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Movie Review: Disney's PETER PAN Is Slight and Effortlessly Enjoyable



I’ve always found Peter Pan to be one of Disney’s most unusual storybook adaptations, but you have to take “unusual” with a grain of salt, considering how iconic J.M. Barrie’s original novel is.  Past a certain age, every one knows and loves the Peter Pan legend; it’s the epic tale of adolescence’s last hurrah, as Wendy, her brothers, Peter, and the Lost Boys gorge themselves on as much excitement and whimsy as they can before marching toward responsibility.

The movie, on the other hand, ain’t so epic.  Let me finish.  This is a feature that includes a) pirate attacks, b) flying schooners, c) Indian attacks, d) all of the above, yet its scope feels quaint when compared to Disney adventures like Pinocchio, Mulan, or The Lion King.  Hell, Lady and the Tramp is more expansive, and it’s a simple Ode to the Pleasures of Suburbia.  The backdrops (drawn by the great Eyvind Earle) are pretty, but they’re about as tangible as studio concept art; the action scenes are competent but few in number (I count three major setpieces: the Indian attack on the Lost Boys, Peter’s rescue of Tiger Lily, and his big raid against Captain Hook); and the cast of characters contains everyone who is necessary and no one else – besides Peter, Captain Hook, Smee, Wendy, George, Michael, and Tinkerbell, we get a few Indians, a handful of Lost Boys, and just enough pirates to outnumber them.

Even the screen seems unusually confining.  Peter Pan premiered in 1953, just as televisions were really beginning to flood American households, and you better believe that Walt Disney was moving forward with an eye towards the small screen.  Just note how Disney animators used the 1.33:1 frame for Peter Pan.  Compositions are mostly limited to wide and medium shots, straightforward affairs that present all the relevant character and action details with a minimum of fancy camera moves or animation tricks.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call Peter Pan uninteresting to look at – the animation work by the Nine Wise Men is still wonderful, clean, and sharp – but in its simple, unobtrusive editing and shot rhythms, it looks like nothing more than an exceptionally well decorated sitcom.

You have to remember that Disney pioneered some of cinema’s crowning achievements, from three-color Technicolor to the multi-plane camera, so the relative unadventurousness here comes as a bit of a shock.  By my estimation, I count two memorable shots: a moody, menacing tableau that shows Hook stalking an unsuspecting Peter Pan, and another shot where Hook appears to climb right into our POV.

None of this is bad, mind you.  In its unassuming way, Peter Pan has proved itself one of Disney’s sturdiest films.  Whereas Cinderella gender politics and Sleeping Beauty‘s flat, marking-time midsection make the two flicks difficult sits, Peter Pan maintains viewer interest all the way through.  Minus some of the Smee/Captain Hook shtick, there’s no fat on this one, and therein lies the benefit of Peter Pan‘s limited scope.  We spend just as much time with the Darling family as we need to care about Wendy, George, and Michael, then Peter arrives, and it’s off to Neverland before meeting/saving Tiger Lily, defeating Captain Hook, and heading back to London.

I have to give writers Milt Banta, William Cottrell, Winston Hibler, and Bill Peet particular credit for the economy with which they sketch Tinkerbell – with just a few beats, we understand her emerging romantic interest in Peter, her resentment of Wendy, and her influence on Peter and the Lost Boys’ magic powers.   Nowadays, a Disney picture would stop the plot dead to make time for Tink, but this one gives us everything we need as it pertains to the main narrative, and without the benefit of dialogue.

In a way, Peter Pan‘s restraint gives it power.  It doesn’t care about complex characters or showstopping musical numbers (only the “What Makes the Red Man Red” song counts on that front, and it’s a showstopper because of how appallingly racist it is); like its young protagonists, it just wants to have a good time, whether that means playing follow the leader on an Indian expedition or meting out justice to a pirate army.  It’s the magic of being young again, in all youth’s winsome, unobtrusive glory.

Disney’s three-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks amazing.  Apparently, the HD restoration has caused some controversy – some have claimed that Disney’s color enhancements aren’t 100% faithful to the animators’ original intentions – but I have no complaints.  The film looks like it was made yesterday, with bright, clean outlines and zero grain/scratches.  Just a phenomenal effort.  The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also solid, though the purist in me prefers the original monaural track, which Disney has also included.

Bonus supplements are characteristically strong.  We get a short introduction from Disney’s daughter Diane Disney-Miller; a great commentary track that includes comments from Roy Disney as well as older interview segments from Peter Pan‘s various cast and crew members; six behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Growing Up with Nine Old Men,” “You Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan,” “In Walt’s Words: Why I Made Peter Pan,” “Tinker Bell: A Fairy’s Tale,” “The Peter Pan that Almost Was,” and “The Peter Pan Story”); two deleted scenes and two deleted songs (“The Journey Home,” “Alternate Arrival,” “Never Smile at a Crocodile,” and “The Boatswain Song”); a number of music-related features (the “Disney Song Selection” feature, “The Pirate Song” deleted song, “Never Land: The Lost Song,”  the “Peter Pan Sing Along” track, and two music videos: “Never Land” and “The Second Star to the Right”); optional sidebar murals to help cut back on potential burn-in lines; and the cute “Disney Intermission” bit, which switches to different animated clips when you pause the film.

It’s a great package for one of Disney’s most unassuming, enjoyable pictures.  Peter Pan might not have the virtuosic brilliance of Pinocchio or Fantasia, but it’s effortlessly charming and never boring.

Peter Pan streets on February 5th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.