In the Walt Disney Pictures version of Peter Pan, the title character is first seen on a London rooftop at night, his face lit from below by Tinkerbell, her light grotesquing his elfin smile and seductive appeal. Pan embodies imagination and freedom, but stick around too long and his eternal pied piping starts to get creepy. An adolescent partisan, he draws an unforgiving line between pure, dreamy childhood and boring, compromising adulthood.
Based on this image one might expect that the point of this story would be to affirm the loveliness of childhood while teaching children that they must one day resist their inner Peter and become adults. But Disney, sponsor of societal Pan-ism, supports the sprites. Wendy returns to the nursery to find out she gets to stay. (Although ironically in Neverland she is pushed into playing grown-up roles like mother, squaw, and jealous girlfriend. I wanted to yell, “Stop it now Wendy or you’ll be dating these lost boys forever!”)
At the time of Peter Pan’s release in 1953, Walt and Roy were maneuvering a developmental pivot point of their own. Driven by America’s post-war financial and baby boom, Disney was in the process of becoming the corporate behemoth of today. But the tradeoff of erratic finances for global success would be to lose diligent artistic standards for a more casual approach to the quality of animation. Walt would abandon the intimacy of playing with his animators for playing Uncle Walt to the wider public. His Horatio Alger fairy tale became a mission statement in a multimedia empire that now included lucrative television and theme parks.
Peter Pan was a bridge between these eras. It was a childhood favorite of Disney’s and was scheduled to be the second animated feature released by the studio after Snow White. But Disney’s overambitious production slate, which drained the profits from Snow White and the Mickey shorts, along with his meticulous drawn-out preproduction, tendencies to shift enthusiasm for a project, and the effects of World War II, resulted in the film being picked up and abandoned until, finally, it lumbered to completion almost 15 years later and was a much-needed hit.
Correspondingly, the animation switches from fustily conceived to breezy and tossed-off. The opening sequence at the Darling house is patiently brought off. The characters are introduced by their shadows to emphasize their fantasy nature. The colors in the nursery are richly textured. Imagination and attention to detail are apparent in Tinkerbell’s fight to get out of a desk drawer. The entire sequence builds in careful, well-structured rhythm to “You Can Fly” when the characters burst out the window to coast above London.
But this portion takes up almost a third of the film, setting up characters that are then rushed through their Neverland adventure. Outside the key set pieces the animation falls slack. When Mr. and Mrs. Darling leave the house, Mrs. Darling is out of proportion, she’s a strange sickly shade of shadow blue, and she doesn’t fit into her background at all. When Peter Pan rides two swans like water skis he’s drawn with the lazy broad lines of the peanut butter pitchman of that era. Frank Thomas’ fantastically constructed fop, Captain Hook, is offset by the minimalist Indians. The music is maudlin, elderly, and not at all pop, built on secular church choir oohs and aahs.
Given its long gestation, there are sizeable amounts of Peter Pan preproduction visuals to rummage through and the Disney deluxe sets are dependable in providing character sketches, storyboards, and concept art in making-of documentaries and image galleries. Highlighted in this edition are the geometric forms of Mary Blair, which seem to have influenced the Neverland portion, and David Hall’s Rockwell-meets-Monet illustrations that seem to have rubbed off on the London scenes. But in between lay radically different visual interpretations and possibilities, from Victorian illustrations to Little Nemo-style comics and Saul Steinberg-like colored pencil sketches.
The illustrations are evidence of the high standards, artistic license, and open-minded spirit of Disney’s adolescent years. A good percentage of the remaining extras are devoted to pushing a cheap-looking computer animated Tinkerbell movie and its accompanying merchandising blitz on the post “Princess” demographic. This includes an idiotic short, presumably aimed at worrisome parents, claiming Tinkerbell as a feminist trailblazer.
But Tinkerbell has endured for a good reason. Along with Jiminy Cricket, she became a constant pixie presence around the Disney universe, waving her dusty wand around The Wonderful World of Disney and the Disneyland castle. She’s the only heroic character in this movie who doesn’t act like an adult’s soft-hued memory of innocent childhood. Her mimed love of Pan provides the catalyst that drives much of the plot. In contrast, Disney’s Peter Pan is boring, the watered down Tom Sawyer of a hundred other ‘50s caricatures of ideal boyhood.
When I was about five Peter Pan was my favorite movie. I had only seen it once, but the public library had a record with the dialogue and music that I could listen to on repeat like a video. I broke my head open four times attempting to fly by thinking of “a wonderful thought”.
Watching it re-mastered on a DVD I didn’t think it was very good. I could recognize the things I enjoyed, the free-from-parents adventures and the promise of flying. I was surprised at how deeply that record groove was still drilled into my brain. I anticipated by instinct much of the dialogue and its inflection: the upper class fuss of Wendy’s (Kathryn Beaumont) “Peet-ah Pahn” and Captain Hook’s (Hans Conried) growling “Peterrr Paan”. I could also recognize the belabored slapstick, syrupy music, and uneven pacing that now bored me. There was a little me back then that liked pirates and wanted to fly. And now I don’t care one way or the other. And I’m fine with that.