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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

A Look at Peter Pan: Return to Never Land
a Digital Media FX Feature

Peter PanPeter Pan is back, courtesy of Disney Television Animation, in a new theatrical feature film as part of Disney's quest to turn its classics into animated sequels. While most animated sequels go direct to video, Disney is giving some -- like Peter Pan: Return to Never Land -- a widescreen release first.

For this rendition of the story, Wendy is all grown up with children of her own, and as the Blitzkrieg rages, she calms them with tales of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up. Wendy's stubborn 12-year-old daughter, Jane, has no patience for such nonsense… until Captain Hook himself uses the girl as a pawn in capturing his arch-rival. Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and the Lost Boys come to her aid; however, even they cannot make Jane a believer in the magic of imagination. Unless she believes, she cannot fly, and there is no other way for her to return home. Worse, without Jane's belief in fairies, Tinker Bell cannot survive. As the pixie slowly begins to fade, Peter strives to find a way to rescue the girl from the dangerous clutches of Captain Hook and show her that with faith, trust, and pixie dust, anything is possible.

While some may groan at the prospect of another Disney animated sequel, many others (particularly those who worked on it) are enjoying the chance to bring classic characters back to life.

“Peter Pan was easily one of the most fun characters to write because we’re all Peter Pan in one way or another,” says screenwriter Temple Mathews. “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.”

Peter Pan first came to life for audiences in 1953. For the sequel, the team wanted to create a "logical extension" to the story that brought back everyone's favorite characters.

“It’s always about the story, and offering a story that will further these characters – to give the audience a chance to spend more time with these characters that have so enraptured generations,” says Sharon Morrill, executive vice president, Walt Disney Television Animation, and executive in charge of the production. “In achieving that goal, you must ensure the film stays true to the tone and spirit of the original, while creating a fresh feeling – a feeling that audiences of today and tomorrow will appreciate.”

But this story is missing one intimidating character - the alligator that brought true fear to Captain Hook. The new annoyance for Captain Hook this time around is an octopus that likes pirates.

“Inventing the octopus gave us a fresh, new way to torture Captain Hook with another sea creature foe,” Morrill explains. “In terms of animation, an octopus offers a lot of fun, with his lengthy arms, awesome reach, and comical mannerisms.”

Disney spent quite a bit of time devising an "emotional ending" that ties the original Peter Pan in with the sequel. While Disney wasted no time outlining the spoiler ending to the press prior to screenings, Digital Media FX will keep it hush-hush so that you can see for yourself.

Animators and artists working on the sequel spent quite a bit of time in the Disney Animation Research Library gathering up gems from the original Peter Pan. Captain Hook drawings from Frank Thomas and Peter Pan renderings from Milt Kahl were among some of the work uncovered.

“Being an animation nerd, I was in heaven,” says Director Robin Budd. “It was like going to a candy store, being able to see how the ‘Nine Old Men’ really tackled these characters... Milt Kahl perfectly captured Peter as a kid who is not handsome in classic terms – he’s actually kind of homely – but is still quite appealing because he exudes fun. Peter is very ordinary looking with a bit of a pug nose, and that makes him kind of hard to draw. But Kahl’s drawings made him very real and got you to focus on his boyish spirit. Finding that drawing was a breakthrough for us.”

Coming from "new school animation," the artists and crew had to spend quite a bit of time studying "old school animation" and the way techniques like staging and lighting were used in the 1950s.

“In terms of lighting, they really threw logic to the wind and put light wherever they wanted,” says Budd. “It was liberating for us to see how they used lighting to force your eyes to exactly where the filmmakers wanted them to go. One thing that really stood out – and truly inspired us – was that the characters have an inner glow of light, and it was an amazing effect when played against a very dark background. That really helped to add to the magical quality of Peter Pan.”

Peter Pan: Return to Never Land was brought to life by Walt Disney Animation Australia. While the Australian team hadworked on direct to video sequels in the past (like Lion King 2), this was their first animated theatrical release.

“I can not emphasize enough the contributions of Walt Disney Animation Australia,” says Morrill. “With each production, Australia has reached new heights in artistry, and ‘Return to Never Land’ has truly raised the bar of excellence.”

According to Disney, one of the biggest struggles for the animation team was the computerized pixie dust. Disney says, "Ironically, the sheer essence of the story’s magic – pixie dust – became one of the focal points for CG interference. In creating Tinker Bell’s cherished powder, the filmmakers discovered that computer-generated efforts offered a sense of sparkle and volume, however with a distinctly hard edge. Whereas two-dimensional efforts provided a more organic and random appearance, the process was immeasurably time-consuming. Ultimately, an inimitable combination of the two processes provided the perfect solution."

“It’s funny because we did all this research and spent all this money only to find out that the pixie dust was a complex problem,” Budd recalls. “We tried CG first, but the pixie dust didn’t have a sense of gravity – things built on a computer have a tendency to be very floaty and curved. So we turned to hand-drawn pixie dust, which was great looking but exhaustive.”

One of the changes Disney made to the sequel is apt to result in some debate. As Disney puts it, "Budd and Luebbe went in a completely different direction for Jane’s trip to Never Land. In the original, Peter Pan leads his guests on a flight that disappears into London’s clouds and reappears over the land of make believe. For Return to Never Land, the filmmakers opted to take the audience on a mystical ride through a bright, colorful kaleidoscope reminiscent of the opening of television’s The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Or reminiscent of typical worm holes featured in nearly every sci-fi movie.

Budd defends the move by saying, "“Unlike the original film, I thought we could really elaborate that moment. Wendell was ultimately responsible for the kaleidoscope effect. He felt that because that journey can’t physically be possible, we should make it as though it’s a journey through the imagination.”

The theatrical release of Peter Pan: Return to Never Land features new songs and a new score that tries to stay true to the original while creating its own flavor.

Peter Pan: Return to Never Land is rated G. The special edition of the original classic was released on February 12, 2002 to DVD. Click here to order or for more information.

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