There once was a time when Disney wouldn't dream of doing a sequel, let alone ever do anything remotely related to one of their classic films. Well those days are gone and now there are direct-to-video sequels of many of the classic and popular Disney Films including: Little Mermaid 2, Lion King 2, Lady and The Tramp 2, Pocahontas 2, and soon even Cinderella 2. Almost without exception the new breed of Disney sequels pale in comparison to the original films, but never the less seem to be a success in the 'lower expectation' space of direct-to-video releases.
To my knowledge, Peter Pan '2': Return to Neverland is the first of these 'Classic Disney' sequels to be released in theaters. As such, the brave new world of rehashing Disney Classics moves into the much higher profile and higher expectation space of the local cineplex.
It's not that Peter Pan 2 is a bad film; it certainly isn't. Disney has done a remarkable job of capturing the feel of the classic characters from Peter Pan, while updating their look with modern animation techniques. Also the sound for Peter Pan 2 is wonderful. One of the things I love about classic Disney films is the rich orchestration - it's always a treat to hear a great Disney soundtrack.
Unlike its predecessor, Peter Pan 2 has very few songs, a surprise considering how classic the songs "You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!" and "A Pirate's Life" were from the original film. One auditory treat in Peter Pan 2 is "The Second Star to the Right" sung by Jonatha Brooke; it reminded me a lot of "When She Loved Me" sung by Sarah McLachlan in another Disney Sequel, Toy Story 2.
One of the things that struck me about Peter Pan 2 is how dark the movie is. The film opens at the brink of World War II and depicts some very depressing and dark moments. Before Peter Pan 2 they showed a Classic Disney Short, "Pluto's Fledgling", which the packed house hooped and hollered at. About 5 minutes into Peter Pan 2 the theater was silent. I don't know why Disney decided to open Peter Pan 2 with such dark imagery, and my daughter seemed disturbed at seeing kids being loaded into trains and shipped off to the countryside for 'safe keeping'.
While Peter Pan was about believing in yourself and a celebration of the imagination, Peter Pan 2 seemed to be a counterpoint to today's kids who seem to 'grow up' at quite a young age. It's a failed attempt at trying to 'modernize' the classic Peter Pan story. One aspect of the modernization which sort of works is the strong female lead character 'Jane'. In recent years Disney has made great efforts to depict strong female characters and they do a pretty good job with Jane. But it isn't enough to really sustain the film.
Unfortunately Peter Pan 2 can't decide exactly what it wants to be. On one hand it's a nostalgic tour/rehash of elements of the first movie. But on another it's trying to be a modern tale of finding imagination in a generation which seems to lose it fast. But none of it comes together into a cohesive or enjoyable story.
The heart of the problem with Peter Pan 2 is that it's just no fun. Between the overly dark opening, the lack of songs, and a 'lost' script, there just aren't a lot of high points. I mean, who wants to see a London reduced to rubble, a German bombing raid or Tinkerbell close to death? Wasn't Disney supposed to be the Feel Good company?
While I do think that Peter Pan 2 is an improvement on many of Disney's direct-to-video releases (some of which are truly awful), I think they would have been better served re-releasing the original Peter Pan into theaters. There's magic in those Classic films and unfortunately Disney has proven again that they can't bottle that magic in their sequels (Toy Story 2 being the most notable exception).
With all Disney films, I ultimately use my daughter Hannah as the litmus test for whether to recommend a film or not. I asked her what she thought of Peter Pan 2 when we left the theater, and she gave me an less than enthusiastic 'I liked it, but that Orange Monster (octopus) was kind of scary.' Rather than asking when we could see it again, which she did for Shrek, Monsters Inc and Emperor's New Groove, she said she wanted to go home and watch Hercules on DVD.