Making of Peter Pan: Return to Neverland - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

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 15, 2002 immediately making Peter Pan: Return 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.

The film was originally planned as a straight-to-video feature.

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 $25 million 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.

DisneyToon Studios never matched the quality of Disney feature animation but was well loved by the Walt Disney Company for the certain profitability of its projects and supplying plenty of work for salaried animators. DisneyToon's release of The Tigger Movie in 2000 grossed more profit than Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur and The Emperor's New Groove that were released that same year, but had all underperformed at the box office.

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 47 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."

Corey Burton had recorded not only Captain Hook's role, but because he had covered the late Bill Thompson's roles as the White Rabbit and Droopy Dog, he also did the voice for Mr. Smee, who Thompson had performed in the original animated film. When the film moved to a different studio and the voice tracks were re-recorded, Jeff Bennett took over as Smee.

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 transitioned 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 approaches 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.

That short section from the original novel inspired the sequel, but made Jane a more independent and disbelieving young girl.

The story for Peter Pan: Return to Neverland is fairly lightweight with Peter Pan and Tinker Bell seeming more like supporting characters with the focus on Jane and her need to recapture her childhood sense of wonder.

In the final chapter of James Barrie's book Peter and Wendy, an adult Wendy is briefly introduced as well as her daughter, Jane, who is very similar to her mother as a motherly and loving figure. Peter takes Jane off to Neverland as he had earlier done with her mother. That short section was one of the inspirations for the story of the Disney sequel but with some significant differences especially making Jane a more independent and disbelieving young girl. The film is more of a sequel to Disney's 1953 animated feature than any connections to the Barrie novel.

In Barrie's book, the Lost Boys remain with Wendy in London to grow up, but in the Disney film they decide to return with Peter to Neverland to never grow up. In this sequel they are the same ages as they were in the original film leading Captain Hook to imagine that Wendy has stayed the same age, as well.

Screenwriter Temple Mathews said:

"I wrote a script called Lucy's Moon that was optioned by Ron Howard's company. Disney read that, and liked it so signed me to a multi-year contract. My first projects were Mickey & Minnie's Gift of the Magi for Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas (1999) and Little Mermaid 2: Return to the Sea (2000) and then I started on Return to Neverland.

"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."

"Peter was a really great deal of fun. He brings out the kid in all of us. Peter Pan was easily one of the most fun character's to write because we're all Peter Pan in one way or another. He's so easy to identify with. I close my eyes and he comes to life. It's simply a case of getting in touch with your inner child.

"I think Peter Pan is a great reminder to people, no matter how old you are, that sometimes it's good to just play. And Hook was an absolute scream to write. The man's a raving lunatic who pretty much behaves as though he's got a flounder in his shorts.

"The Disney executives, Sharon Morrill, Ellen Gurney and others were terrific and we worked very closely together developing the story. They gave wonderful notes and direction. It keeps getting changed.

"The good thing about a project like this is that the people who draw and bring the characters to life are inventive, romantic people who fall in love with the characters too. And when you see the end result, it makes the whole process delightful.

"From our earliest discussions we felt that the Blitz would be a prominent element in the film. It's during the most difficult times in our lives that we need desperately to retain our sense of wonder, our ability to laugh at ourselves.

"I think the film looked really pretty. My screenplay went to Joe Roth, who was the head of Disney at that time who read it and was the one who said, 'Let's make a real movie out of it!'

"One of the things I wrote that wasn't used in the film was 'The pirates look down at the bleached skeletons of Logan and Boone floating in the pool'. That particular visual didn't make the cut but it was never intended to be horrifying. I think they drew it in the pencil tests and it more comical than anything. You can show a skeleton in a funny way.

"In Return to Neverland you're immediately rooting for Jane [the main character] 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."

Producer Chris Chase stated, "It's a daunting to make a sequel of an animated classic. Jane is about ten or eleven years old. She has a lot of the responsibility caring for her little brother. Jane's a very practical and serious girl who is under a lot of pressure. The film charts her emotional journey as she comes to terms with her responsibilities and at the same time regains her sense of hope and wonder."

Executive in charge of production Sharon Morrill added:

"Jane has grown up way too fast in wartime London. She doesn't believe in what she calls 'childhood nonsense', in fairy tales and her mother's stories of Peter Pan. The central theme of the film is that no matter how old you are, it's vital to keep your childhood imagination alive.

"Peter is intrigued by Jane. At first he doesn't like her because she doesn't like him. But he realizes he needs to make her believe in magic again because of Tinker Bell. Peter gets Jane to think and act like a Lost Boy, to go on an adventure and have fun so she gets caught up in this world.

"Even though the film went through different studios, it's always been the same story: a little girl who doesn't believe and how she goes on an adventure in Neverland to find that belief. The main themes and emotional arc never changed."

Harriet Kate Owen was barely 13 years old and attending a London boarding school when she first started voicing Jane and was sixteen when the film was released. She spent the majority of the production receiving direction via an ISDN connection from Los Angeles to a London recording studio.

Most of her sessions were sitting alone in a recording booth with only an engineer to keep her company. On the phone, the producers, directors and frequently other cast members like Blayne Weaver who voiced Peter Pan would chime in.

Owen admitted her mother was the biggest Disney fan in the family but she enjoyed playing Jane. Owen said, "Peter Pan is a special, classic story because it holds something that I think none of the other Disney has. It's not about romance or falling love like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. Peter Pan is more about the magic. It's more about letting go of your inhibitions and believing. And it's not focused on the whole kiss. It's about two friends."

Blayne Weaver who was 25 years old initially auditioned for one of the Lost Boys roles and took the initiative at that session to plead his case for the role of Peter Pan:

"I gave them a Peter Pan in a version of Wally Cleaver, and they must've liked it, because here I am. I played the role of Michael in a children theater's production of Peter Pan in Shreveport, Louisiana. I got to fly on stage. They had me hooked into a harness and I flew around clutching my little teddy bear. I thought that was the greatest thing but it's even better being grown up and getting to do Peter Pan himself.

"I'd get to the studio, run through a few lines from the original movie, maybe sing a little You Can Fly and I'd find myself in the pixie dust. You've got to give it your all in the recording booth and I like to act things out as I'm saying them. It helps to really get into the character. So when I'm fighting, I'll throw punches. If Peter's hands are tied, I'll hold my hands behind me and when there's swordplay, I'll jump about sword-fighting.

"It's just like being in your room when you're a kid, playing around, pretending, and living in your imagination. It's fun. There couldn't be a greater job."

Director Donovan Cook said, "Blayne was great for this role because he's got that kind of 'just a guy' thing. He understands how to capture the 'classic' boy. He gave it 110 percent and that comes through in his performance."

Chase said:

"The film has been four years in development and production. There is material in this film that's as good as anything in Disney animation. The 'look' of Return was designed to be respectful of the classic style of the 1953 original but with some updates.

"When you look at the color palette of the first film, you're conscious of the period in which it was made, so we've 'homaged' the colors, but updated them a little to take advantage of improvements in film technology. The character designs have been slightly changed but they're still very close to those in Peter Pan. We wanted to keep to the look of classic Disney.

"We limited the use of computers. For example, it was easier to use computers when we wanted to show a door opening convincingly in three dimensions. Hook's ship was created in 3D to allow us to move it on screen in more dynamic ways. But we tried to incorporate these things as unobtrusively as possible so the audience doesn't see the 'joins'. We used computers when they offered us the cleanest, simplest way to tell the story effectively, given our time-scale and budget."

The Disney film begins with Wendy's husband, Edward, and their 4-year-old son, Danny who loves his mother's stories of her adventures in Neverland, as well as Wendy and Jane. The story takes place during a World War II ravaged London roughly around 1940, before the U.S. involvement. Edward is called up to military service and has to leave his family.

The 11-year-old Jane is forced to grow up quickly and assume more responsibilities during the chaos. She has lost faith in the stories her mother had told her about Peter Pan and Neverland considering herself as too old for such "poppycock". She says, "Everyone grows up…the sooner the better!"

To make matters worst, all the children in London will soon be evacuated to the countryside in an attempt to keep them safe during the incessant Nazi bombing of the city that will further shatter the family.

Late that night, Captain Hook and pirate crew arrive in London on the pixie-dust enchanted ship The Jolly Roger that easily flies through the evening sky. Their fiendish plan is to kidnap Wendy and use her as bait to trap Peter Pan. Not realizing that Wendy has grown up, they kidnap Jane, mistaking her for Wendy.

The pirates barely escape during a German Luftwaffe attack on London as they journey through a kaleidoscopic portal to Neverland meant to be an homage to the opening credits of the television show The Wonderful World of Color. They plan to dangle Jane over the water after chumming it to attract a giant reddish-orange colored octopus who wants to eat Hook because he thinks Hook is a codfish.

The pirates hope that the octopus will eat Peter Pan when he comes to rescue her. They drop Jane into the water and Peter and Tink dive in and save her. Tink sprinkles the octopus with pixie dust and it lands on the pirate ship giving Peter and his friends time to escape. The original crocodile was deemed too threatening with its sharp teeth for young audiences so a more comical octopus takes it place as the hungry marine antagonist. The suction cups on it's tentacles make a "Pock! Pock!" sound reminiscent of the "Tick Tock" for the crocodile.

When Peter learns she is Wendy's daughter, he takes her to his hideout so she can be the new mother to the Lost Boys. Jane refuses. The next day, they try to teach her to fly so she can return home but she angrily snaps she doesn't believe in fairies and their magic. Tinker Bell starts slowly dying and Hook who is observing this situation decides that Jane can help him.

That night, he promises to take Jane home if she helps him find his treasure that Peter and the Lost Boys stole from him. He gives her a whistle to signal him when she finds it.

Jane decides to trick Peter and the boys into playing a game of "treasure hunt". They teach her how to act like a Lost Boy and hope to get her to believe in fairies to save Tinker Bell. The Neverland Tribe of Indians including Princess Tiger Lily were considered too stereotypical and controversial to include but Peter and Jane do see teepees and totem poles.

When they all find the treasure, Jane changes her mind and throws away the whistle. They make her an official "Lost Girl" but Tootles finds the whistle and blows it. The pirates capture the boys and expose Jane as their accomplice. They thank her and let her go. Jane pleads that it is all a misunderstanding but Peter doesn't believe it and blames her disbelief for Tinker Bell's light going out.

She races back to the hideout to find Tinker Bell almost dead but Jane's newfound belief revives the pixie. They go to the pirate ship and see Hook forcing Peter to walk the plank. Tink teaches Jane to fly and Jane rescues Peter. Peter sinks the ship with its own anchor and some help from the octopus.

The pirates desperately escape in a rowboat but are pursued by the octopus who thanks to eye difficulties perceive them as different types of fish.

Now that Jane can fly, Peter escorts her back home where she reunites with Wendy and Danny. For a brief moment in a touching sequence, Peter encounters the older Wendy and he is initially displeased that she has allowed herself to grow up. She assures him that she really hasn't changed and Peter agrees.

With Tinker Bell he flies back to Neverland while Edward returns on leave from the army so the entire family is reunited.

Next Week: Some behind-the-scenes secrets of the film including why composer John Sebastian rewrote the lyrics of his popular Lovin' Spoonful 1965 song hit, comments from the producers, and Corey Burton talks about how he channels the voice of Hans Conried and Captain Hook.