It is 1940 and London is being devastated by the blitz. As German bombs fall from the sky young Jane (voiced by Harriet Owen) is heartbroken when her father is called to serve in the Second World War. Hardships of war have made Jane a fiercely pragmatic and practical girl quite unlike her mum, Wendy (Kath Soucie) who enthralls kid brother Danny (Andrew McDonough) with tales of youthful adventures with Peter Pan (Blayne Weaver), the flying boy who never grew up. Upon learning she is to be evacuated from her home, Jane angrily tells Wendy she does not believe in Never Land or Peter Pan. That night a familiar flying pirate galleon descends upon the house. Mistaking Jane for her mother, dastardly Captain Hook (Corey Burton) abducts the girl to Never Land hoping to lure Peter into yet another trap. Adventures with Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys ensue though in this instance, Peter Pan finds himself faced with a feistier girl who is not so easily charmed.
In the early Noughties Disney cranked out a bunch of direct-to-video sequels to classic animated hits. Bambi II (2006), The Jungle Book II (2003), Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (2002) and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (2007) exploited and trampled on cherished childhood memories for the sake of a quick buck, tarnishing the reputation of the House of Mouse for quality family entertainment. Yet unlike those films long since forgotten, Return to Never Land scored a theatrical release and amassed a fair fan following, proving a substantial hit in France where an appetite for J.M. Barrie's timeless creation arguably burns brighter than in the UK or USA. P.J. Hogan's under-rated revisionist live-action Peter Pan (2003), which opened to middling box office in the English speaking world, also went down well with the French.
Opening with an ingratiating curtain-raiser wherein Tink flies through clouds that take shape as characters and scenes from Disney's original Peter Pan (1953), Return to Never Land is crafted with evident artistry and respect for the source. While one could question whether any sequel was strictly necessary this still proves better than Pan fans might be inclined to expect. The film actually begins by restoring the closing scenes excised from other adaptations of Barrie's stage-play and novel, with Wendy's passage to adulthood conveying the author's intended message about the melancholy yet at the same time life-affirmingly cyclical nature of childhood. Time passes, we all grow up but childhood endures from generation to generation as embodied by the irrepressible spirit of you know who. And so Peter flies in through the window again to lead the next generation off on another great adventure. In fact the plot is strangely similar to Steven Spielberg's hit-and-miss Peter Pan sequel, Hook (1991) which also involves the dark and sinister pirate captain making off with Wendy's offspring. In that instance her grandchildren. However, instead of the frankly oxymoronic concept of a grownup Peter Pan suffering a mid-life crisis, the plot deals with a little girl who has forgotten how to be a kid.
Some took issue with the choice of setting this story against the backdrop of the Second World War, with a few going so far as to accuse the filmmakers of bad taste. Yet the war setting befits the story's theme of childhood enduring through terrible adversity. When Jane's father calls her his big girl, she wrongly interprets this as an instruction to think and behave like a stolid, humourless grownup. Peter teaches her how to be a kid again. The inherent message of Temple Matthews and Carter Crocker's screenplay, which stays true to J.M. Barrie, is nothing so trite as to enforce the idea of remaining a child forever but stresses the importance of preserving a childhood as a means of safeguarding our future. Peter essentially gives Jane the fighting spirit she needs to endure the Blitz. The film is far from perfect however. Substituting an angry octopus for the ticking crocodile as Captain Hook's nemesis makes no sense. Hook is not frightened of all sea creatures. The whole point of the ticking croc is that it embodied Hook's fear of time catching up with him. Also the music, while beguiling in and of itself including songs contributed by Jonatha Brooke and believe it or not quirky indie pop-sters They Might Be Giants, sounds too contemporary though it does reflect the central themes.
Lively, fast-paced with some winningly irreverent gags the sequel has new voice actors do a fine job recreating the originals whilst the animators succeed again at making Peter and Tink seem exuberantly alive. In fact the team outdo the original film with some of their staging. The sky turns into a kaleidoscope for the journey to Never Land and Peter's flight with Jane over his enchanted realm proves exhilaratingly magical with nice attention to detail. Co-director Donovan Cook had a career in quirky TV cartoons like Duckman and 2 Stupid Dogs before joining the Disney fold. Whilst joint helmer Robin Budd remained in television, Cook went on to direct more Disney films including Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers (2004) and Mickey's Adventures in Wonderland (2009) and even dabbled in live action with indie road trip comedy Rideshare (2011). His most recent work is another animated feature, Max & Me (2014).
Interestingly, Return to Never Land finds space to include an approximation of the "I do believe in fairies" sequence that Walt Disney himself could not figure how to include in his 1953 film. It is muted and prosaic compared with Barrie's original concept but at least it's there. Feisty new heroine Jane is girl power all the way in a manner that will either grate or ingratiate herself to viewers though one suspects young girls will respond to her favourably. One certainly can't imagine dear Wendy greeting Peter with a hearty punch on the nose although Jane winningly convinces Tink to set their differences aside and team up to save the day. Yet the highlight remains a lovely, poignant encounter between Peter, Tink and grownup Wendy that brings closure to their relationship in a manner neglected by other Peter Pan films.