Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Walt Disney, part XVII: A boy's best friend is his mother


PETER PAN

Essentially everything that could be wrong with a mid-century Disney film rolled into a single package, to die might actually have been a bigger adventure than it is (though given that is only 75 minutes, I quite manfully gutted it out).

1953
Directed by Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

Spoiler alert: he never grows up


Because of course it does, Disney's 1953 production of Peter Pan comes with the same damned repetitive story, which I've been obliged to repeat too often.  Walt wanted to do it right after Snow White; the failure of Pinocchio and Fantasia put it on hold; the company's post-war revival put it back on the table; and, finally, it was made.  I retell the tale only because I won't have to ever again.  Pan was the last of Disney's 1930s holdovers, or at least the last where it's possible to trace a line from Walt's initial enthusiasm to an actual product, in this case a process of 14 years.  Let's not tarry with that, except to note that when securing the rights in 1939, Walt and Roy had to deal with the Great Ormond Street Hospital, to whom J.M. Barrie had gifted his most famous works; the interesting part is that this required them to go head-to-head with their only competitors in the whole feature-film cartoon market, those other brothers, Max and Dave Fleischer.  The littler animators lost out.  Left with naught but the ideas they could scratch together themselves, this meant making Mr. Bug Goes To Town; and that was that for Fleischer Studios.  One wonders what might have become of them had they won the rights to Pan instead; though one further wonders, given the vastly inferior technique of Fleischer Studios' features, what might have become of Neverland.

Pan was also the last film to feature the work of the whole ensemble of Disney's seasoned animators, those whom Walt had once nicknamed the "Nine Old Men," back when they were still young—there would never be another film to bear all the names of Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Frank Thomas.  Meanwhile, it was Disney's first film in almost a decade to have broken their annual release schedule.  They'd made up for the gap year of 1944 with various non-canonical side projects, but after Pan those gaps only got wider, as Walt kept himself busy instead with newer obsessions, particularly his theme park.  Pan was therefore the first indicator of an era in which theatrical animation would become more like a byproduct of the company's existence, rather than the one and only reason for it.

With these facts in mind, it's fitting that Pan has sometimes been described as the real close of Disney's Golden Age.  It's a categorization that wouldn't be of much use to a historian, but it has a ring of truth to it nonetheless.  Perhaps it rings truer still when one considers the film itself, both in its choice of material and in its execution of it.  Taken together, they represent Disney's future in its most displeasing aspect, that is, as a purveyor of curios for children—the cartoon studio that could never grow up.


Naturally, it doesn't help that Peter Pan just plain sucks.  The calculated immaturity of its approach is indeed its single biggest reason for sucking, and it is—quite probably—the worst film to bear the imprimatur of "the Disney canon."  It is by far the worst that enjoys any degree of legend.

Even so, it isn't hard to pair Peter Pan with the film right before it, 1951's reasonably-okay Alice In Wonderland, which also sought to adapt a work of popular English literature.  (In that case it was Victorian, in this case Edwardian, though I cannot say I noticed a tremendous difference—in fact, they're more remarkable for their similarities, both being irony-tinged fantasies for children that seem to despise children as a class—but I am also no expert.)  Anyway, despite the grousings of contemporaries, I expect that Alice is about as good of a straight adaptation Carroll's novel as is likely, and it certainly emphasizes the piece's strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.  Pan, of course, is a little harder to pin down: does the cartoon adapt Barrie's 1904 play, which more-or-less came first, or does it adapt Peter and Wendy, Barrie's 1911 novel?

I suppose it must be the play—and not even all of it—and that is its original sin.  The play, so far as I can tell, like both this film and 1924's also-terrible live-action Peter Pan before it, is satisfied to do virtually nothing but deliver the trifling contents of Barrie's fantasy world, the Neverland.  The novel, meanwhile, is something else altogether.  It sharpens everything that's already implicit within the play about what a tragedy it is to grow up, by defining it against the even greater tragedy, of never growing up.  This is not to be found in the novel's plot, which tracks faithfully to the play (though Disney's Pan makes many deviations from the play, some well-judged, some quite ill-considered, yet somehow retains all of the stupidest parts).  Rather, when it comes to the book's value, it's in its attitude.


It's an adult attitude, which allows it to be superior in innumerable small ways: the ability of the narrator to make asides and explanations, which craft the Neverland as a fantasy realm fuller and scarier than any visual adaptation has managed, while also making it more-or-less explicit that it is composed of children's dreamstuff; the interiority it offers to at least one character, namely Hook, which rounds him as both a villain and an icon; the sarcasm it deploys toward its cast of idiot children (it only now occurrs to me the name "Darling" is itself a mean-spirited pun); the way it makes it very clear that it views its very incarnation of childhood, Peter Pan, with the greatest suspicion of all, as a creature scarcely human; and it's especially in the way the novel makes plainer the story's (admittedly blatant-enough) symbolic scheme, of an eternal youth set against an aging pirate who is chased from sea to sea by a crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly.

Above all, then, the thing is soaked through with mortality: the knowledge that Peter was inspired by Barrie's dead brother, and more specifically by the silver lining his mother had found in the darkness of her grief—that, at least, he would never have to grow up—seems like the key to understanding Barrie's creation.  But it's rather ingenious anyway, a sort of satire of kid's literature before the genre had coalesced.  Ironically, then, prose is maybe the only medium where Peter Pan can truly fly.  Or so it would seem for any audience over the age of six, because even though the evidence of over a century's worth of performances decisively proves me wrong, Pan's actual plot is almost deliberately devoid of meaning.


It is somehow even moreso in the Disney version, though this is predominantly a matter of tone.  In any event, Disney's Peter Pan concerns itself with the same basic plot, that of Wendy Darling (Kathryn Beaumont), a girl on the cusp of adolescence, whom we find on what should be her last night in her nursery with her two younger brothers, John (Paul Collins) and Michael (Tommy Luske).  As with many versions of Pan, it takes somewhere between slightly and painfully too long to get going, and, despite it being a terrible idea on its face, it slavishly translates the dumbest thing in either the play or the book, Nana the Dog, who has served as the children's apparently-intelligent nursemaid in the absence of a paid servant, hence preventing Barrie and many of his adapters from ever establishing a baseline reality from which their high-flying fantasy nonsense could deviate.  (Though it could be worse: check out that 1924 live-action adaptation some time.)  Well, dumb or not, the Disney film positively wallows in Nana's anthropomorphic characteristics, as well as in father George Darling's (Hans Conreid's) enervating slapstick rendition of an emasculated patriarch's rage.  This goes on for a while, until eventually he and wife Mary (Heather Angel) leave for a party.  And this is where Peter (Bobby Driscoll, history's first male Pan) comes in, accompanied by a certain Tinkerbell (silent, but life-referenced with Margaret Kerry, from whom Tink's chief animator Marc Davis drew much of the fairy's personality).

There to reclaim his shadow, which he lost to Nana the previous night, Peter wakens Wendy, who rather falls in love.  Peter, for his part, invites the smitten womanchild to be his mother; ain't that always the way?  (Underlining what small, barely-even-conscious children this Pan must be for, the Disney version even dispenses with the thimble bit.)  Well, taking whatever scraps of affection she can get, Wendy and her largely-superfluous brothers are taught to fly, and taken to Neverland.  Upon arriving, they and Peter's Lost Boys fall immediately into conflict with dangerous Native American Stereotypes, who still prove to be much nicer than Neverland's pirates, led by one Capt. Jas. Hook (Conreid again, fulfilling the tradition that the father also play the antagonist, though, fascinatingly, Barrie initially wanted it to be the actress who played Mary Darling, in a cross-dressing role counterpoised with Peter's).

Right until the final fifteen minutes, however, Disney's Pan is mainly the tale of how Wendy was taken on the world's worst first date by a new boyfriend too popular and mysterious to even begin to think of being nice.  And so is she subjected to not only Peter's personal dickishness, but also to a gauntlet of sexual jealousies from every other woman in his life, from the outright-murderous Tinkerbell (drawn as a full-grown adult with the kind of child-bearing hips the film spends a good sixty seconds dwelling upon), to a clutch of almost-as-murderous (and also post-pubescent) mermaids, to the Native princess Tiger Lily, who, in fairness, is at least Peter's (apparent) age.

This minor thread of Barrie's seems to be the angle that Disney's storymen found for their Peter Pan, having correctly ascertained that a straight adaptation of the play would just be a bunch of horsing around, especially considering the airy frivolity that somebody (I suppose Walt) had imposed upon them, ruling out much engagement with Barrie's inherent nastiness.  There is something potentially worthy in this approach, which centers Wendy more than either play or novel: the basic arc of Disney's Pan is Wendy learning by stages that Peter is a violent, fickle scumbag, and therefore that never growing up must be an awful thing if that's all you ever become.  He's her first love, and like all first loves, he's crap.  The problem is this: no matter how perfectly clearly this is enunciated throughout the middle act, Wendy's realization simply never happens, because somebody (again, I suppose Walt) found himself so taken with Peter's swashbuckling swagger that the film seems entirely incapable of recognizing how supremely obnoxious all us Hooks out in the audience are likely to find him.  By the time the finale rolls around, when the Darlings and the Lost Boys are captured, Wendy announces with beatific certitude and no evidence that Peter will surely save them—because nobody ever really bothered enforcing a narrative on any of this, just as they had not with Alice In Wonderland.  It's somehow nearly the equal to that film in its rampant discontinuity (notably when the Natives just straight-up vanish, which they don't in the source), and if it plays any more consistently here, it's solely because Barrie's story retains the ineradicable dramatic spine of warfare between archnemeses.

Regardless of noble intention, the result of these efforts to make Wendy a proper heroine is just one of the most disastrously clumsy pieces of storytelling Walt ever put his name to, and, infamously, an appallingly offensive one.  An exception to Disney's usual practice of self-censorship, Pan exists today just as it did in 1953, but of course it has no other real option: if you tried to cut the racism and sexism out of this Disney film, the movie would be twenty minutes long.  We could focus our ire on the musical number, "What Made the Red Man Red?"—to hazard a guess, genocide, though movies like Peter Pan probably raised his temperature even further—but it's served as a lightning rod for too long, protecting everything else.  You see,  Pan is chock full of equivalent outrages, from Hook's own vile bigotries to a misogynistic caricature of brainless sexpot femininity who would, in time, supersede Mickey and Jiminy as Disney's preeminent corporate mascot.


It is sometimes possible to enjoy movies despite their problematic content, though maybe this is less the case with mid-century Disney: it tends to make up a non-trivial portion of what they thought of as comedy.  In Pan's case, this somehow makes it worse than Barrie's baked-in racism, which at least permitted his "Piccaninnies" the dignity of being serious threats and fearsome allies.  But this Pan, obviously, is not even slightly interested in serious threats, nor in anyone's dignity—least of all James Hook's.  And this is where Pan fails to be any kind of fun at all: where the vicious, complex, self-loathing reiver of Barrie's novel is allowed to become, basically, a down-market Wile E. Coyote—especially in an eyebrow-raising "walking on air till he looks down" bit—with Peter serving as his Roadrunner.  Which of course already misunderstands why Roadrunner cartoons are funny: the bird's the villain.  We may not root for Peter, but we're certainly supposed to, and what we get is a sloppy, inept, notionally-comic figure to oppose him, a grown man who is routinely actively bullied (to tears) by a child, though, in fairness, Peter does vastly outmatch him—Peter can fly, is much faster, and humiliates him further by refusing to do swordplay with a sword, preferring a tiny little dagger (and if you're into deconstructing phallic imagery, go for it).  The crocodile, the one thing Barrie's brave and not-wholly-unheroic Hook was afraid of, is just another cruelty here, not a metaphor.  Pan's lowest moment may come in its version of the play's most famous: where the play broke the fourth wall by asking its audience to clap for Tinkerbell's resurrection (another scene found nowhere here despite its essentiality), Disney's Pan breaks the fourth wall by having the crocodile mug goofily for the camera.  Oh, how hilarious Pan thinks it is.  Frank Thomas led the animation on Hook, which seems right: there's much of the Queen of Hearts in him (sadly, not a jot of Lady Tremaine).  And Conreid leans into the feeblest, mewlingest aspects of this Hook, which is probably even the right decision; he is, at least, theoretically funny in his empty bluster, though I don't believe I laughed once.  As for Ollie Johnston's Smee, fuck Smee.

With Wendy's arc savagely derailed, and without any effective Hook, Pan operates wholly in the absence of honestly-felt stakes—even the nominal stakes seem like the invention of cynical adults who cannot, for a moment, believe in them—and without anything else to offer, Pan becomes a pointless, 75-minute waste of life.  It does manage, at least, to be pretty; but that's almost a given, since it was a rare day indeed for this studio's fundamental craft to have escaped it.  (Though even then, some must've gotten away: for probably the nicest thing to be said about Pan's Indians is that Ward Kimball's racist caricatures are also really lazy.)

Amongst its other "lasts," it was the final film for which designer Mary Blair had significant control.  After 1953, she went into business for herself; she would have further collaborations with Walt, but only for the theme park.  (So you can see how much he liked her—when he asked her to come back, he put her on something he considered important.)  Her last go-round is not remotely her best, but Pan remains nice to look at, the colorful simplicity of its backgrounds matching well enough with the childish story it wants to tell.


The visual implementation of the characters often works extraordinarily well, too, from the quotidian likeability of the Darlings to the justly-praised designs of Tinkerbell and Hook.  Leaving aside any baggage, Tink is a fabulous pantomime character, and (as often happens in Disney when they think no one will notice) she embodies the happiness of male animators who enjoy nothing more than drawing barely-clad women.  Hook, on the other hand (hm), despite being a boring villain, remains the definitive rendition of the character by way of his scarlet accoutrements and mustachioed sneering alone.  Thomas's creation has been influential enough that four decades later, no less a figure than Steven Spielberg couldn't help but plagiarize it.  Meanwhile, the depiction of flight justifies Walt's belief that live-action just couldn't cut it for Pan, from an utterly lovely multiplane shot of London as seen through a cover of clouds to the credible way that Peter incorporates his defiance of gravity into his combat style.  This power of flight, granted jointly by Tink and effects animation chief Joshua Meador with their fairy dust, ate up a non-trivial amount of Pan's budget, but the golden shimmering effect is awfully neat in its way, at least until the denouement subjects Hook's ship (a background painting, mind you) to the same procedure, and the animated seams of a cost-saving framerate become startlingly visible.

Which brings us back around to the problems, and sometimes Pan disappoints even on the shallowest levels.  For starters, there's something deeply unsatisfactory about the studio that perfected shadow animation spending less screentime on Peter's living shadow than it does on Tink's butt.  Likewise, Peter's green tunic may be as iconic as anything else in this film, balancing well against Wendy's soft blue and Hook's flamboyant, slightly-sickly red. But it's also a surrender to the dismal reality of a live-action tradition—that a boy clad in leaves and dirt would be improbable for a costume designer to produce—in other words, a constraint this animated film never had any need to recognize in the first place. It demonstrates the ways that Disney had scaled back its ambitions.  And since it's also possible Walt thought it would be gross, this could be just as good an explanation; because Pan, after all, is a feature-length exercise in missing the point.

Which is the impression Peter Pan leaves me with.  It misses Barrie's point.  Astoundingly, it misses its own point.  It misses any possible point, even the lo-fi point of simply being exciting.  And while it's possible that some level of visual splendor might have saved it, what's here isn't even all that splendid.  I say again: it sucks.

Score: 2/10

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