Return to Never Land (2002)


Peter Pan is queer. We’re all clear on that, right? The stereotype of a closeted gay man, Peter is light on his feet, wears tights, and has ’80s hair. He thinks all girls are supposed to be his mother and doesn’t like them once they develop curves. And while he generally hangs with boys, his closest companion is a twinkly fairy girl who’s kind of a bitch. Of course, all this is exactly what makes him so popular with the little ladies: he’s not a sexual threat; he’s rowdy and fun like boys are supposed to be, but as fey and dainty too. Girls — Wendy is particular — have crushes on him and he never seems to notice.

What Peter Pan says he wants most of all is to “never grow up,” and have those around him stay young as well. But as we know from Disney’s original animated Peter Pan (1953), he really wants someone to care for him and entertain him with stories, so he tries to convince the girl Wendy to play mom, while he battles the prominent adult male in his life, Captain Hook. It all sounds rather Freudian, which makes sense, because playwright James M. Barrie first brought the character of Peter Pan to the stage in early 1900s, then published the play as a novel a few years later, around the time of Freud’s psychoanalytic celebrity among Western bourgeois and upper classes.

The character’s cultural impact has been huge. In addition to the Syndrome and the peanut butter, Peter Pan’s crew gave its name to Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1987). Peter Pan’s boys, though, aren’t blood-sucking fiends; they’re just a bunch of goofy, poorly socialized children who wear animal costumes. (At least I think those are costumes.) More recently, comedian David Spade has made a career out of Peter-Pansiness, and Sean Hayes’ iconic Jack McFarland (on NBC’s Will & Grace) is a much better dressed, out version, aided by Karen (Megan Mullally) as his cantankerous Tinkerbell.

With so much Peter Pan in our lives, it makes sense that he’d get an update, even if he has not been able to “grow up.” There are all kinds of possibilities: perhaps the New Millennium Peter could be queer and proud of it. Or maybe Double-P can exchange his mini-dress and tights for comfy baggy jeans and a fleece sweatshirt, be comfortable with his masculinity and expand his crew to include folks who aren’t just girl-mothers and boy-children.

But in the new Disney movie, Return to Never Land, Peter has not changed at all since we last saw him. Instead, Wendy has. Here, Wendy (voice of Kath Soucie) is all grown up, living in WWII London with kids of her own, including Jane (Harriet Owen). Mr. Wendy, a.k.a. Edward (Roger Rees), goes off to war, telling his Jane to be sure she takes care of her baby brother Danny (Andrew McDonough). Wendy is still disturbingly obsessed with Peter Pan. If I were Edward, I’d be annoyed by all those references to her old boyfriend who never gets any older.

A few years later, Edward is still gone and the family is barely scraping by. Taking her assignment seriously, Jane has become no fun at all. She scours the muddy, bombed-out streets for provisions, with the help of her faithful dog Nana Two (Frank Welker). Preoccupied as she is, Jane scoffs at her mother’s tales of Peter Pan, Captain Hook, et. al. She focuses on making lists of what needs to be done, listening to war reports on the radio, and keeping her family safe. Her plans fall apart when she’s kidnapped by Captain Hook (Corey Burton) and his crew of swarthy pirates, whereupon she meets her mother’s old boyfriend, who is still seeking a mother figure in his life. It actually sounds a bit unseemly, like Dynasty. Unfortunately, it’s not as intriguing.

Jane might have made this a worthwhile bit of entertainment; pre-Never Land, she’s courageous, self-assured, and clever. On her arrival in Never Land, she’s more of a grrrl than Wendy ever even dreamed of being, punching both the pirates and Peter Pan when they get on her nerves. (To which Peter Pan responds, “She’s just jealous. All girls get that way around me.”) And, Jane indicates that she has no desire to be the “mother” that Wendy was. I’m not really sure why this is a bad thing, but apparently it is, and she needs to be fixed. It’s also not clear to me whether Jane’s time in Never Land is supposed to make her more childlike or more motherly — one unsettling idea is that, as a young female, Jane should be both.

Her situation is made more strained by the lack of imagination in the character graphics. Ironically, the background is all good: the animation of the London streets is beautiful, featuring an especially creepy scene where Captain Hook’s wooden ship flies through the night sky, alongside warplanes and searchlights. When we get to Never Land, via a trippy kaleidoscope in the sky, the scenery looks more like old-school Disney, with bright colors and deceptively simple lines, but still fun to look at. But while the pirates look pretty lively, like they’ve been scraped right off the cels of the 1953 film, the other characters look more like today’s quickly composed computer graphic figures.

Also uninteresting is the soundtrack. Return to Never Land is billed as a musical, but there are few songs and none is remarkable or even catchy. The love scenes and girl-focused scenes feature ballads, several sung by Jonatha Brooke. The only tune that has potential to be remembered in 50 years — or even five — is the Lost Boys’ theme, penned and sung by quirky alt-pop duo They Might Be Giants. Unfortunately, while the lyrics are amusing, the tune lacks a hook or any other device to make it memorable.

Perhaps worst of all, the characterizations lack the original’s potential darkness. The requisite scene establishing enmity between Hook and his monstrous opponent — here an octopus has replaced the crocodile — is toned down from the original: in Never Land, the creature invites Hook’s wrath by pulling down his pants rather than eating a body part. Hook is humiliated, not maimed, but seems equally irked and ready for vengeance.

Jane’s moment of transformation from anti-Panner to Pan-backer is also dulled. There is also very little Jane-Hook interaction because that would be, well, icky (as though Jane being sweet on mom’s old boyfriend and riding on his back when he flies isn’t). There is little indication as to why Jane changes her mind, except that those Lost Boys sure are fun to hang out with. Jane, it seems, not only lacks any girl friends, she lacks any friends at all. Nobody likes a girl who’s too serious.

Ultimately, Jane learns her place as a girl, softens up and loses some of the intensity that made her an interesting character to begin with. As she must, however, Jane leaves Never Land, and so leaves open the possibility that Peter might also sweep her daughters, and her daughters’ daughters, off their little cartoon feet. Maybe he’d have better luck getting one of the sons to stick around.