Sunday, December 16, 2012

Disney Canon: Peter Pan

While I have always had a fundamental problem with the story of Alice in Wonderland, I have nothing but fond memories for the mythology behind Peter Pan and the world the character inhabits (except for Steven Spielberg's Hook). It is built, after all, on a more child-friendly and warmer concept than the one behind Alice. Both are stories about young girls coming to terms with their place in the world after taking part of an adventure in a magical land. Alice must learn the hard way in a scary place full of weird creatures where nothing makes any sense, but Wendy has a companion that is as much of character as she is to guide her in their adventure. In other words, I bet Wendy remembers her time in Neverland fondly, while I can only picture Alice having nightmares about Wonderland. 

I know it's not fair, but being both adaptations of popular XIX century british children's literature that were adapted by Disney at roughly the same time, I have always put the two stories against each other and there is a personal bias that makes Peter Pan an inherently better movie than Alice in Wonderland in my eyes. It is a tricky line to walk. I regard Peter Pan as a better film, but because it has a more cinematic story, it is also an easier piece to adapt. Disney's Alice in Wonderland is without a doubt the best version of that story that anyone could have put on screen, but there is still a chance that the best film adaptation of the Peter Pan story could be yet to be produced. For what it's worth, the mostly forgotten 2003 live-action version directed by australian P.J. Hogan and also titled Peter Pan, stands head-to-head with Disney's animated version as the best film adaptation of the source material. 

But let's start talking about the film itself. Disney was eager to adapt J.M. Barrie's most popular work a long time before the film was actually released. Some sources say the idea originated as far back as 1935, with Walt wanting Peter Pan to be his second feature. Barrie had left the copyright of his work to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, with whom Disney had to negotiate for four years before settling on an arrangement. So by the late 1930s production had already started for Peter Pan. It wasn't until February 5th 1953 that the film hit theaters. 

The movie starts with a lovely narrated introduction to the Darling family: Loving Mrs. Darling and practical Mr. Darling, as well as the Darling children who delight on the stories about Peter Pan and the world of Neverland: John, Michael and Wendy. We are also introduced to the Darling's dog, who is called Nana and takes care of the children. Then, the main emotional conflict is established: Mr. Darling is sick and tired of the havoc his children cause on the house by thinking of nothing else but the stories Wendy tells them about Neverland, when he finally loses it, Wendy is no longer to sleep in the nursery with the boys, but have her own room like a good young lady should. This sequence is sadly one of the film's weakest points, not being able to balance the comedic elements of Mr. Darling losing it and Nana trying to keep everything in order with the more darker side of presenting Mr. Darling as an outright villain. However, despite its shakiness, the scene works in establishing Wendy's conflicting thoughts with having to grow up and leave her brothers' room. The punchline of the family worrying for Nana more than Mr. Darling also works pretty well. 

After that, Peter and his fairy friend Tinkerbell come to get back his shadow, which he forgot when he was last hanging around the Darling House and is now under Wendy's custody. This is when the movie really soars. It takes just this one scene to establish both Peter and Wendy as distinct, fleshed-out characters. We get Wendy's educated very talky british girl attitude in contrast to Peter's carefree and adventurous attitude. Wendy might want to stay in the nursery, but the truth is she is growing up, as demonstrated when she offers Peter a thank you kiss for offering to take her to Neverland with him. The children don't kiss (they are interrupted by a jealous Tinkerbell) but we already know what is going there. Peter is the boy who never grew up, but Wendy is definitely maturing. The dynamic between elegantly in love Wendy, childish and jealous Tinkerbell and the oblivious Peter is rightfully at the center of the movie and is so precisely presented that it makes the film a stand-out as far as Disney character development is concerned. When Peter teaches all three Darling children to fly thanks to Tinkerbell's pixiedust, it's off to Neverland in a wonderful sequence of the kids flying over London and the film has won me over. 

It's a big asset for the film that Peter and Wendy's first meeting and the flying sequence are so fantastic. The remainder of the film has its fair share of flaws, and even if none of them are lethal, the groundwork set up by the preceding sequences goes a long way for making the viewer remain on the film's favor. This is particularly true for contemporary viewers, who will probably be put off by the film's dated depiction of native americans, especially during a pretty offensive musical number titled "What Made the Red Man Red?". And still, we can forgive the insensitivity because of the insertion of a critical point of Peter and Wendy's relationship in the middle of the sequence. Wendy is suddenly in Tinkerbell's shoes when she notices how indian princess Tiger Lily seems to be pretty fond of Peter. Like I said, good character development goes a long way, and because we know Peter and Wendy is that we are pulled back into the narrative despite the atrocious indian jokes. 

The film's climax also comes from that early scene in the Darling's nursery. When we arrive at Neverland we meet Captain Hook, Peter Pan's mortal enemy, whose big plan is to use Tinkerbell's jealousy towards Wendy to finally kill Peter. A lot of this comes from Barrie's original, but credit where credit is due, and the Disney teams deserves some applause for keeping the Peter-Wendy-Tinkerbell trio at the center of the conflict while tinkering with other aspects of the material. 

Captain Hook is the main villain, and he is an early example of a more nuanced Disney character. This is achieved by giving him a very clear weak-point: his fear for the crocodile that ate his hand. The crocodile also ate a clock, so every time Hook hears some ticking, he is invaded by fear and crawls upon the arms of his personal assistant, Mr. Smee. The dynamic between Hook and the reptile is played mostly for laughs, that makes him not as menacing a villain. Disney would get better at balancing the villain's insecurities, but that is not to say Hook is not an enjoyable presence in the film. He is fairly menacing, shooting one of his crew members in cold blood just for playing the accordeon. 

He also benefits from interacting a lot with the film's best characters. There are three that deserve to stand in the pantheon of utter genius animation: Tinkerbell, Smee and the Crocodile. And they all have scenes with Hook. The character animation in Peter Pan is superb, one of the very best in the canon up to this point and that is especially true of this trio. Not only are these characters more beautifully animated than any in the film, they are also great creations. Smee is a delight playing comic relief to Captain Hook's neurosis. Tinkerbell, modeled in a pin-up model kind of way is sweet and easy to identify with in her childish jealousy. And the Crocodile... My God, there must be few characters in the Disney canon that are so well designed and hilariously animated as that crocodile. This trio also helps Peter Pan be the funniest of the entries in the Canon up to this point.

On the whole not every scene is as good as the next one, but the heights achieved in Peter Pan make it a highly recommended watch. It is also a movie that I would recommend to small children, who will undoubtedly enjoy the experience and not be scarred in the process as they might be by other entires in Disney's oeuvre.  

Next Week: We'll talk about one of the most romantic Disney classics, and one of the highest-grossing films of the 1950s: Lady and the Tramp.

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