Confession time: I’m not all that fond of Peter Pan. Walt Disney’s animated classic took the world by storm in the 1950s, justifying decades of development and turning an entire generation of boomers into entitled man-children in the process. Disney certainly wasted no time in exploiting its success, re-releasing it in theaters numerous times and granting it perennial status as one of his company’s signature films. But in truth, it pales before many of the studio’s less commercially profitable movies, and now remains a fossilized product of its era rather than a timeless enchantment for all ages. Hit the jump for my full review.
Having said that, it certainly has a lot to recommend it. Peter Pan was the last film to use all of Disney’s famous “Nine Old Men,” the animators responsible for the studio’s unique look. The film benefits from their meticulous care, crammed with gorgeous images and a lush palette that you simply don’t see anymore. The phalanx of creators (three directors, eight screenwriters) infuse a fair helping of mischief into the story, as Peter whisks Edwardian schoolgirl Wendy Darling and her brothers off to the world of Neverland. There, they do battle with the infamous Captain Hook, aided by Peter’s Lost Boys and a ticking crocodile in pursuit of the pirate king.
The film’s buoyancy and upbeat tone are certainly in keeping with Disney’s ethos. But in presenting the tale as a Boys’ Own adventure, the film misses many of the deeper psychological points of J.M. Barrie’s original tale. Peter is the boy who never grows up, a fact the movie treats as magical wonder. The source material was far more ambivalent, comparing Hook’s envy of Peter with Peter’s eternally stunted psyche. Wendy, on the cusp of puberty, stood between them, with Peter ultimately serving as the last grand hurrah for her fading childhood.
That’s all a bit much for Disney, who not only removes the psychological subtext entirely, but takes away many of Barrie’s scarier moments (such as Tinkerbell dying and Hook ultimately being eaten by the crocodile). It’s all a lark as far as Walt was concerned, a fact that diminishes not only the evergreen nature of the story, but the sensibilities of the audience as well. It requires a slightly subversive approach, something Disney has always struggled with and which never appears more deficient than with a character often considered the ultimate rebel. Other films in the canon like Pinocchio and Bambi touched upon the sobering truths of life without diminishing their child-like charm. Peter Pan can’t be bothered, reveling in a shallowness unbecoming to such an exquisitely crafted piece of art.
That doesn’t even touch on the more troubling aspects of the film, notably its depiction of Native Americans. I can forgive a little bit of era ignorance, but songs like “What Makes the Red Man Red” cross a line that contemporary audiences will find very hard to stomach. Women, too, suffer under 1950s expectations, with Wendy acting mostly as a passive admirer and Tinkerbell portrayed as jealous and vindictive. Disney periodically whitewashes its past (witness its failure to release Song of the South and its notable excision of racist caricatures from Fantasia), so I suppose it deserves credit for presenting Peter Pan warts and all. That doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, even allowing for the prejudices of the time.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the film hasn’t aged particularly well, despite its lovely animation and some charming moments. Disney completionists will still want to snap up the new Blu-ray, of course, and the studio doesn’t skimp on the bells and whistles. The extra features are more than anyone could dream, starting with an introduction from Diane Disney-Miller and an informative audio commentary (from the earlier DVD) courtesy of Walt’s brother Roy Disney. Sing-along options are included, as are a series of charming cut songs, and “Intermission” features designed for small children. All of the bonus features from the old DVD appear as well – 80 minutes or so in totem – along with a new doc about the famous Nine Old Men. And of course, you couldn’t ask for a sharper and more beautiful image. As a Blu-ray, the new Peter Pan can’t be beat. As a movie, it skates by on a reputation it hasn’t earned, a fact that even the most casual viewing makes embarrassingly clear.