ANIMATION ANECDOTES
April 8, 2022 posted by Jim Korkis

Peter Pan: Return to Neverland

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.”

12 Comments

  • This was not the first Disney version of “Return to Neverland.” It should be noted that in the 1990s as part of the tour of the Animation Building at the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, audiences were treated to a screening of “Return to Neverland” that included the voice of Robin Williams as a new character who becomes associated with Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. If I recall correctly, the running time was short–around 20 minutes or so–and it was a semi-documentary that served as an illustration of the process of bringing a concept to animated life. What I remember most about it is, it brought back the Peter Pan characters, it featured Robin Williams, and it was thoroughly delightful. (My visit to Walt Disney World was just about a year ahead of the release of “Aladdin.” I got to look over the shoulders of animators who were drawing up the feature film.)

  • A former colleague of mine did ink and paint at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney in the late ’70s, working on the Popeye and Dinky Dog cartoons. She told me that at Hanna-Barbera, meeting production quotas took precedence over any considerations of quality. Employees who didn’t meet their quotas didn’t last long. Most Australian animation studios folded after H-B set up shop in Sydney and hired away all their best animators, so an animator who couldn’t cut the mustard at H-B really had nowhere else to go. In his autobiography Bill Hanna mentioned his admiration for the work ethic of his Australian employees, but that’s sort of like sinking a boatload of people and then complimenting the survivors on their swimming skills.

    The animators who survived at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney would have been fast workers who always did the job right the first time, so it’s no wonder that they were sought after by Disney — and that they required substantial retraining. But the investment paid off. The character animation in “Return to Never Land” is of very high quality, eminently worthy of the Disney name. I only wish the film had better songs, better singing, and a lot less spitting.

    Any idea who the live action reference actors were?

  • Certainly the animation In this was far superior to the ghastly animation of early Hanna Barbera Australia’s “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” and “Funky Phantom”, which both suffered as a result of them not being done properly in USA.

    It would appear that not all the Canadian animation was junked –
    Walt Disney Animation Canada received credit on the movie.

    The major reason John Lasseter “should” have disliked the sequels is because too often, like this one,they simply remade the original – but using younger cast and aiming them primarily at 5 year olds.

    (Scared of crocodiles – really??)

    And that corrupted generation has now grown up – is currently in charge in Hollywood – and therefore believes and promotes that all Disney animation is only for the under 8’s.

    .

    • “And that corrupted generation has now grown up – is currently in charge in Hollywood – and therefore believes and promotes that all Disney animation is only for the under 8’s.”

      Aren’t we overanazing the recent Academy Awards controversies reguarding the animation catergory? Also, being somewhat being part of the “corrupted generations” (age 34), I found that comment a bit offending.

      • Hello Nic

        We probably agree that Disney always markets whatever is their latest Disney animation picture toward family audiences.

        However their attitude towards older titles is different (certainly in the last 20 years or so)

        MIckey, Donald, Snow White, Little Mermaid etc were once marketed towards family audiences – movies, prime time Sunday night show etc. Even “The Mickey Mouse Club” was aimed up to at least 15 year olds, and with enough material to keep adults interested.

        Most noticeably since around 2000, these characters began to get marketed to increasingly younger audiences.

        “Little Mermaid 2”, “Jungle Book 2” cast 5 year olds as the lead – and aimed them at 5 year olds. (Seriously, would you recommend the average adult watch these movies, like you would the originals?)

        Animated movies were often assigned to Playhouse Disney as little more than preschool stuff, while the big kids watch Hannah Montana.

        There is sadly a generation who grew up with “MIckey Mouse Playhouse”, and so believe that MIckey, Donald, Goofy etc are preschool characters like Peppa Pig..

        Some people like you realised that there was a lot more to these characters than that.
        .
        But I’ll bet if you spoke to people your own age who do not read Animation blogs, most would dismiss these characters as being only for young children.

        And that is because their minds were “corrupted” by Disney marketing into believing that these characters are only for little kids.

        • Sorry , I meant “MIckey Mouse Clubhouse” (not Mickey Mouse Playhouse)

          • As mentioned already, they had since stopped doing these low-budget sequels (with mayble the possible exception of the “Blue Sky” properties) and continued to do family orginated films. Also, they are doing more with “Clubhouse” with Mickey as seen with Paul Rudish’s Mickey shorts (like theme or not) which are anything BUT preschool driven.

  • I should point out the film had the rare previlage to be paired with a vintage Disney short, in this case, “Pluto’s Fledgling” (1948), which surpringling is not on Disney+ yet (they’ve been really been holding out on thier animation heritage recently).

  • Treasure Planet was not the most recent release at the time, that did not come out until the fall that year (with the much more successful Lilo & Stitch sandwiched in-between in the summer). At the time of Return to Neverland Disney’s most recent releases had been Atlantis and Emperor’s New Groove which had both underperformed but not to the degree Treasure Planet would (they made around $175-200million worldwide).

    I must admit the Theatrical Release of this completely passed me by at the time, but I do remember (but did not attend) The Jungle Book 2’s theatrical release the following year; there was much talk of how unworthy it seemed of a theatrical release. There was a general sense of the Disney brand as a name parents and film goers could trust for quality animation in theatres being devalued, with these DTV-quality sequels being released alongside other quickies like the Recess movie and the various Winnie the Pooh spin-offs.

  • I’m pretty sure the retraining process for Disney Studios Australia was something like, “Ok, we are going to stop make (r@p on purposes.” 😀

    And for whatever reason, this reminds me of Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates (90). Which was a fairly decent show. Even though it had “Fox” right in the title (for the obvious reason), I still felt it was a Disney show.

  • I find the whole idea of little kids being scarred of crocs a bunch of bull chochadiles as I recall “Tic-Toc” (as the cros is sometimes known as) was later on “Jake and the Neverland Pirates”.

  • Hard to believe now, but the crocodile in “Peter Pan” terrified me when I was little. However, the croc was only interested in eating Captain Hook. The sequel needed another monstrous beast that could also be a threat to Peter and Jane.

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