17 November 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: I CAN'T STAY AND WATCH THE CITY BURN

And now we come to a weird one: the first direct-to-video Disney sequel that was released to theaters. Which, the quick-witted (or, in fact, the merely literate) will note is a contradiction; but Return to Never Land was in fact aiming for the same distribution fate as all the other Disney sequels produced by the company's television animation studios, but for some reason it was promoted to a theatrical release, one of just two of these pictures to receive such a thing in the United States (a couple more were released theatrically in this or that country, just 'cause). I cannot say why. It is no better than The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, or Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure, to name just two; and though it's clearly the case that a little bit of extra money was tossed at the production, it certainly isn't as accomplished a piece of animation as the latter of those films. Disney's original 1953 Peter Pan was given its first DVD release around this time, but that seems like awfully thin justification for the expense of striking prints and marketing a movie that ended up making some money between domestic and international box office, though my suspicion is that it didn't make enough, and that is why there was just one more such release, the following year.

Ah well. If I could understand how Disney executives thought, I would be... a different person, anyway, and probably a richer person, though I very much doubt a happier one.

Return to Never Land opens, dumbfoundingly, in the opening weeks of the Blitz. Okay, not dumbfoundingly at all - the character ages fit together perfectly - but if there was one thing I was emphatically not expecting to see when I spooled up a cheaply-made, artistically indifferent DTV-in-all-but-name Disney sequel, was the goddamn Blitz. Particularly not an iteration of the Blitz presented with such a cautious, non-committal sense of history, like the filmmakers were fine if the smarter kids in the audience were able to put 2 and 2 together, but absolutely did not want to go through the messy, scary business of explaining to the rest that, see, there was this thing called World War II... The exposition is couched in a hopelessly vague voiceover, is my point, and the idea that British children were packed off to the country for their own safety is dealt with so clumsily that I fully imagine a more delicate viewer might suppose that the kids were headed off to political exile, never to see their parents or the nightmarish ruin of their hometown ever again.

Here in the bosom of Implicit 1940, we are reintroduced to an old friend: Wendy Darling (Kath Soucie), all grown up and married, with two children, the barely-out-of-toddling Danny (Andrew McDonough), and 9-or-so Jane (Harriet Owen), and friendly St. Bernard Nana II. Who is invariably referred to as Nana II, to make sure that aaaaaall the kids in the audience have plenty of time to think about how the first Nana is dead now. Her husband having been taken aware to do warring, Wendy and the kids do their best to survive in the ration-stricken, crumbling heart of London, and to keep everyone's spirits high, Wendy often tells her old stories of the time she spent in Never Land with the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan (Blayne Weaver), fighting pirates and partying with Indians and experiencing early-pubescent psychosexual torments with mermaids. Danny adores these stories, but a very bitter Jane, getting a jump on the emotional dislocation and nihilistic ennui that most intellectuals would put off until after the war, sees no reason to tolerate these dumb fictions, and on the very night before she and Danny are to be carted off to God knows where in the country (hopefully a bumbling apprentice witch is involved), she tears into her mother and brother, leaving Danny a quivering wreck.

Luckily for childhood's sense of wonder, this also happens to be the exact night that the pirates of Never Land, led by Captain Hook (Corey Burton), have decided to sneak into London to kidnap Wendy as part of yet another plot to capture Peter once and for all. Except, with time flowing differently in Never Land and all, they have no reason to believe that she's not still the young girl dozing off in the very same house as always, and that is how Jane is kidnapped and brought through the portal at the Second Star to the Right, though the viewer who wishes to see the plot as more symbolic than literal, we could also call this the moment that the acid Jane dropped kicks in.

Or whatever the hallucinogenic drug of choice was in the early '40s in England.

Because seriously.

What the fuck, Disney.

(Ordinarily, of course, I'd be happy to see this kind of graphically experimental design, especially in something as tawdrily mercenary as Return to Never Land, but it is so divorced from anything else the film has going on at any level that it's pretty obviously just a "WHOA, IT IS SO CRAZY!" moment, without any artistic sense to it otherwise).

In Never Land, Peter quickly foils Hook's plot involving a giant octopus, and he spirits Jane away to the Lost Boys; they're all excited to have a new Wendy, even one who is as thoroughly unpleasant and antagonistic as this one. 50 minutes later, Jane has rediscovered the magic of faith, trust, and pixie dust, three qualities she has previously derided as being nonsense, has learned to fly, has bested the pirates, and is ready to return to London in time to get on that train where she will delight Danny with her own Peter Pan stories during their pastoral nightmare. My apologies for skipping right over the main part of the movie, but that's kind of the shitty thing about Return to Never Land: the main part of the movie lacks a real story to speak of, instead just kind of following Jane as she encounters this and then that and then also the other thing. When it's all done, you can point to a character arc ("Jane learns to be less of a stick in the mud"), and even a conflict ("Jane sides with Peter even though Captain Hook offers her a clearer path home", all of it symbolised by Tinker Bell the fairy dying and then not dying based on how much of a shrill little cynic Jane is being in any given scene), but during the movie itself, it feels much more like a collection of vignettes, only connected to each other in that the same protagonist features in each of them, and they all fall within a brief period of time in a tightly-bound geographic space.

Also, they are all largely uninteresting, because Jane is a really lousy character, introduced in the most reductive way possible ("wartime privation = soul-starved rationalist"; for that matter, "pre-adolescent skepticism about fantasy = soul-starved rationalist"), given a depressingly predictable arc that is largely addressed off-screen - like a Greek tragedy, Return to Never Land depicts mostly people talking about the action, but prefers that the action itself take place out of sight - and, perhaps most crucially, she looks like this:

Okay, not always. But we're still dealing with a character who seems to have absolutely stymied the poor artists at Walt Disney Television Australia, and that's in a film that is already a massive step down in quality from some of the recent high points of the Disney TV animation sequels. She never really emotes in a way that's appealing or even comprehensible, and combined with the film's tendency to conduct most of its drama offstage, she never emerges as any sort of reasonable point of identification: she feels things, presumably, that we are not made privy to, and in between scenes she suddenly decides that it's fun to have fun, so we don't even get the big soaring moment of thematic apotheosis. Just, at some point in one of the songs, she's laughing instead of glaring at Peter like he just made a racist joke.

(Speaking of racist jokes: the unbelievably problematic Indians don't show up this time around, and the maximum possible attention is drawn to this fact, probably because the studio is so darn proud of themselves for managing not to completely offend an entire subset of humanity. Sadly, for Disney, this is a tricky enough line to walk that they almost deserve to be proud about it).

The important point being: Return to Never Land has an unappealing main character drifting through a dramatically inert script littered with tired gags that feel far too ultra-contemporary for the setting without ever being specifically modern. No pop-culture riffs, though Hook seems oddly aware of late 20th Century speech. It's like Disney's Peter Pan, in that it is broad and comic and low-stakes; it is unlike that film in that "broad" here really means "manic", particularly regarding the way that Hook has been reduced to cannon fodder, and "low-stakes" means "nothing happens and we don't care". And now he's being chased by a giant orange octopus that clicks its suckers just like the old crocodile had its tick-tock; but where the crocodile was a comic masterpiece, the octopus is just boring, and frankly ugly.

As I've indicated, the film mostly looks bad, at least in terms of animation, which is stiff and frighteningly unemotive; there are a few very lovely touches, including an opening sequence that swiftly recaps the sense of Peter Pan more than its actual story, by means of silhouettes of the various characters and moments in the movie appearing as shadows on lovely CGI clouds.

And there are the occasional grace notes every so often, giving the thing just a hint of artistic beauty, such as the downright noirish style in which Wendy's stories are retold, spooky but fun imagery to accompany a thrilling tale for a toddler.

What stills can't really capture is the gracelessness of all this, or the lack of caring - Peter himself looks like entirely different people in certain scenes and shots, and none of them have any of the expressiveness of the original version of the character, though as always, comparing the original and its sequel is a quest doomed to misery and anger, though I have to say on the film's behalf that Burton does a really damn fine Hans Conried impression as Hook (while the original Wendy, Kathryn Beaumont, recorded the entire role for her adult counterpart, only to have it all scrapped, in a truly classless move on the filmmakers' part). And the animators responsible for comic pirate Smee managed to capture everything pleasingly clumsy and squishy about Ollie Johnston's fun work with that character in the original film, within the limitations placed on them by resources and budget. Also, the redesigned, less-sexual Tinker Bell actually works, giving the film its only burst of manic energy that is satisfying rather than annoying.

But no, in the main, it's not a very attractive work of animation, not by the standards of Disney's sequels, not by any standards (it's sobering to note that among the film's storyboard artists was Roger Allers, co-director of perhaps Disney's single most beautiful film of the '90s, The Lion King; how he fell so hard, so quickly, is not a matter for speculation but mourning). It's stiff and inorganic, relying far too much on gigantic reaction shots to drive home its comedy and not even a little bit anxious to depict the characters in any sort of relatable way. In this, it matches the story just about perfectly.

Add in two fucking awful original songs - a shockingly ineffective late-'90s ballad called "I'll Try", performed and written by a certain Jonatha Brooke, who sings the refrain "Faith, and trust, and pixie dust" with the most ungainly, irritating emphasis possible; and a jangling bit of unmelodic nothing called "So to Be One of Us", written by They Might Be Giants, strangely - and Return to Never Land works on, basically, no level whatsoever. The '53 Peter Pan had already done a good job of stripping the depth and complexity from J.M. Barrie's characters, and the new film comes along and strips even the humanity left in Disney's light, comic version: Peter is an empty shell of a hero with no prickliness or even a personality, the Lost Boys are distinct strictly at the level of dress and one of them being fat, Hook is just a cheap vaudeville villain and the butt of overwrought modern slapstick, spruced up only a little by a strong vocal performance. I would say that the film is more a pained, boring mediocrity than a genuinely bad piece of filmmaking; but honestly, do those kind of distinctions matter?

15 comments:

Sssonic said...

For the record, "Return to Never Land" holds a special place (of hate) in my heart; not only did I see it in theaters, but that damned Octopus still stands out as the single most egregious and annoying bit of "we're doing the exact same thing as before but with a new coat of paint" storytelling in all the annals of Disney sequels, mainly because it's not only a rehash, it's a completely unnecessary rehash.

The kids-of-the-main-characters thing can be at least SOMEWHAT justified, and replacing dead villains with their just-now-revealed crazy-and-all-but-identically-characterized sisters is at least somewhat explicable by virtue of it being either that or bring the dead back to life (or, y'know, make a distinctive new villain, but let's not get crazy here). The Octopus, though? The Octopus is entirely unneeded; last we saw, the Crocodile was doing just fine, thank you very much, and the bizarre sense that we are somehow being sold a "newer, hipper" version of that exact same concept grates my very soul, on top of the octopus being an annoying, ugly, ineffective Everything in and of itself.

The rest of the film sucks too, for reasons you yourself nicely outline, but the octopus is for me the element that most vaults "Return to Neverland" from simple mediocrity to outright badness.

Kudos to Corey Burton, though; that guy's one of Voice Acting's great unsung heroes.

Trish said...

Yeah, the one good thing about this movie is that Corey Burton is awesome.

The bad thing about this movie is every single thing else about it. You downplayed just how strident the "skepticism is bad and you should believe in everything" message was, but that's what killed it for me.

David Greenwood said...

As a philosophy student in college when I saw this film, I was immediately fascinated by the nature of Tinkerbell's "belief-energy" life source. When we meet her she's doing fine, but the minute that Jane announces she doesn't believe in fairies, Tink wails and falls over. I highly doubt that Jane believed in fairies up to this point, so it seemed to me that it wasn't anyone's fairy belief, but Tink's own happy ignorance that kept her alive. The minute she was aware of someone's nonbelief in her, she suffered physical symptoms.

I found this so fascinating that I kind of stopped paying attention to anything else.

K Wild said...

I love how in the grand tradition of Disney movies, Wendy, Jane, and Danny are all English, but cherubic Danny has no English accent. That used to confuse me when I was really young: I thought that English accents were something that kids grew into.

Daniel Silberberg said...

@David Greenwood: I was just considering the same question (though I haven't seen the movie), and I think I have a theory that makes sense. It isn't disbelief in fairies, or the fairies' knowledge of such disbelief, that kills fairies. It's the act of expressing "I don't believe in fairies" that kills fairies. And what that amounts to, thematically, is unnecessary pedantry.

Like, no shit kid, it's the mid 20th century, you're not exactly beset on all sides by crazy zealots trying to forcibly convert the world to fairy worship. Imagining fairies doesn't cause people to carry out suicide bombings or prevent gays from marrying. It's a harmless, non-literal fantasy that poses no threat to the reasoned and level-headed workings of the world.

For fairy dust to work, you just have to think happy thoughts: "a mermaid lagoon," "a pirate's cave," "Christmas." You don't have to delude yourself into believing you are, at the moment, surrounded by mermaids. That's psychotic. You just have to let yourself be swept up in the delight of imagining such a prospect. What sustains fairies is not belief, but suspension of disbelief--a willingness to temporarily subdue your dubiousness and play along. Tink as suspension of disbelief works in a broad sense throughout the story: she transmits the kids from their bedroom to Neverland, just as the audience is transmitted to a fictional world where they react to images as people, places, and events, not just pictures played at 24 frames per second. If you find it necessary to interrupt the proceedings with "but that's not technically factual!" in a story so blatantly not claiming that, you reject suspension of disbelief, break the illusion, and kill the fairy.

David Greenwood said...

@Daniel Silberberg: I'm not sure if I offended you, but think I may have. Don't think I'm trying to be a smug anti-religionist and "oh-ho-ho" at a film's treatment of faith. I take religion very seriously, and am fond of my own.

I was being snarky, but at this stupid movie, not religion. I remember clapping along with Mary Martin as a kid to bring Tink back to life and had no problem with the concept there. The fact that I took the time to think this hard about such silliness in Return to Neverland should tell you how little I gave a crap about anything else in the movie.

Daniel Silberberg said...

@David Greenwood: Oh, no, not at all! My mistake if I came off as offended, I was being snarky at the fictional character of Jane, not you haha. I was just having fun with the thought experiment, and got a little too into it. Couldn't help myself, it was an interesting topic you brought up!

Trish said...

I think we're missing the bigger issue here, which is that Jane (who by the way has just traveled to an honest-to-God Magical Land) says, "I don't believe in Fairies" after she has just met and interacted with an actual frakkin' Fairy who is standing right in front of her. At that point, it's like not believing in kangaroos.

David Greenwood said...

@Trish Nobody's disputing that Jane is a foof-brain. My issue is that Tink is disturbed by someone else's idiotic fairy-denial to the point of mortal physical injury. That is intense. I mean, the Internet hadn't even been invented yet.

DerFuhrer said...

Man, Oscarbait season sucks. Looks like I have to wait a while longer for your review of Hunchback II, a review I'm honestly anticipating far more than anything you may have to say about Silver Linings Playbook.

javi75 said...

There must something wrong with my brain 'casue I don't hate these movies as much as you seem to do, haha.

I don't mean to misrepresent your 'Disney sequels' review series, even though I haven't read them all yet, I know you find some to be harmless fun.

And not that I believe any of them to be great, but I do enjoy most of of them, like this one. The mediocre animation doesn't bother me half as much as it bothers you (although it's totally true that in this movie Peter can look wildly different from scene to scene), and somehow I find the stories tolerable. In my defense I'll say I watched some of these many years ago, when I could be even less discriminating than I am now.

I guess there's something about watching the familiar characters you love in "new" (I know...) adventures (executed in a similar style, or at least attempting to) that I find irresistible, and inherently entertaining, to some degree. Maybe it's some kinf of fanboy fantasy thing, like surrogate fanfic writing.

I think I've watched almost all of them and the only one I truly cannot bear is "Belle's enchanted Christmas", that is truly a nightmare. Also I'm not fond of the "Aladdin" sequels but that's mostly because I kinf of hate the genie and don't like the original movie either. I'm not too fond of "Pocahontas II" either.

David Greenwood said...

@javi75 There's nothing wrong with your brain. I have also enjoyed some of these... things, although chiefly on an ironic level. Aspects of Return to Neverland are actually pretty good, and I was never too attached to the original Peter Pan anyway.

What makes this series of reviews so hilarious is that Tim takes Disney animation more seriously than almost any sane person really ought to. Which means that we can laugh at his pain. Which is okay, because he chose this path. AND HE MUST NOW WALK IT ALONE.

javi75 said...

I later remembered more Disney sequels that I don't care about: the Goofy movies, "The lion king 1 & 1/2" and "Atlantis 2" (even though I haven't seen it properly). And I'm not counting the Tinker Bell movies in, although I believe Tim will review them.

@David Greenwood: I'm glad Tim takes Disney animation so seriously, or more accurately expressed, I think, that he loves it so much. But I think you're right in a way: it's probably true that I'm kind of easy on this movies partly because I've never seen them as actual movies. The very concept of 'DTV sequel' has 'cash-in' written all over it. So I never expected these to measure up to the originals in any way. It's a wholly different breed by necessity, if only because they were made half a century later. I think I only expected them to look pretty and not suck big time (which is a subjetive issue). And the fact that I'm like a little kid that way, just happy at the chance of watching the characters animated again. Also I assumed the people who made these movies were fans of the originals, and that makes them sort of fanboy projects, in my mind. In other words, I gave up on this movies beforehand, and maybe that makes my approach different. Finding whatever little they had to offer made me over-appreciate them. I don't know.

@Tim: about "the moment that the acid Jane dropped kicks in", wasn't the opening of Disney's Wonderful World of Color (or one of such tv shows) very similar to this? like a colorful kaleidoskopic thing? and didn't Tinker Bell show up there spraying her pixie dust? So, could this be the reason (more like just the link) why they did that here?

Tim said...

It's not even just a love for Disney, it's a love for animation generally, which I'm generally fonder of than live-action (I think it's more controllable and thus more precise). Focusing the blog-based attention on Disney is a way of channeling that without subjecting everybody to unspeakably wonky things like McClarenFest or The Antagony & Ecstasy Polish Animation Hour.

Also, great pull on Wonderful World of Disney. Totally forgot that even existed.

javi75 said...

Thanks for your answers to my comments.

I love animation beyond Disney too but I confess I have little patience for more experimental, abstract, non-narrative or non-conventional narrative styles. I'm not a big anime fan either. I guess I'm so kiddie-like and square and traditional like that. Yes, I'm probably one of those people grateful that you tackle Disney instead of Norman McClaren (though I don't konw his work).

I share your idea that animation is more precise than live action. It's also (duh) inherently more stylized. That's why sometimes I think of low-frame-rate animation (when it's done well) as even more special, because it adds another layer of stylization. I think this is in the opposite end of motion-capture, though I guess that has its own art too.

Well, I'm dying to get my hands on the Hunchback blu-ray so I can re-evaluate my opinion of II... ;).

Oh, and certainly if one is to do a drug-oriented interpretation of the Peter Pan story, pixie 'dust' isn't a subtle visual.