Sunday, 22 April 2012

KIDS' STUFF: Peter Pan (1953)

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Peter Pan (USA, 1953)
Directed by Clyde Geronomi, Wilfrid Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Starring Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conried, Margaret Kerry

Disney has a reputation for taking much-loved works of fiction and crowbarring them into marketable narrative and musical conventions. We may think this is a recent development, something that began with the Disney renaissance of the late-1980s and eventually led to Tim Burton's hugely disappointing Alice in Wonderland. But Disney has been taking flagrant liberties with author's works for decades prior to this. You only have to look at P. L. Travers, who made millions in royalties from Mary Poppins but felt betrayed by Disney's decision to add songs and animation to what she felt was an inherently dark and spiky work.

It is interesting that Peter Pan, a pet project of Walt Disney which was 14 years in the making, should also be at least partially guilty of this tendency. There is much to enjoy in this adaptation of J. M. Barrie's stage play, and the term 'Disneyfied' does not entirely apply due to certain sections which remain offensive. But for all the entertainment it provides, especially to younger children, it's not first-rate Disney by quite some distance.
Walt Disney had his eye on adapting Peter Pan since 1935, having been utterly entranced by the stage play from a young age. After four years of pestering, Great Ormond Street Hospital in London (who held the rights in accordance to Barrie's will) finally allowed Disney to make the film. Like PIXAR today, it took many years for Disney and his animators to work out how to translate the story to the big screen. This process was further delayed by WWII, when the studio was taken over by the US government and used for producing propaganda.
Peter Pan has become an integral part of the Disney stable and brand. The story of the boy who never grew up reflects Walt Disney's belief in retaining a childlike sense of wonder about the world around us, and not trying to bury our childhood and the lessons it contains. Tinkerbell has become an emblem of Disney in and of herself, appearing in several versions of the animated logo. The film is directed by three talented men who were present in some form throughout the Golden Age - Clyde Geronomi (who directed Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland), Wilfred Jackson (Song of the South) and Hamilton Luske (Pinocchio).
The relationship between the stage play and the finished film is an interesting one. The film retains certain conventions of Barrie's story, such as having Mr. Darling and Captain Hook being voiced by the same actor (Hans Conried in a good performance). But while it has always been traditional on the stage for Pan to be played by a girl, this is the first instance in which he was played by a boy, namely Song of the South star Bobby Driscoll.
The theatrical aspect of the film is maintained through the continued use of rotoscoping, a technique pioneered by Disney's rival Max Fleischer but used by Disney to great effect on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This involved actors, including most of the voice cast, acting out their scenes on minimal sets built specifically for the film. The performances were filmed or photographed, and the animators would then use these recordings as a starting point for their drawings, allowing them to animate human movement more believably.
It is easy to forget how close the relationship between theatre and film was throughout the early days of cinema. Alfred Hitchcock famously complained that when sound first came in, studios all too often just filmed theatrical performances and put them in cinemas, creating what he called "photographs of people talking". Many great stars of the Disney Golden Age came from variety and music hall, and film work was, like television after it, viewed as inferior compared to a successful stage career. It is therefore fitting that aspects of Peter Pan are theatrical in nature, either in the storytelling or in the exaggerated characters.
The storytelling in Peter Pan is incredibly breezy. Coming in at just shy of 80 minutes, it bustles through the story at a fair old pace, never stopping for a breather or getting bogged down in unimportant details. This is again largely a reflection of the time, when feature-length animation was relatively new. Snow White was famously dubbed "Disney's folly", with his contemporaries believing that the only way to make money from cartoons was through shorts: it was possible to make a lot very quickly, rather than putting all one's eggs in one basket. Disney proved them wrong by obeying the maxim of Mark Twain: he put all his eggs in one basket, and he watched the basket.
 
The downside to Peter Pan in terms of pacing is that it does end up skimming over the surface instead of getting to grips with the substance of the story. It doesn't have any of the real darkness of Barrie's play, with the parents appearing uppity rather than overtly threatening. While Hook and Mr. Darling are played by the same actor, there is no attempt to explore the implications of this. Barrie characterised Hook in such a way that he came across as an exaggerated version of Wendy's father: the character represents both children's fear of adults and their accompanying resistance towards growing up. The film doesn't refute this idea entirely, but it doesn't give much time to it either.
The only instances where the film begins to get a real grip on the source are doing the songs, and even here there is a problem with convention. 'Your Mother And Mine', sung by Wendy to the Lost Boys, is both a very tender paean to parenthood and a poor man's 'Baby Mine' from Dumbo. The pirates' songs are really good fun but they are also generic, being close to anything else being churned out at the back end of Tinpan Alley. You could almost call the songs unnecessary because they don't bring out the story enough to warrant a place, but as with Dumbo they make the grade on a level of pure enjoyment.
The film is at its best with the musical slapstick sequences - something which is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. The confrontations between Hook and the Crocodile display great use of percussion to comic effect, with our villain defying death in a series of hilarious ways. These sequences are structured with a real sense of rhythm and comic timing, so that even at their most cartoonish (running on water), they depict real emotions and really enjoyable peril. The weakness derives once again from the fact that they are typical of Disney and not of the story itself; once again, we allow them because they are enjoyable in their own right, but it doesn't enhance the adaptation.
There are other problems with Peter Pan besides its concessions to convention. The biggest of these is the portrayal of Native Americans, an issue that would rear up again when Disney made Pocahontas in the 1990s. I tackled the issue of on-screen racism in my review of Gone with the Wind, arguing that mitigating racism as a product of its time does not entirely excuse the reprehensible nature of some depictions. Apart from the stereotyping of Native Americans in general, matters are made worse by the musical number 'What Made The Red Man Red?', which explains Indians' red skin as being a perpetual blush caused by their pursuit of women. It is interesting to note that Disney re-edited Song of the South to remove certain racist slurs, and yet nothing has been done with Peter Pan.
The only way to genuinely enjoy Peter Pan, in spite of everything I've mentioned, is to view it as 'the Disney version' of Barrie's work, rather than any kind of definitive adaptation. Subsequent adaptations have had their problems too (some, like Hook, more than others), and as a Disney film first and foremost it delivers. The animation is beautiful with a great choice or colours, the music is well-arranged and judges the mood very well, the characters are impish and interesting, and the action sequences are exciting. For introducing young children to Disney, it is a reasonable place to start, particularly for those who might not stomach the darkness of Pinocchio.
Peter Pan is not quite the Disney classic that it is made out to be. While it has much in the way of magic and wonder in and of itself, its differences and distance from the source material prevent it from being the definitive take on J. M. Barrie's much-loved character. Aspects of it have dated, and fans of Pinocchio or even Dumbo may feel a little short-changed. But for pure enjoyment and entertainment, it has stood the test of time, and will continue to satisfy young children who never want to grow up. 

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Good fun but not first-rate Disney

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