Friday, July 13, 2012

A Story With Wings (And a Hook): Disney’s “Peter Pan”

Disney’s Fourteenth Animated Feature – 1953
Walt Disney’s project to become the primary shaper of children’s entertainment went full-tilt in the early 1950’s, when in the space of four years, the studio released three feature-length cartoons: the fairy tale Cinderella, the whimsical Alice in Wonderland, and the action-packed Peter Pan. The heroic, scatterbrained, grownup-hating Peter was a much more recent creation than Cinderella and Alice, having been introduced by playwright (later novelist) J.M. Barrie in 1904, but had already taken his place as one of the most beloved characters in children’s popular culture. Disney’s version includes all the elements necessary in a re-telling of the story: three English siblings, their frustrated father, a canine nursemaid, pirates, orphan boys, a hungry crocodile, and, of course, pixie dust. The result is a somewhat rushed, very tame but thoroughly diverting film, Disney’s fourteenth animated feature.

Peter saves Wendy
At its core, Peter Pan is the story of the relationship between a magical boy who has learned how to live without parents, how to fly, and how to avoid aging, and a sweet, playful but ordinary girl, who isn’t sure whether she, too, wants to remain a child forever or grow up and experience the joys of having children of her own. This relationship—is it friendship? A romance? Maternal nurturing?—is complicated by the fact that Peter can never focus on anything, or anyone, for very long; he is loyal but lives entirely in the moment. Competing with the English schoolgirl for his attentions are Tinker Bell, his miniature winged companion; Indian princess Tiger Lily; and the sassy mermaids who live in Neverland’s lagoon. Wendy is disappointed to find rivals where she hoped to find friends, and experiences a taste of jealousy herself. Ultimately, she chooses home and family over adventure, as do her younger brothers and Peter’s entire band of Lost Boys, leaving Peter a solitary outcast. The story is almost unbearably poignant … except in Disney’s version, where we’re not entirely sure (à la Wizard of Oz) whether the whole thing was real or a dream.

Hans Conried as Captain Hook
The cocky Peter is voiced by Bobby Driscoll; he had cut his teeth at Disney in both animated and live-action films, including Treasure Island and the controversial Song of the South. Kathryn Beaumont had so impressed Mr. Disney with her performance as the title character in Alice in Wonderland that she was tapped to play Wendy Darling. Character actor Hans Conried, who had spent much of the 1940’s voicing Wally Walrus in various Woody Woodpecker shorts, follows tradition by portraying both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Their performances are supported by fluid, sprightly animation; among the best sequences: Nana, the St. Bernard who runs the Darling nursery, desperately trying to pick up alphabet blocks as Mr. Darling stumbles obliviously about; and Hook, his signature coat and breeches torn to shreds, grappling with the very jaws of the crocodile who wants nothing more than to gobble him up.

Balancing on Big Ben
Of course there is also the indelible image of the children flying away from home and landing on the minute hand of Big Ben, and Hook’s pirate ship being lifted into the air with the help of some pixie dust. The most obvious problem with the film—the problem with virtually all versions of Peter Pan from our modern perspective—is the portrayal of the Indians who live in Neverland alongside Hook’s pirates and Peter’s Lost Boys. The “redskins” are always presented as noble, intelligent, and courageous, the antithesis of the scheming, cowardly Hook, but physical and linguistic stereotypes remain. The film’s songs are mostly undistinguished—“You Can Fly” is the standout—but “What Made the Red Man Red?” is memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Hook verses the crocodile
Full disclosure here: I am a fool for Peter Pan—the 1911 novel, that is. I’ve already discussed this topic on this very blog, in the course of reviewing a beautiful stage adaptation created by the Mabou Mines company. I’ve seen numerous different takes and twists on Peter’s tale over the years, from the 1924 silent film to the Tony-winning Peter and the Starcatcher, currently running on Broadway. I know my Peter Pan. Disney’s cartoon is a little flat, a little generic for my taste; as is the case with many Disney productions, it adds a spoonful of sugar to a story that was originally quite bitter.

Tinkerbell admires her reflection
That said, the movie does things the stage versions, and even the previous film, couldn’t: the elfin Peter looks a like a boy, not like a girl in male drag (as traditionally he was played by women); the flying looks as nimble and “real” as it ever has; and sidekick Tinker Bell is a fully-fledged character, not just a skittering light with a sound effect. Indeed, Tink might be the most interesting character in the film, Peter included. A good deal of the plot hinges on her actions (her attempt to get Wendy shot, then kidnapped, and finally her almost-sacrifice to save her adored boy), and even without dialogue, her spunky, amoral persona is expertly rendered by the animation team. Ironically, this naughty pixie has gone on to become one of the primary symbols of the wholesome Disney universe, sprinkling her magic dust in its theme-park advertisements and TV presentations for decades; and now the (speaking) star of her own series of films and direct-to-dvd productions under the Disney Fairies title.

Nana the dog as nanny
Disney’s Peter Pan is an entertaining film that both boys and girls will enjoy well into their grade school years; however, it doesn’t rate with the studio’s greatest and most unique productions. Luckily, time has proven that Peter can be staged, musicalized, filmed, animated, and rewritten over and over, and children and adults alike remain enthralled. Included in a well-rounded Neverland diet, 1953’s version is mostly tasty and easy to digest. — Regina Robbins

Regina Robbins is a theater and film artist. She has worked with several New York City stage companies, including Manhattan Theatre Source, the Looking Glass Theatre, UTC #61, and the Directors Company, and her films have been screened at venues in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Chicago, Asheville, and NYC. She also teaches kids how to write and perform, and is a four-time champion on the game show Jeopardy!

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