06 April 2012

Disney Daze: Week 14: Peter Pan

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

By the time the studio had begun work on Peter Pan, Walt Disney and his crew were settling in to a pleasant groove. At this point they had a solid template for producing features, they knew the beats required to successfully pull a story off. For the most part, the films that would be released in the last decade of Walt's life would fit neatly together as works of a kind. Quality would be relatively consistent, as would expectations. The films feature all of the hallmarks of a Disney "classic" while rarely breaking from that mold, something the first five features did frequently.   

The character animation in Peter Pan furthers the style used in Alice in Wonderland. While live action reference work was done for the major characters, the reliance on rotoscoping - which so hindered Cinderella - was negligible. The stiffest looking character in the film is that of Mrs. Darling, mother of Wendy and her brothers, who only appears briefly at the bookends of the picture. The rest of the characters move smoothly with ineffable cartoon grace. Their designs vary from the relatively realistic look of Wendy to the exaggerated caricatures of Captain Hook and his lackey Smee. The adapted story supplies ample opportunity for some choice bits of animation. From Peter chasing and wrestling his shadow to the weightless wonder of the Darling children (and their dog Nana) learning to fly, the film uses its medium with confidence. 

In terms of production, the film shares quite a bit with Alice in Wonderland. It was directed by the same three men, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske; as well as animated by most of the same crew, including Walt's famed Nine Old Men, this being the last picture they would all contribute to. A few of the voice actors from Alice in Wonderland appear here as well, including Alice herself, Kathryn Beaumont, who does a serviceable but less memorable job as Wendy. Bill Thompson, who voiced both the White Rabbit and the Dodo in Alice, provides a wonderful turn as the bumbling Mr. Smee. In 1954, the year after Peter Pan's release, Thompson would famously voice the character of J. Audubon Woodlore, a portly park ranger who would subsequently appear in several Donald Duck shorts.

In contrast to Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan possesses a much more streamlined, linear storyline. This is of course largely caused by the two film's very different source material. Whereas Alice is composed of self-contained episodic vignettes, each scene in Peter Pan logically succeeds its predecessor. Only the superfluous musical numbers "Following the Leader" and the casually racist "What Made the Red Man Red?" derail the narrative for no good reason. The storytelling is economical and effective with clear outlines of character motivations, aspirations and plans to achieve their objectives. Of these objectives, no other character's obsessions are more clear than those of Captain Hook, namely finding and destroying that rapscallion Peter Pan.

The character of Captain Hook, the vengeful pirate, was a source of difficulty for Disney and his screenwriters. They were unsure of how exactly to portray Hook; should he be menacing, instilling fear in the audience, or should he be a bumbling buffoon who continually gets his comeuppance from the irascible Pan? With this knowledge in mind, one can see the filmmakers' indecisiveness played out onscreen. When we first meet Hook he poses a real threat, fatally shooting a singing member of his crew just because the song annoyed him. From there on out though he becomes increasingly more comedic, becoming the brunt of slapstick accidents perpetuated by Smee, as well as the butt of all of Pan's jokes. 

There is a strong dose of sexuality and desire on display in Peter Pan that is unlike anything hitherto seen in a Disney picture. Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and the mermaids all lust after Peter, becoming jealous of whomever possesses Peter's attention at any given moment. The girls fawn and fuss over this boy, the closest thing to a hot blooded male in their lives (save lascivious pirates) and attempt all sorts of harm to their competitors - from aerial assault to drowning. An argument could be made that the sexual preoccupations on display are there to heighten the themes of the story - that of children on the cusp of puberty and subsequent adulthood finding their purpose - but I do not know how intentional that was on the filmmakers' part. 

The designs of some of these female characters are rather risqué as well. Wendy remains prim and proper throughout the film, wearing her frumpy nightgown and maintaining a sense of moral dignity. The mermaids however move about their cove half naked and unabashed, basking in the sun and flirting away with Peter. But the most sexualized character in Peter Pan is undoubtably Tinker Bell, the pixie who scampers about in the skimpiest of slips. Her very introduction in the picture involves her preening in a mirror and measuring her hips. Those hips get her into trouble quick as she finds that she cannot escape through the keyhole in Wendy's drawer because her butt is too big. The animators cut to the inside of the drawer to show her struggle, her skirt bouncing up to reveal her underpants.

The sexy sexiness aside, one of the most unique aspects of Peter Pan is its interesting use of sound effects. This is the first feature where the sound design plays a prominent role in the proceedings, (Fantasia's reliance on its score excepted). For example, there are some cool reverb and echo effects when Pan is rescuing Tiger Lily from Captain Hook on Skull Rock. Tiger Lily's father, Big Chief, the broadly stereotyped leader of the Indian tribe, speaks with a fantastic cavernous, guttural growl. These little effects help flesh out character actions and enhance the reality of the film's world. 

While the film ultimately feels safe and familiar, Peter Pan perpetually delights. The film may lack the thrills associated with the artistic hubris of Pinocchio or the competitive insanity of Alice in Wonderland, but it confidently knows its strengths and provides a wonderful showcase for them. It is an enjoyable and entertaining picture that effectively whisks the audience off to Neverland, a place where everyone is a kid again. It's a place not unlike the movies.

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