 - Released 2/15/02

Now that Walt Disney Pictures has begun in earnest to produce full-length sequels to its previous cartoon features (e.g., The Rescuers Down Under, Toy Story 2, and now Return To Neverland), one wonders how many future projects of this type are on the drawing board. Are we soon going to see Beauty And The Beast 2: These Kids Are Monsters, or Snow White And The Irreconcilable Differences? How about Sleeping Beauty: The Sominex Addiction? The possibilities are staggering.

Directed by Robin Budd and Donovan Cook, Return To Neverland is not only a continuation of Disney's 1953 cartoon Peter Pan, but it seems to emulate its innocence, simplicity, and production values in every way. Starting with a vintage cartoon short called Pluto's Fledgling, which was produced 5 years before the original Pan, the film plays out in a slim 72 minutes, resurrecting nearly all the characters from the original interpretation of J.M. Barrie's classic (minus the Indians), with little digital animation, no clever 21st-century references, and no major Hollywood star voices. There is a subtle little twist, though. Written by Temple Mathews and Carter Crocker, this version does not simply recount adventurous tales of snot-nosed pranksters and swashbuckling pirates, it centers around faith. Including the story of Tinkerbell's near-fatal episode caused by a lack of belief in fairies (a portion of the original story left out of the '53 film), this movie serves as a thinly veiled allegory on the importance of belief in something that cannot be seen. Personally, I think it's just Disney execs trying to smooth things over with the Christian Coalition.

The story begins with Peter's old pal Wendy (voiced by rugrat Kath Soucie), who has returned to London, grown up, and had children of her own. England is in the middle of World War II, and when her husband is sent off to battle, she counts on her daughter Jane (Harriet Owen) to take care of her and little brother Danny (Andrew McDonough). Although Wendy has kept alive the tradition of Pan-related storytelling, pre-teen Jane is a stubborn skeptic, discarding her mother's tales as "childish nonsense." Soon, however, she falls asleep and is awakened by the huge clipper ship of Captain Hook (Corey Burton), hovering over her house. Thinking Jane is Wendy, he kidnaps her in a final attempt to eradicate Peter Pan. Soon Jane finds herself in Never Land, on the very island of her mother's stories, which is still populated by the same old lost boys in their animal-themed PJ's (they must really smell by now) and still run in spirited adolescent fashion by Peter Pan (Blayne Weaver), who doesn't look a day over 12. Desiring only to go home, Jane learns from Peter that the only thing that will allow her to fly back to her family in London is a well-measured combination of "faith, trust, and pixie dust."

This film looks like it was produced in 1954, shelved for 48 years, and repackaged for a 2002 audience. Apart from a modern-sounding ballad called "I'll Try" by Jonatha Brooke, it retains the look and feel of a film produced while The Big Cheese was still running the show. This may be a good or a bad thing: against today's production standards it suffers, but the old familiar characters are all remarkably the same, both in rendering and the present cast's vocal impersonations of the original actors. In terms of characterization, things in Never Land haven't changed much, either. Hook (now pursued by a giant octopus instead of a crocodile) is still accompanied by his bumbling first mate, Smee (Jeff Bennett), and Pan is still flying around slicing holes through his expensive sails. Oh, yeah, and while Tinkerbell has kept her knockout figure, she's still having trouble with PMS. ***

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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