Friday, November 11, 2011

DATE Night: Peter Pan

The original poster. After this,
the art will be all Mary Blair,
all the time in this post.
When I did the Disney Project before, I had missed a chunk of films that I didn't own and couldn't get from the library, so I had gone from The Three Caballeros right to Cinderella. It's been fascinating to truly watch them sequentially and appreciate how the studio stumbled artistically in the forties and regrouped for fifties while retaining all that they learned from the spotty but sometimes brilliant package films. There is a real ebb and flow that wasn't as apparent to me before. With Peter Pan we see a studio at the peak of their artistic and storytelling abilities whose winning streak would continue for another fifteen years. For this week's DATE Night, we take the second star to the right, go straight on 'til morning and land right in the thick of Disney animation's second golden age. 

The Background:

There's enough to go around, ladies. that you?
Since it has been one of his favorite stories since childhood, Walt had originally wanted to make Peter Pan as his second animated film, but getting the rights proved more difficult than he had anticipated. He finally acquired them in 1939 and put the movie into development, but when the US became involved in WWII in 1941 it was put on hold, along with several other projects. The forties brought the era of package and military films made to keep the studio's head above water and production on Peter Pan did not begin in earnest until 1947.

Down in Fraggle's Tree.
At this point in 1953, Disney has built significant artistic momentum after WWII along with having a good amount of financial success. By the time Lady and the Tramp appears two years later, their attentions will have branched from animation into live action films (which they had just begun to explore), television (kicking off with the Disneyland series in 1954) and Disneyland Park (which opened in 1955). Peter Pan really is the last film from Disney Animation that would be the true center of their creative universe. Though the quality doesn't diminish for quite some time, which is a testament to the versatility and creative genius within the studio walls, I find it interesting that this is the last time that it will be more or less all hands on deck for the animated feature. This would be the final Disney film released with RKO as a distributor before they formed their own Buena Vista Distribution. It would also be the final film that all of Walt's Nine Old Men would work on as directing animators and the last film that Mary Blair would be a color stylist on.

The streets of London. See Peter on the roof?
The film was released early in 1953 and went on to become the top-grossing movie that year. Critics seemed quite taken with it overall, not holding the adaptation up to the same kind of scrutiny they did with Alice in Wonderland, which was another British classic transformed by Disney into an animated masterpiece. This time around people seemed more willing to allow the studio to take some creative license in crafting their version of the well-loved tale, which was originally a play by J.M. Barrie. After the knockout success of Cinderella and the (completely unfair, in my humble but correct opinion) drubbing of Alice, it seemed that things were on the uptick again. Unlike Alice, which was relegated to truncated TV broadcasts, Pan enjoyed regular theatrical re-releases which firmly cemented its place in the cultural consciousness. 

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 7: Peter Pan. The final Mary Blair styled feature, so astounding color and styling. Such charm. Kudos Kathryn Beaumont who did the voices for Alice and Wendy. Little Michael and Nana are so cute. Such a sense of adventure and wonder that we so easily ignore. Another amazing film. Disney was on one helluva streak. I've adored every one so far save Pinocchio, which I just respected like crazy.
February 3, 2010 at 10:32pm ·

The Art:


8/10. First off, let me lament that this is the last of Mary Blair's big three features for Disney (Cinderella, Alice, and Peter Pan). Y'all know what a huge fan of her work I am, so to me this is a really big milestone in Disney animation's history. One of the talking heads in the short film on Mary that is on the Cinderella Platinum Edition DVD hits the nail on the head when he said that what she really brought to the studio was a sense of whimsy. I would add that she also made wiggle room for abstraction and subtextual psychology in the visuals. In Peter Pan, most of her visual touches show up when we arrive in Neverland. You can see her in the iconic design of the Neverland island, the background colors, Tink turning red in anger (and burning through a leaf!), the mermaid lagoon sequence with its rich aquas, pinks and purples, the design of skull rock, the landscapes and wide shots, the look of the greenery and forest, the gold ship sailing through the sky, and shots like Wendy walking the plank with a slash of red hovering on the horizon like a nasty wound. Her presence is not as deeply felt here as in Cinderella or Alice, but is still a powerful guiding artistic force on the final product. It's a fitting farewell to this period of her Disney association. (Side note: The Colors of Mary Blair exhibit in Disneyland did not include any of her Peter Pan artwork, so I will feature her concept art in this post.)

Let's play "Count the Silhouettes"!
One of the artistic touches that really struck me watching this time through was the recurring shadow imagery. Of course, we all know that Peter Pan goes to the Darlings' to get his shadow, but starting with Mr. and Mrs. Darling's silhouettes in the windows at the opening to the family's final silhouette in the window at the end, the film is stuffed with shadowy presences. So many, in fact, that I stopped keeping track. They are used as foreshadowing, to announce a character's arrival, to elicit emotion or to make a bold visual statement. Who can forget the iconic shot of the children silhouetted against Big Ben or Tink's reverse shadow glowing from behind a leaf? They are cast by the Indians at their powwow and Peter and Wendy behind the sails of the pirate ship. There are many ways to interpret the idea of the shadows we cast and what they mean and I'm sure that they can be incorporated here, but for me, noticing it for the first time, it's just fascinating visual connective tissue.

Peter and Tink.
Other gorgeous pieces of artistry include the arresting long shots of London, the beautiful cloud work, Peter's impish face lit by Tink at his first appearance, the delicate pixie dust, the shot of Peter and the children flying over London with its changes in perspective and pans in and out, the Fraggle Rock-like design within Hangman's Tree, the fantastic shot of hook climbing up towards Peter (and us) in the final fight sequence, and especially the pixie dust turning the pirate ship gold, which is breathtaking, and its final appearance as a ship crafted from clouds. The line work in this film has different quality. It seems thicker, darker and a bit less precise than before, which works quite well. The film looks fantastic, harnessing a lot of imagination in order to allow it to really serve the story well.

The Story:

8/10. They did a beautiful job story-wise here. The movie is well-paced with some great gags (the bear getting confused by Michael's teddy bear, Smee shaving a gull's rear end and making a racket while nailing in a "Do Not Disturb" sign), effective fight sequences (Hook and Peter during the finale) and chases (all the times that the croc goes after Hook, which straddle the line between chases and gag), and moments of real emotion (Tink's palpable sadness when Hook brings up Wendy, Nana waving goodbye to the children). All are terribly well balanced while the overarching story of the children's journey to Neverland and back is kept in clear focus. The changes that were made in service of this retelling are negligible enough that they in no way distract you from enjoying it. I actually would have been annoyed if Peter broke the fourth wall to ask me to clap and bring Tink back. I appreciate that they approached the play and really thought of how best to translate it into the medium of an animated film.

Wanna rub noses, Tiger Lily?
What really stood out to me on this viewing was the way that Peter's interaction with females had a lot to say about the way grown up romantic relationships function as well. Peter stands squarely in the center of his universe ("Everyone else thinks I'm wonderful."), wanting to be taken care of and admired but unwilling to really allow anyone in. He is oblivious to all of the emotional carnage he leaves in his wake. Wendy wants so much for her feelings to be reciprocated. Tink stays by his side, passive aggressively staking her claim on him. The mermaids are ready to drown a girl for getting to close too him. Tiger Lily is smitten after being saved by him. The women are the ones who suffer here, being jealously pitted against each other for his affections, while it barely seems to register with the boy who it all stems from. Hook even uses this to his advantage, observing, "A jealous female can be tricked into anything." Heady stuff for a cartoon.

The Characters:

John and the interchangable Lost Boys.
7/10. The reason that this score isn't higher is solely the fault of the rather bland ensemble members, rather than the principal characters, who are all wonderful. But the mermaids, Lost Boys, Pirates and Indians who populate Neverland barely register. Sure, that Lost Boy is fat, that pirate plays an accordion, that mermaid looks like Ariel, but they all bleed together. As for the (cringe), they are hardly distinguishable except for the chief and Tiger Lily. And while we're at it, is this any less offensive than the portrayal of black people in Song of the South? According to Disney it doesn't even warrant contextualization considering they make little to no mention of the parade of sweeping mythological generalizations on display. I wish they had. At any rate, none of it should be censored or withheld. This is where we were as a culture at a certain time in our history. Now how do we discuss the subject responsibly and learn from it?

They can fly, yo!
Luckily the major characters are all fantastically designed and performed. Mrs. Darling is warm and lovely, while Mr. Darling is a softie buried beneath a bombastic shell voiced by Hans Conried (who, in classic Peter Pan tradition, also voices Hook). The Darling children are also effectively done. I love the slightly pent up John and Michael charms me for the same reason that Thumper does in Bambi. Hearing kids be kids in animation is usually brilliant and genuine when captured correctly. There is no way not to love little Michael. Nana also deserves a special shout out, with her big eyes that register great sadness and joy. She is in the tradition of great, expressively silent animals like Bruno in Cinderella and Dumbo. She is charmingly sweet and maternal, yet sassy when she gets ticked off. They create a very specific character without having her utter a word.

That brings us to Wendy, voiced perfectly by Kathryn Beaumont, who also voiced Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Her performance as Wendy is almost the flip side of Alice- a girl who is mature for her age learning that it is ok to grow up vs. a girl who wants desperately to mature before she's quite ready. Beaumont performs this shift beautifully, giving Wendy a centered quality that Alice doesn't have. This also lead to someone else dubbing "Your Mother and Mine", since they needed a more mature sound, but I miss Beaumont's imperfect sincerity. Lovely as the voice may be, it seems a bit like it shouldn't be coming out of Wendy's mouth to me. With these two performances, Beaumont's voice has become as essential to Disney as Julie Andrews or Paul Frees to me.

Saving Tink.
Peter himself is performed by Bobby Driscoll with a fabulous exuberance that really highlights why the character is so magnetic. There is a youthful joy that is infectious, such as when he is fooling Smee by using Hook's voice. It keeps his obliviousness and cockiness from being grating. He is also amazingly animated. His fluid movements, like the moment in the nursery when he flies and then floats to the ground are so seamless. Tink transcends the label of sidekick, becoming a full-on masterpiece. She is sassy and independent, but at the same time not immune to great heartbreak. Her animator was Marc Davis, basing her on live action footage featuring Margaret Kerry. Together they created a character who uses no words but has personality to spare in scenes such as Tink's map ballet, trapped in the drawer, and on the mirror being unhappy with the reflection of her hips. I will just pretend that they did not completely sap all of the personality out of the character with her namesake movies. The character has gone from genuinely sassy to Disney "sassy". After all of this time being one of the great Disney icons, she deserves better than overblown meet and greets in the parks that portray her in the same generic way as she is in half-baked straight to DVD CGI sequels. And it's sad. I miss the real Tink.

Skull Rock with Hook & Smee
in the bottom left.
Who can forget the bad guys? Hook and Smee (see The Gay Scale for the queer read) are effective villains. They are not as terrifying as some others, owing to the fact that they are also quite humorous. But for every funny face or silly holler that Hook makes, there are times like when he cooly shoots the pirate playing an accordion without a second though. Don't get it twisted. The man is evil, tricky and capable of atrocities. Smee (who is voiced by the incredible Bill Thompson, who also voiced the White Rabbit and Dodo in Alice) is evil by association, though a blubbering fool. He doesn't have the smarts that Hook does, but mindlessly follows ("Following the leader...") and participates in wrongdoing. There is also a great antagonist to the antagonist in the croc who is forever chasing after Hook. You actually find yourself rooting for the dolt, who just wants the rest of his meal. His pursuit of Hook gives the film some of its funnest moments. The evil-doers in Peter Pan may not be the most terrifying of all the Disney villains, but I'll be a monkey's uncle if they ain't a good time!

The Music:

7/10. If I had to pinpoint an aspect of Peter Pan that I have real quibbles with, it would be the music. The score, which is done once again by Oliver Wallace (Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice), is not the problem. His work here is, as always, amazing. As a testament to his brilliance, think about how linked those three notes you first hear when you see Peter's name (and the movie's title) are to this movie and the character himself. In just three tones he was somehow able to encompass Peter's cocky, adventurous youthfulness so that you will always think of him when you hear them and vice versa. They are three of the first and last notes you hear bookending the movie. The score again serves as an emotional guide through the film, enhancing the action (even tick-tocks from the croc become part of it!) and deepening subtext where appropriate.

The view from Neverland.
Many of the songs are quite splendid. "The Second Star to the Right" was originally written for Alice, but refashioned with new lyrics, working wonderfully. As in Alice, here we have an opening/closing number sung by a chorus and not attached to any one character. It's a sort of a theme song exploring the basic premise of the story. "You Can Fly!" is executed impeccably, emerging right out of the dialogue in a totally organic way. I especially love when Michael says, "He flew!". It's a charming moment that gives us insight into this character too young to quite grasp such things as a rhyme scheme. Then the song is given over to the chorus, who really focuses on the swelling melody and supports the visuals of the children flying over London and really elevating the moment. "Your Mother and Mine," sung by Wendy is nice enough, but not truly memorable. It's also a bit off-putting, appropriate though it may be, to hear such a mature sounding singing voice emerge from the character so soon after we heard Kathryn Beaumont's charmingly imperfect singing in Alice.

Sorry bout that song, guys.
Here's where things get troubling. All of the other songs are sea shanties for the pirates and playtime songs for the Lost Boys. They are appropriate, certainly, but undistinguished. I guess it could be seen as a testament to the authenticity of the songs that they don't stand out too much, but what good does that do when you pretty much forget that they exist as soon as they are over? Of course, we can't delve into the murky waters of lackluster Peter Pan songs without mentioning "What Makes the Red Man Red?" Apart from the fact that it's not the most politically correct lyric that's ever been sung, it's really not a very good song. Musically it's just as derivative as the shanties and, come on, really? "Injuns" became red from blushing over "Injun" maids? It's all a flimsy premise to hang some interesting (if racially insensitive) animation on. At least that Indian number in the Mary Martin stage version is a fun, silly and energetic production number. Here, the poor Native Americans are saddled with a rather dour, repetitive, melodically-challenged drag.

The Gay Scale:

I love the blue peeking through here.
8/10. I think that in a youth-obsessed gay culture, many would view Peter Pan as an idealized figure- he is perpetually young, unattached and desired. However, I would argue that this is what makes him almost tragic since he will never know what it is like to have a deep, emotional connection with somebody. It is fine to go about your life being oblivious to this if you are a fictional character that hangs with pixies and pirates, but if you are a human being it's not cute. It's just sad. The trade off of mature love for eternal youth is one that too many gay men seem to think is acceptable, leading to a culture where forty-plus year old men run around with popped collars on their Abercrombie shirts, act like foolishly immature pre-teens and keep a syringe full of Botox within reach at all times. The idea is not that we emulate Peter Pan, rather it is that we keep the wear of day to day life balanced with a healthy dose of youthful exuberance and joy. Gays, you are coming away with the wrong message. Let's not, OK?

Horizontal stripes don't suit your shape.
The other thing screaming out to be queered is the relationship between Hook and Smee. Hook can be seen as the alpha and Smee as his smitten weaker half. What else could explain Smee's devotion to a man that treats him so poorly? It's the attraction to someone who is powerful. The fact that they are using you feels like them needing you. It feels like the spotlight shining on them illuminates you just a bit as well. Hook certainly belongs to what has become a great tradition of gay-reading villains with his fancy clothes, flowing locks and affected speech. Smee does wear those three-quarter pants with sandals, which makes him suspect at a glance as well.

The Bottom Line:

Intense, y'all.
8/10. After the far out, somewhat esoteric brilliance of Alice, Peter Pan was a wise choice for the studio. It is a clean, muscular tale with a single, traceable arc. By keeping the material both accessible and layered, Disney managed to avoid pandering while effectively reaching out to a wider audience. This is exactly where I think Disney does its best work- when it is simple enough for children to comprehend but complicated enough to keep adults engaged. Both will enjoy the movie, but for completely different reasons and taking away completely different things. Each aspect of the movie is beautifully done, from design to animation to voice work to the story to (most of the) music. Above all, the movie has a big, beating heart with warmth and charm to spare.

I love this movie and, despite being weaned on the Mary Martin TV version back in the day, think that it is the most effective adaptation of the source material. There are things that you are able to do, immersive worlds that you can create, magic you are able to make in animation that you can't do any other way. I love a creative piece of stagecraft, but I love seeing a fully formed Tink instead of a beam of light and not seeing the wires that make actors fly. The creators really took advantage of not being stage-bound, or even bound to reality, to take us to a convincingly fantastic Neverland. When master storytellers tell a fantastic story wonderfully, it's very hard to find much to fault. Over fifty years later, Peter Pan remains potent.

The Miscellanea:

Here is an interesting piece of Disney promotion called "The Peter Pan Story", which was made at the time of the film's release and shown on TV. It starts by broadly exploring the history of storytelling, from cave drawings to literature, before finally focusing on the Barrie play and Disney's adaptation. The final three quarters are devoted to Disney's Peter Pan, presenting behind the scenes footage, in-progress artwork, and clips from the film. It's not terribly juicy or insightful, but is an interesting glimpse into how Disney lured audiences into their films at the time. Here is part one of two of the black-and-white short.

So, I have a lot of opinions about Disney's direct-to-video sequels. We'll save a longer rant for later, but for now suffice it to say I think that they are, by and large, financially-driven, hasty, condescending and artless pieces that come dangerously close to diminishing the movies they are supposed to be a companion to. (For an example, please see the CGWhy Tinkerbell films. The first was so offensively bad that Tom and I couldn't even get through it.) And then there's Return to Neverland. I will admit to you that I got it on DVD because the soundtrack, featuring Alt Disney World alum Jonatha Brooke, intrigued me. The songs included her lovely cover of "Second Star to the Right" and her own modern Disney classic, "I'll Try". When we sat down and watched it, Tom, Katie and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of both the art (it even has touches of Mary Blair) and storytelling in the movie, in which Wendy's daughter is visited by Peter Pan after being forced by WWII to grow up far too fast. If you are a fan of the original movie and haven't seen it, check it out. It is a refreshing exception to the lackluster sequel rule.

I actually thought there would be a smattering of interesting period covers of Peter Pan songs, but I came up pretty empty, save a selection of personality-sapped Disney Channel not-quites adding a few runs and a drum machine beat. No thanks. Here is a bright spot, however- the aforementioned "Second Star to the Right" by Jonatha Brooke from the Return to Neverland soundtrack. Simply gorgeous.

I include this next cover mostly for Tom, who has an obsession with all things Japanese. (I mostly just have an obsession with getting my rear end to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea and an appreciation for them re-kickstarting the Orange Bird craze.) It is a version of "You Can Fly!" by Japanese pop group AAA, which stands for Attack All Around. They seem enthusiastic if nothing else and this definitely makes me giggle.

We all know that the closest I get to a character greeting in NYC is a character creeping. This is unacceptable. My favorite character encounters are when the cast members really make them feel organic. When you are in a Disney park, you are in an alternate universe where these characters just happen to be doing what they do and making you a part of it. There is nothing more magical than just happening upon Tiana singing with a jazz band, Mary Poppins crossing your path while talking to her parrot umbrella, or Peter Pan looking for buried treasure. There is nothing less magical than waiting in a queue, which is why I seldom do it to meet the characters.

This next video is a cast member who gets why their job is so important. He completely inhabits Peter Pan, giving the character his own spin, but staying respectful to the source. He is a pretty brilliant improv actor who stumbled upon the perfect character. And it certainly doesn't hurt that he is charming, adorable and charismatic, which is what makes the original Peter Pan so irresistible. (Allegedly Tom may or may not have been a bit perturbed when I spent half an hour cycling through clips of him on the AppleTV because allegedly I may or may not have the tiniest bit of a crush on him. I can't help it. It happens. Ask Wendy. Or Tink. Or the mermaids. Or Tiger Lily.) He became so popular that he was dubbed "Speiling Peter Pan" by other cast members to differentiate him and has websites devoted to him. He is apparently no longer at Disneyland, but there are tons of clips on YouTube to attest to what a magical performer he was and how many people's days were made just that much more special because of him. Here he takes a rather silly request from a group of young ladies and spins it into gold.

In light of the last video, our last one becomes terribly apropos. Amen, my southern sistuh!

Well there we have it. The end of an era in some ways (never again will we have all Nine Old Men or Mary Blair) and the start of an awesome and artistically rich exploratory period in Disney animation where boundary pushing was the norm. The diversity in the upcoming movies is impressive while the quality remains stellar. It's easy to forget nowadays that the studio once made its name on resisting the temptation to repeat itself. Hold onto your hats, folks, as we keep moving forward! After going to Neverland this week, I thought it would be nice to stay closer to home next week for DATE Night. A boy's gotta try to keep you on your toes, right? I was thinking maybe accordion music, the back alley of an Italian restaurant, spaghetti and meatballs, and Lady and the Tramp. Whaddaya say? 


  1. This is incredible.
    I'm speechless.
    Thank you.

  2. On my 18th birthday, I spent the day at Disneyland. It was 2002, and "Return to Neverland" had just been released, so the park was filled with characters from the Pan films. I asked Peter to take a photo with me, for my birthday. "Sure!" he smiled, and looked at the button pinned to my jacket. His face fell. "You're 18. You're...a grown-up." WAY TO BREAK MY HEART, PETER PAN.

    Thought you'd appreciate that. --Stacy