Virtually all of Walt Disney’s classic animated features have rightfully assumed their place among the echelons of truly outstanding motion picture entertainment – and not merely to amuse the toddler set. No, to witness any of the studio’s product in its prime is to be magically teleported into the enchanted recesses of a living fairytale; to live out the most heartily robust fantasies – delectably light-hearted, yet always with a deceptive undercurrent of foreboding and danger. Yet, we tend to forget that upon their initial theatrical release a goodly number of these cherished Disney memories were met with indifference by the critics and less than profitable results at the box office.
In hindsight Walt’s passion to bring J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to the screen seems a given: two visionaries separated by time (Barrie died in 1937), but virtually aligned in their artist sensibilities. Both men shared an affinity to preserve, treasure and nurture the child in both the young and young at heart. Each found their level of success in this quest, and neither has ever been forgotten since for their devotion to that preservation of our joy and innocence.
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) ranks among the most eloquently conceptualized of Disney’s animated features, firmly grounded in two of Walt’s most enduring principles; first – the inevitable transition from child to adult – and second, the preservation of that fragile innocence we all carry into our adult years, despite life’s hardships and the passage of time. Indeed, by the time Peter Pan debuted on the screen it had been a story Walt had long held dear to his own heart and had pursued with ambitions to make as early as 1939.
Regrettably, Walt’s timing was off. Severe financial cutbacks at the studio and the virtual acquisition of the facilities by the United States military to make training shorts – prevented Walt from realizing Peter Pan until the mid-50s. Hampered by a strike for union wages in 1941 that did much to dampen the morale at the studio – and, under the strain of producing propaganda shorts in support of the war effort, by the end of the decade the studio emerged as gaunt and malnourished as any a refugee from those terrible years of war. Walt had done his best to keep the studio afloat, embracing Roosevelt’s Latin American initiative and producing features that were little more than a series of shorts strung together by intrusive live action narrations (Make Mine Music, Saludos Amigos, and, Melody Time, among them).
At the end of the war Walt desperately wanted to resurrect his interests in Peter Pan, but chose instead to embrace another classic fairy tale to inaugurate the studio’s return to form: Cinderella (1950). Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella presented certain tried and true hallmarks that Walt was sure his audiences would embrace. Indeed, he was not to be disappointed. Cinderella was a stunning critical and financial success; one unfortunately eclipsed by the perplexing financial failure of Alice in Wonderland one year later.
The similarities between Alice and Peter Pan are worth noting. Each is an iconic touchstone in British literature. Yet both have seemingly defied their evolution into other forms of mass entertainment – particularly Alice. Peter Pan had been successfully recreated on the stage during Barrie’s time, and would again find its place in our collective consciousness as a beloved, if stage-bound TV special starring Mary Martin in the 1950s. But when the Disney Studio undertook to bring Barrie’s boyhood hero to life the chief concern for Walt remained how to translate Barrie’s literary craftsmanship into cinematic art without denying the purists their imagination, yet maintaining a level of personalized style that would truly set the film apart from both its stage play and Barrie’s original children’s book to make it a certifiable Disney classic.
Arguably, this unerring devotion to Barrie’s literary legacy created something of an artistic insecurity for Walt. No less than three directors came to the project Clyde Geronimi, Haliton Luske and Wilfred Jackson; along with eight of the studio’s top writers, assigned to condense and revamp Barrie’s sprawling narrative into a manageable 90 min. feature. Regrettably, Peter Pan was to become rather episodic in the process. As re-envisioned by Disney’s animators, Peter Pan is filled with spectacular vignettes and some truly stunning animation. But for sheer time constraints, cuts to Barrie’s work were inevitable. Hence, the Lost Boys, mermaids and Indians so provocatively and memorably featured in Barrie’s book and play were distilled to mere cameos in the final film.
For years rumors have abounded that Marilyn Monroe was the inspiration for Walt’s incarnation of Tinkerbell – the effervescent non-verbal pixie who serves as Peter Pan’s conscience, confident, and quite possibly, his love interest. But this rumor is rather baseless – particularly when one considers that Monroe, though already making movies in Hollywood, was hardly the iconic blonde bombshell she would eventually become in 1954. To embrace this rumor one must therefore set aside the fact that Disney’s preliminary work on Peter Pan began as early as 1940 – long before Monroe was even a blip on the radar. True enough, Walt did provide his animators with a live action model for their inspiration, but her name was Margaret Kerry.
It thus remains something of a perplexing mystery that in reviewing Peter Pan today one is immediately reminded of the behavioral similarities between Tinkerbell and Marilyn Monroe. So, who’s copying who? Walt was to be heavily – and most unfairly - scrutinized for reinventing Tinkerbell in his film. On stage the illusion of the fairy had been created with nothing more prominent than a pin prick of light darting about. Yet film, with its ability to zoom in for a close up, undeniably demanded something more. What Walt gave his audience then has since gone on to be easily identified by the children of the world as the definitive Tinkerbell. So, was Walt mistaken to offer up a tangible winged creature clad in a skimpy green bodice? Film critics and devotees of J.M. Barrie of the day thought so. Thankfully, audiences ever since have had a decidedly different view.
As scripted by Ted Sears, Erdman Penner, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright and William Cottrell, Disney’s version of Peter Pan begins in the nursery of the Darling home. Mr. Darling (voiced by Hans Conried) has decided that his eldest child, Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) is old enough to be placed in a room of her own – hence, she is at the cusp of becoming a young lady and in imminent danger of leaving her childhood daydreams and innocence behind; particularly her imaginative romps with the wily Peter Pan. After Mr. and Mrs. Darling leave for a night out, Peter Pan (Bobby Driscoll) arrives to suggest an escape for Wendy to Neverland – a wondrous place where no one ever grows up or old. As Wendy in not quite certain how she feels about becoming an adult she awakens her brothers, John (Paul Collins) and Michael (Tommy Luske) and together – with a light sprinkle of pixie dust reluctantly provided by Tinkerbell – they set off to explore Peter’s world.
The one note of dissention comes from Tinkerbell who acutely senses a growing romantic infatuation between Wendy and Peter. The complexities of this inferred ‘lover’s triangle’ is, of course, never fully fleshed out in Disney’s fable. But Tinkerbell’s jealousy will be instrumental in a tragic decision later on that nearly costs her life and forces a penultimate confrontation between Peter and his arch nemesis, Captain Hook (also voiced by Hans Conried). In the play the same actor plays both Mr. Darling and the Captain – a subtle jab on Barrie’s part perhaps about the duality in Britain’s own staunch patriarchy.
Capt. Hook’s pirate ship is anchored just off of Neverland’s Skull Rock; his merry band of marauders plotting a conspiracy to capture Peter Pan as revenge for Hook having lost his hand in a previous confrontation. Acquiring a taste for the Capt.’s flesh, the crocodile that ate his appendage stalks the seas in search of more tasty delights. Meanwhile, a jealous ploy by Tinkerbell to have Wendy killed is foiled. The Darling children are introduced to the Lost Boys – six pint sized warriors clad in animal skins who take Michael and John on a gallant exploration into the jungle. Learning of Tinkerbell’s involvement in Wendy’s peril Peter bitterly banishes her ‘forever’.
John, Michael and the Lost Boys are taken prisoner by the Indians who believe that Peter – not Hook – is holding one of their own, Tiger Lily captive. The Indian chief declares that if Tiger Lily is not back by sunset he will burn everyone at the stake. In the meantime Peter takes Wendy to see the mermaids. Once again, feminine jealousy intervenes and the mermaids attempt to drown Wendy. They are frightened away by Hook’s pirate ship. Peter and Wendy, having discovered Tiger Lily in Hook’s clutches, rescue and return her to the Indians who free Michael, John and the Lost Boys. Hook decides to take advantage of the dejected Tinkerbell’s hurt feelings, exploiting her to lead him and his crew to Peter’s secret hideout. But Tink’ makes Hook promise that he will not harm Peter in exchange for her divulging this information.
Hook, of course, agrees – but then traps Tinkerbell in a lantern while he goes off to pursue Peter. The pirates capture the Darlings and the Lost Boys and plant a bomb to kill Peter. Instead, Tinkerbell makes a valiant attempt to save his life that nearly claims her own. Hook is about to make Wendy walk the plank to her death. But Peter and Tinkerbell arrive to save the day. In the resulting battle Hook and his crew are forced to flee the pirate ship, relentlessly pursued by the crocodile. Tinkerbell sprinkles the ship with pixie dust allowing the vessel to take flight and return the Darling children home to London. Wendy encourages Peter and the Lost Boys to stay with them – but Peter refuses and sails away to Neverland once more.
Mr. and Mrs. Darling find Wendy asleep at the open window sill; her sudden awakening to regale them with her vibrant tales of adventure convincing Mr. Darling that perhaps Wendy might remain in the nursery a little while longer. As the family stares through the open window a cloud in the shape of Hook’s pirate ship suddenly appears nearest the moon and Mr. Darling recollects with a wink and a smile that he has seen that ship before.
On the whole Disney’s Peter Pan runs much smoother through its fantasy elements than Alice in Wonderland – its narrative weight delicately balanced on the centrally flawed young lover’s triangle between Peter, Wendy and Tinkerbell, and, on Peter’s infinitely more satisfying conflict and resolution with the maniacal Capt. Hook. To be certain, Hook is a marvelous villain, derived from the best evil doers in the Disney canon: part fop/part holy terror and quite terrifying in his comedic uncertainty and fits of psychotic danger.
What is remarkable about the film – particularly when one removes J.M. Barrie’s original text from the equation – is just how efficiently it manages to run through these hyper-real scenarios – passing over some, while indulging others. True enough, Walt’s version of Barrie’s classic is not as Barrie intended. But in the final analysis it works just as well. Disney’s Peter Pan is a worthy and very memorable part of the studio’s illustrious animated canon.
And now comes the Blu-ray. Peter Pan has always looked quite solid on home video. In 1080p it is nothing short of stunning. Message boards have been overrun with criticisms about this transfer – the pundits perhaps all too eager to castrate the remastering effort after Cinderella’s hi-def release yielded a grain-less image with slightly altered colors. The restoration of both features has been predicated on a solid understanding at the Disney Studios that each hi-def transfer should more closely resemble and reflect the clarity and content found in the original cell art rather than its theatrical presentation.
Viewed from this perspective, the image quality on Peter Pan is nothing short of miraculous. The sumptuousness of the original art work has been lovingly preserved, albeit – sans grain. Colors pop and the ‘wow’ factor is definitely in evidence from first to last frame. Despite the studio’s rather liberal use of DNR to eradicate film grain, fine detail in the actual image has been preserved. We can now see brushstrokes in the original artist’s rendering of backgrounds – something I have long appreciated from reviewing vintage Disneyana in hi-def. The studio has also reinvented the film’s original mono as a lush 7.1 DTS sound mix. Purists will undoubtedly poo-poo this attempt, particularly since the original mono (also included) has not been updated for an improved sonic experience.
Extras are plentiful. It is very gratifying to see Disney including virtually all the extras from their platinum DVD – five extensive featurettes – plus an audio commentary and the ‘music and more’ option that contains original songs and revamps. The HD extras are equally as impressive, including an intro to the film by Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney-Miller, deleted songs, pirate training, and most impressive of all – a 41min. feature on the studio’s original animators: Walt’s so called ‘nine old men’. This featurette is by far the most comprehensive reflection yet on the creative brain trust responsible for our collective childhood memories and it comes very highly recommended. Ditto for the Blu-ray. A must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)