Friday, April 20, 2007

I am Cinematographicus: Peter Pan (1953)

I am Cinematographicus. I review movies for We might be windmills. This is my first time to essay a review.Recently, we watched Disney's Peter Pan again for the first time in many years. Based on J.M. Barrie's much-imitated play, Disney's version is mostly good. Of course, there is the inexcusable racism. Though not as bad as Song of the South (1946), racist portrayals of Native Americans and one stereotypical portrayal of an Italian pirate made me cringe. But the music is well-done, the story moves at a good clip, and there are some great characters: Hook, Smee, and the Crocodile, most notably.

And, about the Indians, I know it's a fantasy, but the Indians seem really out of place in Neverland. I mean, come on, the place is an island. Mermaids, yes. Pirates, yes. Fairies, okay. Lost boys, whatever. But Indians? Especially since Disney paints them as plains Indians (tipis?), what the heck are they doing on an what appears to be a tropical Island?

Interesting thing is, Peter Pan himself isn't really that great of a character. The movie might be named for Pan, but he isn't the protagonist, Wendy is. The story is about Wendy's initial recoiling from and later reconciliation with the idea of adulthood. And Pan isn't even the most compelling character in Neverland. That has to be Hook. I mean, come on, the guy is an incorrigible fop while at the same time being a ruthless buccaneer. That's a hard combo to pull off. But he does it, and with good form. Like Milton's Satan, he is the villain that steals the show. Both Pan and Hook are narcissistic egomaniacs, but Pan comes off like a arrogant brat at times, while Hook self-consciously and endearingly revels in his self-absorbed foppery.

An interesting complication is the muted sexual rivalry between Wendy and Tiger-lily, between Wendy and Tinkerbell and then between Wendy and the mermaids. Perhaps it is this constant unjustified female fawning on Pan that makes him seem like a brat sometimes. Hook is right. He crows like a rooster, but flies away like a "cowardly sparrow."

Pan's voice is, with sad irony, supplied by Bobby Driscoll, a child star that (like Macaulay Caulkin and unlike Drew Barrymore) never really made the transition into an adult acting career. After Peter-Pan, Disney terminated his 5-year contract two years early due to severe acne. As Driscoll's childhood acting career sharply declined, he turned to drugs. He died at the age of 31 of hepatitis and a heart attack in an abandoned tenement in Greenwich village. His body, found by two playing children, went unidentified and was buried in a mass grave on Hart Island, also known as Potter's Field. It was only later that he was identified, through fingerprints taken before burial.

The movie sports the voice talent of the incomparable Bill Thompson as Smee, but who is probably best known for his work as the voice of Droopy Dog. An interesting feature is that Disney preserved Barrie's original casting which called for Mr. Darling and Hook to be played by the same actor, by casting the same voice, that of Hans Conried.

The movie has been called anti-climactic, with Hook's defeat just kind of a fizzling out rather than a blaze of glory. But perhaps this was intentional. What better way for childhood to defeat the foppishness and over-seriousness of adulthood than to make adulthood a laughing stock? Hook's agonizing shout, "I'm a codfish," and the ridiculing laugh of the children is far more appropriate a climax than had Peter run him through.

This is a great story, and pretty decent movie version of it. One of Disney's classics for sure.


Cabeza said...

I think part of what makes Pan's character bland in the animated adaptation is the fact that Disney, well, Disney-fied him. Barrie's Pan was a much richer character, to be sure, but he was much more full of fault and folly (that was my Maxwellian sentence of the day). Peter was designed to be the incarnation of all the attributes of childhood--both good and bad. In many ways, Peter was a bad, bad, bad boy. For example: there is no magical property of Neverland that causes children not to age. Peter Pan is the only boy who never grows up. That means that the rest of the Lost Boys age and mature. When Peter suspects that they're getting too mature, he sends them to fight the pirates to thin them out. Horrible? Yes. Immature? Yes. Characteristic? For sure.

Disney probably wanted to shine more light on Pan's heroics and swashbuckling nature, and less on his petty childishness.

As for Indians on an island, I think it's a nice touch. Just like pirates, Indians (or cowboys and Indians, or some other variant) is a make-believe game that Western children have enjoyed playing for well over a century. If you're making up a story for young English boys to entertain them and stimulate their imaginations, Indians would probably be a must. Plains Indians? They're just the most easily recognizable. Perhaps they should have been depicted as Seminoles or something.

Finally, at the end of this long comment, I would like to defend Song of the South. Sure, its depiction of Uncle Remus and other black folk of the antebellum South is less than ideal and perpetuates stereotypes of speech, intelligence, and backwardness. But its overall message and story is based on acceptance and tolerance of racial diversity--a message that would have been progressive both in the time that the movie takes place and in the time it was released. So take it out of the "vault," Disney, and let us enjoy watching Br'er Rabbit hug a baby made of tar.

JKC said...

1. I need to read Barrie's play completely through. I have not, only synopses of it. Hearing more about the complexity of Pan makes me want to. I've wondered if perhaps Hook is really the one who's afraid of growing up. I mean, he hangs out in Neverland, he is endless pursuit of youth (Pan) and he has a deadly fear of the passage of time (clock in the croc). I also like the fact that Hook is a perfect gentleman--he attended Eton, and he loves reading the Lake poets.

2. Did Barrie have plains Indians in the play, or were they just generically "Indians"? I wondered if Disney did that as a result of the westward expanding empire attitude leftover from the 19th century and the whole border Indian fighting thing. Then again, the out-of-place-ness of the Indians may just be an indication of the absurdity of Neverland--to emphasize the fact that this is a dream world like the island in The Tempest. In the context of the play, it works.

What makes it objectionable is the fact that Indians are objectified--they are not real characters in the play, they're just fixtures. The pirates are fixtures, too, but Hook is given strong individual characterization. Besides, pirates (like cowboys, mermaids, or fairies) are not a racial group. I don't think the Indians invalidate the story, but when my kids watch Peter Pan, we'll also have a talk about why we don't say "redskins."

3. Song of the South is a Disney classic. The racism is there, but, as you say, it is not overt, but subconscious. And noting can get rid of the awesomeness of Zip-a-de-doo-dah. I'll buy it when it comes out of the vault.

Cabeza said...

I haven't actually read the play myself, but I read the book adaptation that Barrie wrote. It's a fast read and very good and entertaining, but also very sad. The message is sad, anyway--the inevitability of growing old and losing your childhood.

Hook is definitely an awesome character. He indeed purports himself as a gentleman and, in spite of being a ruthless pirate, is obsessed with the ideal of form. He never shook it after his Eton days. His demise in the book is better than the Disney film, too. Recognizing that he's been defeated, and rather than allowing himself to be run through, he offers Pan an irresistible temptation: he leans forward over the side of the ship and sticks his butt out. Pan kicks him off the side, and as Hook falls he lets out a final "Bad form!" Classic.

I agree with what you're saying about Disney's portrayal of the Indians. Very one-dimensional. In the book they're sort of fixtures too, except for Tiger Lilly. She's an actual character. I don't remember if Barrie had them living in teepees or wearing long headdresses. They may or may not have been intended to be Plains Indians.

The Shark said...

Tiger Lilly is hot.

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