- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

The Disney animation studio seems to have hit a creative lull, as observers and well-wishers may discern from "Return to Neverland." This is a belated sequel to the 1953 animated version of "Peter Pan," which seemed second-best Disney when new but outclasses the new film with little trouble, especially in pictorial and melodic respects.

One of the problems is that you are not quite sure if "Neverland" was meant to be a self-reliant attraction. It doesn't look as good as the newly issued Disney DVD of "Peter Pan," which also boasts the supplemental items that can enhance the value of DVD moviegoing. So maybe "Neverland" is more in the nature of an extended trailer for DVD editions.

Disney has already blurred the line between theatrical and video features to some extent by making straight-to-video sequels of numerous theatrical hits. One doesn't begrudge the studio the spin-offs, necessarily, but if feature inspiration is beginning to wind down after a spectacular resurgence in the decade between "The Little Mermaid" and "Tarzan," milking the existing franchises is less important than revitalizing the feature slate.

"Neverland," entrusted to Disney's TV animation division from the outset, must have been envisioned as a low-impact item for the Easter period. It's certainly too negligible to justify optimism about the 2002 slate.

A generation-later sequel, the movie imagines Peter returning to enchant a girl named Jane, the daughter of his beloved Wendy, who is grown and married and the mother of two children during the World War II blitz of London.

This surprisingly grave backdrop becomes irrelevant once the juvenile and pixie characters are transported to Neverland, where the writers also find it difficult to sustain merely playful narrative threads about the kidnapping activities of Captain Hook and the countermeasures demanded of Pan & Co. Each group seems to be involved in cartoon exploits that have nothing in particular to do with the other.

There are also some peculiar choices. For example, the voice doubles for Hook and his harmless henchman Smee, Corey Burton and Jeff Bennett, respectively, drift in and out of impressions of their late counterparts in the 1953 prototype, Hans Conreid and Bill Thompson. Mr. Bennett is the steadier mimic, and for those who fondly recall the Thompson voice from countless radio comedy roles, including Wallace Wimple on "Fibber McGee and Molly," it's gratifying to have the sound revived on any pretext.

One of the songs from the original film, "Second Star on the Right," sets a daunting example for the feeble ditties commissioned for the new movie. You're left wondering why the other showstopper from 1953, "You Can Fly," failed to recommend itself along with "Second Star."

On the other hand, composer Joel McNeely overpowers most of the footage with a musical score heavily influenced by the famous John Williams scores for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It might be more satisfying as driving music on a car CD than as accompaniment to an entertainment that never finds a secure identity on the screen.

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