Suspended Animation #366
The opportunity to revisit Peter Pan, Hook, Tinker Bell and many of the other characters from Disney’s 1953 animated classic proved irresistible to family audiences looking for entertainment in movie theaters on February 15th, 2002 immediately making Peter Pan: Retun to Neverland the third most popular film offering its opening weekend.
Originally planned as a straight-to-video feature like other contemporary Disney animated sequels, it was decided to release the DisneyToon production Peter Pan: Return to Neverland (2002) first for a limited run in movie theaters.
Disney’s publicity spin was that the quality of the animation and story were so high that it needed to be released to theaters and that it would be an appropriate way to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the original film coming in 2003.
In addition but not mentioned, the Walt Disney Company had seen that a theatrical release often significantly increased the sales of the video release because it gave the film more credibility as a “real” film. The film cost less than twenty-five million dollars to produce.
Return grossed $48.4 million domestically and an additional $66.7 in international markets. Those numbers qualified the film as a highly profitable success for Disney. The last Disney animated feature released was Treasure Planet, whose $120 million budget was five times that of Return, earned 22% less domestically and $300,000 less worldwide than Return.
An off-shoot of Disney’s television animation unit, DisneyToon not only made direct-to-video sequels (often referred to by Disney fans as “cheapquels”) but also the occasional theatrical release usually capitalizing on the block of Disney Afternoon television series with films like DuckTales: The Movie – Treasure of the Lost Lamp (made by Walt Disney Animation France studio), and A Goofy Movie (inspired by the TV series Goof Troop). Over the course of its existence, the division produced forty-seven animated feature films.
Walt Disney Animation Canada opened in Vancouver and Toronto in January 1996 to produce direct-to-video product using Canada’s deep pool of animators. The studio produced the direct-to-video title Beauty And The Beast: Enchanted Christmas (1997) and collaborated with Disney subcontractors in Australia and Japan on Pocahontas II: Journey To The New World (1998).
Peter And Jane, the proposed sequel to the Peter Pan cartoon classic, was originally intended as the Canadian studio’s first theatrical release but was downgraded to a home video title before work was suspended in fall 1999. Disney closed the entire studio in spring 2000. The title Peter and Jane was meant to mirror the title of author James Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy.
The Canadian studio had recorded voice work as was usual prior to starting animation including using Kathryn Beaumont who had voiced the character of Wendy in the original film to play the role of the older Wendy in this one.
Kathryn Beaumont remembered, “Oh yeah, we did the whole film. We recorded it. But they made different decisions after the film was moved to a different studio. You know how sometimes when films are made, they look at the way it is at that time and decide they want to make changes, or they’re not sure if certain things are going to work, and they completely redo them.
“That’s what happened with this film. They just dropped everything, including most of the voices, including mine. So that was the way it went.”
The Walt Disney Company revived the project in early 2000 but shifted the animation to its studios in Sydney, Australia (that Disney would close in 2006) and Japan (that Disney would close in 2004) as well as using an independent company, Cornerstone Animation (that closed in 2003).
One of the reasons for the closure of the Disney studios was Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter’s dislike of doing animated sequels and prequels because he felt that it undercut the value of the original film. Another reason was that the cost to produce the films had risen greatly and that resulted in lower profits. Disneytoon Studios itself closed completely on June 28, 2018.
Walt Disney Animation Australia basically took over the previous Australian Hanna-Barbera studio that had recently closed. In fact, seventy-five of the H-B animators transtioned to the new Disney studio although had to go through new training and a shift in thinking.
Animator Dianne Colman remembered, “The timing of Disney’s was totally different to that of Hanna-Barbera, where everything was soft. Disney wanted sharp, hard, and lot more finesse. We had to start from scratch and change a lot of our appraoches to how we animated.”
The Australian studio became the most successful and highly acclaimed of all the overseas Disney studios. Part of that success was due to what the animators had learned at Hanna-Barbera in terms of being very organized so that it always delivered on schedule as well as producing very nice work.
With Return, the studio shot every scene in live action with professional Australian actors and used that as reference for the animation even down to minute facial expressions. Some of the animators felt that such a process restricted imagination.
The story takes places during the Blitz of London in 1940 when Captain Hook plans to capture Wendy to lure Peter Pan into a trap in Neverland. He mistakenly takes eleven year old Jane, Wendy’s daughter, not realizing that the real Wendy has grown up.
Peter Pan and Tinker Bell save Jane from a massive reddish-orange colored octopus (replacing the crocodile who was deemed too threatening for young audiences) but discover she is an independent young girl who because of her experiences during the war including her father leaving to serve does not believe in “poppycock” like magic and fairies.
Screenwriter Temple Mathews said, “I re-read the Barrie book a few times and, of course, screened the original film so my script was a combination of the two. I think it is a matter of immersing yourself so deeply into the characters, becoming such friends with them, that when it comes time for them to speak, they do so with a consistency.
“This was truly a labor of love because everyone associated with the film has such a fondness for the original material. The trick was not treating it with such reverence that we couldn’t have fun, because that’s where the fun of the movie springs from.
“In Return to Neverland you’re immediately rooting for Jane to reconnect with her childhood. You can feel it coming, and you’re yearning for it, and waiting for how this is going to happen. When it does happen it’s a lot of fun and a very joyful thing. It’s a reverse story of childhood: it’s usually a coming-of-age story. Our heroine needs to reconnect with her childhood, and I think that worked fairly well.”