Sunday, June 15, 2014

PETER PAN (1953)

RELEASE DATE: Thursday 5th February 1953

Written by J.M. Barrie first as a stage play in 1904 and then as a novel in 1911, Peter Pan has had a long-enduring appeal for both children and adults alike. Walt Disney had been a huge fan of the story, and it eventually became the 14th official animated movie in his timeline. Like Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan was originally scheduled to be released much earlier, and was in development soon after the release of Snow White. Interruptions (World War II, for example) delayed the film's creation, but in the early 1950s Walt decided that the time was right, and the movie needed to be made.

Bobby Driscoll, who had become somewhat of a regular around the Disney studios (having recently starred in Treasure Island and Song of the South among other films) was given the role of Peter. His youthful just-broken voice would provide something new to fans of the story; this was the very first time that Peter Pan had ever been played by a male! (On the stage he was always played by a woman...)

Another returning star was young Kathryn Beaumont, who had played the title role in Disney's Alice In Wonderland. Beaumont claims that she had literally just finished her recordings for Alice and was immediately cast as Wendy and began work on the new picture.

Much to Walt's delight, Peter Pan was a resounding success, making even more at the box office than Cinderella. Something about the boy who never wanted to grow up struck a chord with audiences and Disney's new version of the story was embraced by moviegoers all over the world. It has remained a bona fide Disney classic ever since.

 As the story begins, we are introduced to the Darling family. The oldest child Wendy is the expert storyteller. She tells amazing stories about a boy called Peter Pan who lives in Neverland and never grows up. Her brothers Michael and John love these stories and love to role-play Peter fighting his arch nemesis, the nefarious Captain Hook.

The children are looked after by their nursemaid Nana, who just so happens to be a dog. She looks after the children and appears to be a very capable authority figure.

In an earlier draft of the movie, Nana went with the children to Neverland while John stayed at home because Peter thought he was too serious. Although this story idea was altered, Nana does get a moment to fly in the finished movie. If only she wasn't tied up at the time...

The Darling parents soon make an appearance. Mrs. Darling is calm and understanding, while Mr. Darling has a very short temper and is easily frazzled.

Staying true to the traditions of the stage play, Mr. Darling was played by the same actor as Captain Hook, Hans Conried in this case. As the parents go out for the evening, leaving the children in the apparently capable paws of Nana, Peter Pan himself makes an appearance on their rooftop, followed by his faithful companion, the pixie Tinker Bell.

Tinker Bell is one of the most popular characters in the story. She is feisty, vain, terribly jealous and a lot of fun. Some falsely claim that her design is based on Marilyn Monroe, but that could not possibly be true, since Marilyn didn't become a big star until after Peter Pan was released; when it was being made, none of the animators would have known who she was. Tinker Bell is mostly modelled on Margaret Kelly, who came in and acted out Tink's scenes for the animators to take inspiration from.

Once Peter Pan has reclaimed his lost shadow from Wendy, he agrees to take the three children to Neverland, but the only way to get there is to fly. "Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning." With the help of some pixie dust, they soar over London and head into adventure.

Meanwhile in Neverland, Captain Hook is in a constant state of frustration at not being able to discover the whereabouts of Peter Pan's hideaway. His first mate Mister Smee tries to calm him, but Hook has somewhat of a temper. The only thing he wants in this world is vengeance for the hand that Peter had cut off in a previous battle.

Wendy and the boys are eventually led to the hideaway of the Lost Boys, Pan's loyal henchmen. They lead Michael and John on an adventure to find some Indians to play with, while Peter shows Wendy to Mermaid Lagoon.

The mermaids are overjoyed to see Peter but they are terribly jealous of Wendy and try to drown her. (Tinker Bell also shows jealousy to the point of violence - what is wrong with these women??)

Peter and Wendy track down Captain Hook and discover that he has kidnapped the Indian princess Tiger Lily. Peter rescues her in a spectacular fashion while Hook comes face to face with a nightmare: the crocodile who took his hand! This croc is mighty hungry and would love to taste the rest of Hook as well!

For rescuing Tiger Lily, Peter becomes a hero among the Indians. They hold a celebration in his honour.

After an exciting and scary day of adventures Wendy begins plans to go home, much to the annoyance of Peter, who wants her to stay and be the Lost Boys' "mother." Meanwhile, Captain Hook has caught up with a scorned Tinker Bell and convinces her to reveal the whereabouts of the hideaway in exchange for capturing Wendy.

His plan works. He captures the Lost Boys and the Darling children and takes them to his ship as hostages. The pirates make a convincing proposal to the kids. Either they join the pirate crew or they walk the plank. (I'm not sure why Hook would want them in his crew... surely they'd betray him at the first opportunity... but anyway...)

A steadfast Wendy is the first to walk the plank, but she is rescued at the last minute by Peter, who has arrived in the nick of time to battle Hook for supremacy once and for all!

Pan wins the battle of course, and Hook is left fleeing for his life from the crocodile. With the help of a large helping of pixie dust, the new Captain Pan guides the ship through the sky and back to London where he leaves the children safe back in their bedrooms.

IRVYNE: While not much was directly lifted from J.M. Barrie's original play, the spirit of Peter Pan is definitely present here, and like Cinderella, Snow White and Alice In Wonderland before it, this film would go on to become many peoples' default vision when they thought of the Peter Pan story. All of the characters are fully fleshed out and wonderfully acted.

Captain Hook would have to be one of my all-time favourite Disney villains, because he's so multi-layered. He's manically murderous ("Shooting a man in the middle of his cadenza?") and yet he's so foppish. He certainly loves the finer things in life. And yet, while his crew just want to leave Neverland and go out to sea, he cannot leave with his pride so wounded. To have been beaten by a mere BOY! There's also his relationship with the crocodile, which is absolute comedy gold. Often the Disney characters that don't talk end up being the funniest. The crocodile doesn't say a word and yet he's one of the most memorable characters.

As wonderful as Barrie's imaginary world of Neverland was in peoples' imaginations, nobody had ever seen it so beautifully brought to life as they did with Disney's version. Free from the shackles of the stage (and real-life physics) Neverland became a place of pure imagination and dreams.

The backgrounds are lush with beautiful colours (brighter and more saturated in Neverland, duller and more ordinary in London) and Peter Pan is also host to what was arguably Disney's best character animation up to this point. Every character has a whole range of expressions, and the non-speaking characters - Tinker Bell and the crocodile in particular - tell their entire story through movement and facial expression.

Animator Milt Kahl (one of Disney's legendary "Nine Old Men") noted that one of the biggest challenges in creating this film was animating a character that's not restricted by gravity. How do you make a character simply float in the air? Regardless of their challenges, they nailed it. Every frame of this film is a work of art, and it's one of the brightest jewels in the Disney crown.

While the songs in Peter Pan work wonderfully for the picture, they're not altogether as memorable as some of the ones from previous films. Most of the songs were written by Sammy Cahn. (He also went on to write classics such as "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "Come Fly With Me" and the title song from "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

"The Second Star To The Right" is the opening credits song. It was originally written for Alice In Wonderland to be sung by Alice at the start of the movie, but once it had been cut they gave it new lyrics and made it the title song to Peter Pan.
"You Can Fly" is a joyous song that captures the excitement of flying for the first time.
"Following The Leader" is probably the most endearing and enduring song from the film. It's a simple and very catchy ditty, although singing "We're off to fight the Injuns" might not be considered very P.C. these days...
"What Made The Red Man Red" is... well, it's racist. It's supposed to be funny, and it's full of gags, but there's no way a song like this would be put into a movie these days.

"Your Mother And Mine" is where the film slows down as Wendy sings a lullaby to the Lost Boys.

The pirates have a couple of sea shanties that they sing, but they aren't particularly memorable.

The final song, and probably my favourite from Peter Pan, is "Never Smile At A Crocodile." It doesn't have any lyrics in the film (although some were written later) but it's a fantastically catchy and well-suited melody for the big ol' croc. It's another classic written by Disney legend Frank Churchill.

Apart from the rather awkward racism, Peter Pan is as fresh today as it was in 1953. It's classic Disney through and through: beautiful to look at, funny in all the right ways, full of great characters, singable songs and a world that could only be truly realised through animation. I do wonder what Mr. Barrie would have thought of this interpretation of his classic story. We'll never know, but one thing's for sure: audiences have adored this movie for over 50 years now, and will continue to do so long into the future.

HAKU: The acting is very pantomime in this film, isn't it?

WENDY: True, there's quite a few "he's behind you!" moments. I love how Nana arranges the blocks in the bedroom... O.C.D. dog!

IRVYNE: Oh well, I'm sure she's cheap.

PASCAL: Did you see how Peter Pan's shadow trips over the shadow of the table? I'd never noticed that before.

ANNA: I love the croc.

IRVYNE: The scenes with Hook and the crocodile are my favourite scenes in this movie.
They're just so funny!

MALEFICENT: The mermaids are gorgeous. They don't wear much...

WENDY: I think the "Onesies" craze started here with the Lost Boys!


IRVYNE: And they think it's a new thing! It started back in the early '50s!

SHENZI: A bit like Max in "Where The Wild Things Are."

MERRYWEATHER: I couldn't handle seeing the teddy bear tied up at the Indian camp!

HAKU: There's a lot of female tension and jealousy in this story.

WENDY: They all want a piece of Pan!

HAKU: But he seems completely oblivious to it all.

IRVYNE: Yeah. Well he's a boy. He's not interested in romance and mushy girly stuff. It's like when the mermaids are attacking Wendy and he's just there laughing. He's such a boy!

ANNA: I think Julia Roberts is a better Tinker Bell than this one.

MALEFICENT: What? No way. You're crazy.

ANNA: I love the scene where they fly over London. It makes me wish I could fly.

MALEFICENT: The artwork as they're flying through the clouds is so beautiful.

IRVYNE: Yeah, there's a lot of layers in that scene. The multiplane camera was in overdrive.

MALEFICENT: And the sequence at the end with the flying ship looks amazing with all of that pixie dust going everywhere.

HAKU: Just think, every little effect was drawn by hand...

MALEFICENT: I know! So clever!

IRVYNE: Some poor sap would have had to animate every single one of those pixie dust fragments!

HAKU: These days you'd just press the "pixie dust" button on the computer!

WENDY: There's also a cool 3D effect when Hook is climbing up the rigging.

IRVYNE: Yeah, I saw that too. At first I thought, "That's some kind of early CG," and then I laughed and thought, "Derr, of course it's not."

HAKU: With all of the pirate scenes, I almost expected them to break out into "Yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate's life for me..."

IRVYNE: Haha, no, a bit too early for that. I think that ride appeared in the late '60s... And remember, Disneyland didn't even exist when this movie was released.

HAKU: But it was almost there, wasn't it? Pretty close...

IRVYNE: I wonder what Captain Hook's name was before he got his hook.

ANNA: Captain Hand!

HAKU: He's pretty nasty. I was wondering if is this still rated "G?" Hook just shoots a guy for singing. And John is seen smoking. And Mister Smee gets drunk on rum.

IRVYNE: It's still "G." I suppose they ratings just weren't as strict back then.

WENDY: Did anyone else think of Freddy Mercury when they saw Hook playing the harpsichord...? No...? Just me...? Okay then.

ANNA: The water animation isn't as good as the old movies.

IRVYNE: No. I don't think it was as much of a "thing" here. The water still looks good, but it's no Sorcerer's Apprentice.

HAKU: Overall, I think it was the best narrative we've seen in a Disney film so far, especially with the pacing.

MALEFICENT: There's no boring bits.

IRVYNE: Except maybe the "Your Mother" song. The movie slows right down there.

MERRYWEATHER: I like that song.

HAKU: It's just that quiet moment you need to have before the big finale.

WENDY: The songs are all nice and memorable.

IRVYNE: This era was definitely Disney's Renaissance. Cinderella, Alice, Peter Pan and more to come. They're all just fantastic movies, masterfully created and wonderfully entertaining.

1 comment:

  1. Ah! I saw this one last week with my kids. It is available on Netflix. My kids know how to use internet and access Netflix. When I was their age, I was licking the walls. Even the shows now days are quite educating, like the ones by Andy Yeatman on Netflix.