Chief Justice Michael Stailey long ago committed to never growing up. So far, so good.
Second star to the right and straight on till morning!
Nostalgia plays a large role in our appreciation for film. These moving pictures have a unique way of latching onto whatever is happening in our lives at the time, forming lasting bonds and fond memories. But even then, nostalgia only goes so far. I can rattle off any number of movies and television shows I remember loving as a kid which instantly implode upon revisiting them in the harsh light of adult eyes. And yet for some reason, the golden age of Disney feature animation seems immune to this experience. Here are decades old films built upon well worn tales by a studio many view as the dark prince of western capitalism. So how is it that films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty are beloved by so many people of all ages, races, creeds, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds? The answer is simple: Pure committed artistry.
Facts of the Case
Faced with one last night in the nursery before being forced to "grow up," Wendy Darling (Kathryn Beaumont, Alice in Wonderland) accepts Peter Pan's (Bobby Driscoll, Song of the South) offer to take her and her brothers—John (Paul Collins, JAG) and Michael (Tommy Luske, son of director Ham Luske)—to Neverland, his home beyond space and time where they'll never have to worry about growing up and "every dream that they dream will come true." The only problem is, even in an idyllic world like Neverland, the inherent foibles of human nature—love, jealousy, competition, and greed—manage to complicate things. And with a dastardly villain like Captain Hook (Hans Conried, Summer Stock) determined to destroy Peter and everything he stands for, the Darling kids don't stand a chance of finding any less oppression than they do in their own home.
Unlike many of the studio's earlier films, Peter Pan was a property deeply engrained in the cultural zeitgeist. Sir James Barrie's character made his first appearance in the 1902 novel The Little White Bird. Two years later, the impish Pan jumped from page to stage in "Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up." The success of the stage production gave way to the novelization Peter and Wendy (1911) and some claim Pan was the inspiration for JRR Tolkien's elves of Middle Earth. Walt Disney had begun developing a film version of the tale as early as 1935, intending it to be the follow-up to Snow White, but problems securing the rights from the Great Ormond Street Hospital (who inherited the story upon Barrie's passing), disagreement over the focus of the story (origin vs. adventure), the outbreak of WWII, and the studio's own financial problems left the film in development hell for nearly 25 years.
If anything, these delays worked in Peter Pan's favor. After the success of Cinderella, the studio tripped and fell with Alice in Wonderland, a film most critics and many Disney staffers felt lacked the heart and soul of earlier pictures. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, Walt and his Nine Old Men pulled out all the stops, staging the story with real actors on a minimalist set to gage what worked and what didn't. This allowed the animators to capture key action and expressions, not unlike what current animators do with vocal recording sessions today. The result was a more realistic hand drawn adventure than we'd seen before. Animator Marc Davis and dancer Margaret Kerry gave us a character like Tinker Bell who is more popular today than ever before. The same goes for the partnerships of animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston along with actors Hans Conried and Bill Thompson (voice of Tex Avery's Droopy), whose Captain Hook and Mr. Smee have become familiar comedic archetypes for decades worth of film and television productions. And of course there's Bobby Driscoll's Peter Pan, an energetic young prince in Disney's acting stable and one of the few males to ever play the role.
What I love most about the film are the layers we get to peel back and appreciate. Neverland is a home where boys can do whatever they want, whenever they want, and never have to grow up, and yet Peter and his Lost Boys long for a mother figure to provide comfort, love, and support. Tinker Bell's insane jealousy of Wendy's presence in their life puts her in partnership with Hook, blinding her to the fact that she's given the villain a means to destroy Peter once and for all. The ongoing playful war games between the boys and Neverland's indigenous indian tribe turn deadly serious, when Princess Tiger Lily goes missing and the Chief is sure Peter is behind it. And of course there is the eternal battle between Hook and the crocodile who has already taken the Captain's hand and won't stop until he gets the rest of him. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears, and there's a lesson or two to learn from every situation we find ourselves in. More importantly, Walt's team deftly balances drama and thrills with the perfect mix of comedy, so as not to frighten even the youngest of viewers.
Though Disney's Pirate-mania has quelled in recent years (thanks in large part to the disappointing Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), Peter Pan was definitely the progenitor of the craze. Whether true in Barrie's writing or something Walt's team added to the legend, this particular tale exhibits all the fun of playing pirate, but lying just below the surface is subtext that shows the boys there's far more downside to the profession than sword fighting and hunting for buried treasure. Hook's crew are a motley group of unhappy men resigned to their fate, and though the never-ending tiff between the Captain and Peter has its inherent comedy, there's a dark side not unlike the war between the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, something which can't be avoided…even in Neverland.
Presented in 1.33:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Disney's digital artisans have once again gone above and beyond the call of duty in cleaning up this 60 year old film. Some may say they've overstepped their bounds, eliminating the original inherent film grain and tweaking the color/contrast to match the exceptional ink and paint work done by an army of talented women. The blacks are deeper, the muted color palate is given more vibrancy, and Neverland (including Tinker Bell's pixie dust) is a bit more magical. Knowing how seriously the archivists at Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) take their responsibilities and Walt's legacy, I refuse to believe they'd ever go so far as to undermine the intentions of the original creative team. The audio is yet another magnificent DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track that amplifies the film's original flat sound field with vibrant vocals, robust ambient effects (pay special attention to Peter and Hook's exchange inside Skull Rock), composer Oliver Wallace's playful musical score, and a surprising use of the LFE that deepens the weight of the mix.
When it comes to bonus features, there are a handful of additions to the 2007 Platinum Edition DVD release and a few wise subtractions. Gone is "Camp Neverland," a series of cheesy interactive games (Smee's Sudoku Challenge, Tarrrrget Practice, Tink's Fantasy Flight) created at a time when the studios felt these were value-added features; a condensed Read-Along storybook; and Peter's "Virtual Flight," an annoyingly narrated CG-animated fly around London and Neverland. The one glaring omission are the nine art and photo galleries covering everything from concept art and character designs to production photos and publicity campaigns. I realize these image files take up a chunk of disc space, but they do add a great deal to the overall appreciation of the film and it's sad to see them left behind. Then again, the new material does make up for some of the loss.
* Introduction NEW!—Walt's eldest daughter, Diane Disney-Miller, gives a brief welcome from the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
* DisneyView NEW!—Disney background artist Cindy Maltese contributes yet another set of beautifully seamless side panels for this 1.37:1 framed HD transfer. The studio started this process years ago and I'm continually amazed at how much it adds to the visual experience.
* Disney Intermission NEW!—This new interactive feature kicks in whenever the film is paused, keeping the little ones entertained with tips on being an effective pirate, music, a shell game, and video clips. (Yet another home video gimmick that won't stand the test of time.)
* Sing-Along NEW!—Choose this option to have the lyrics to the film's centerpiece musical numbers layered on for the kids to sing along with.
* Growing Up with Nine Old Men NEW!—Ted Thomas, son of animator Frank Thomas, provides the true gem of this Blu-ray release: a 43-minute documentary in which he sets off to interview the children of Walt's legendary animators to better understand their family dynamics and upbringing as compared to that of his own brothers and sister. Disneyphiles will adore this heretofore unseen peek into the diverse personal lives of these men whose one time day jobs continue to have a profound impact on millions of people worldwide. I can't say enough about the positive vibe this piece gives off.
* Deleted Scenes NEW!—Two development sequences unearthed from the Disney Archives. As seen through storyboards. "The Journey Home" is a photostatic retelling of one final adventure Peter, Wendy, and the boys would have experienced on their return home from Neverland. "Alternate Arrival" is a 1930s rough sketch storyboard sequence in which Peter, Wendy, Tinker Bell, John, Michael, and Nana (yes, the dog came too) arrive at the Lost Boys compound. If nothing else, it's interesting to see how much the character designs changed through the years and the eyes of different artists.
* Deleted Songs NEW!—Two excised pieces of music round out the archival section. Actor Henry Calvin (Zorro) provides lyrics to the song "Never Smile at a Crocodile" which never made it into the final film, but was released to radio as a single and was subsequently recorded many time over the years by artists from Jerry Lewis to The Muppets. Current Disney artists take a Seuessian approach in crafting a brief little music video to accompany the song. "The Boatswain Song" is a 1939 Frank Churchill demo for what would have been another comedic pirate sequence aboard Hook's ship. Again, more vintage concept art is showcased and minimally animated to enhance the music.
* Audio Commentary—The late Roy Disney hosts a collective commentary, intercutting interviews, insights, and fond remembrances from a variety of cast, crew, and Disney historians. I've never been a fan of these piecemeal commentaries, but there are some great stories shared here and enough info to cover the film from start to finish without any downtime.
* You Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan—This 16-min featurette combines talking head interviews with clips from Walt's Disneyland television series detailing a behind-the-scenes look at the film's development. Very EPK.
* In Walt's Words—Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements intro a Walt Disney impersonator doing a dramatic reading of an article Walt wrote describing his passion for Peter Pan.
* The Peter Pan That Almost Was—John and Ron host this 21-min look at the twists and turns the story of Peter Pan took before finally reaching the screen.
* The Peter Pan Story—This vintage 12-min television feature was created for a 1953 episode of the Disneyland series to promote the film's release. I love it just for the black and white clip from Disney's Song of the South.
* Tinker Bell: A Fairy's Tale—This nine minute featurette looks back at the origins of Tink.
* Song Selection—Jump right to each of the film's five musical numbers without having to bother with the fast forward button.
* Classic Music—Two more lost and deleted songs from the Platinum DVD release. "The Pirate Song" is a 2-minute demo featuring dialogue and music for a sequence in which Hook and his crew were preparing to make Wendy and the boys walk the plank. "Neverland" is a 2-minute featurette of composer Richard Sherman retelling his experience taking early undiscovered lyrics and putting music to them for Paige O'Hara (Beauty and the Beast) to record.
* Music Videos—Obligatory MTV-style music videos for the aforementioned Richard Sherman/Paige O'Hara collaboration, as well as the Disney Records teen group T-Squad singing their version of "Second Star to the Right."
* DVD and Digital Copies—For those times when you want to watch the film in a non-HD environment or while on the go. By the way, this is an actual physical digital copy and not the UltraViolet Download being touted as the next best thing by most of the major studios.
* There is also a 2-Disc Blu-ray / DVD Combo pack offered at a slightly cheaper price point that does not include the Digital Copy.
Before you go, I have two bonus features of my own to share. Back in January 2007, DVD Verdict was invited to be part of Disney's launch party for the two-disc Platinum Edition DVD release of Peter Pan, which consisted of a premiere screening at the El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles, preceded by a Q&A with members of the cast and crew, as well as a phone interview I conducted with Wendy herself, Ms. Kathryn Beaumont. Links to both of those audio files can be found under the "Accomplices" section in the sidebar.
Aside from Ward Kimball's lovably wacky "What Made the Red Man Red" sequence that would never make it past the PC sensors today, Peter Pan (Blu-ray) proves to be a true Disney classic in every sense of the word. Don't hesitate to add this upgrade to your Disney collection.
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