I’m all for slaying Disney sacred mice if they have it coming. The animated classics aren’t impervious to criticism, and the more earnest they are, the closer they tend to skirt the territory of the dangerously starchy: bland, even. It’s very easy to be left looking elsewhere for vibrancy – to the sidekicks or the villains – as the lead characters fail to cut it in the longevity stakes. With Peter Pan, I think the problem is perhaps a slightly different one, that the piecemeal narrative doesn’t really lend itself to a traditional movie structure, even in as relatively slim-line form as this.
There isn’t much momentum or internal tension to the tale, which means it gets along on incidental pleasures for the most part (that Peter’s shadow makes it in here, a better concept than it is enacted, shows how lacking it is in dynamism). Watching Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske and Jack Kinney’s take following the PJ Hogan Peter Pan, both of which hit many of the same marks, it’s even more evident that, without a strong driving force, the tale too easily splutters in fits and starts. Which probably works like gangbusters on stage, where audience interaction is everything, but here you’re left with longueurs.
Not untypically, this Peter really isn’t terribly interesting, notable mainly for his ever-youthful perkiness and a vaguely feral look (with Vulcan ears and highly becoming buck teeth), which may be why Michael Jackson, who wasn’t terribly interesting either, cosmetic inclinations aside, liked him so much. The inability to grow up isn’t really underlined as a failing, so there isn’t much to motivate Peter beyond his being unswervingly cocky and his feud with Hook. He’s more defined by, and projected upon, by others; Wendy and Tinkerbell are besotted with him, Hook needs his foe.
Also veering towards the bland are the songs, even the best known, “He can fly”. Wendy is impossibly cut-glass, although not so much that Tinkerbell evokes sympathy in her quest to put an end to the interloper for Peter’s affections. The fairy, a spiteful little wench, is perhaps not modelled after Monroe, but it’s easy to understand the rumour, as the animators definitely fixated on her arse; there’s a smattering of mildly risqué moments in the mix, such as topless mermaids of indeterminate age, Smee shaving a bird’s butt, and children smoking.
Michael is the typical Disney moppet (see also the baby elephant in The Jungle Book) and the Lost Boys for some reason wear animal suit pyjamas. The decision not to have them return to the real world at the end of this version further underlines the inconsequence (and therefore the absence of sadness) of Peter swearing off growing up. While Wendy recognises the need to move on (and isn’t hopelessly smitten with Peter), there’s no real push back in terms of his choice.
And, while the Native American “Indians” interlude is undoubtedly not the kind of thing you’d want to be putting in your Disney movie today, its bigger crime is that it’s incredibly dull, the kind of passage where, if you go and make a cup of tea, you’ll only improve your perception of the picture.
What really work, and lift the picture considerably, are the larger-than-life elements. Hans Conried provides marvellous stylings as both George Darling and Captain Hook, the different visual approaches to the characters allowing him a subtler variation on the tradition of the same actor playing both parts. As the former, he offers the classic double-taking disbeliever in fantasy, despite happily going along with appointing a dog as the children’s nanny.
Of which, if Barrie hadn’t included such a character, Disney would have been compelled to invent her. Her waving goodbye as George drags her down the stairs is delightful, as is George’s reluctant, sort-of apology (“And sooner or later, Nana, people have to grow up”). There’s excellent comic timing from the assorted animators too, such as in the sequence where George finds chalk all over his shirt front.
Hook is deliriously good fun, unrepentantly caddish in a manner that would later make Shere Khan so perfect. “Scurvy brat” is the perfect insult from an adult intolerant of infants, and equipped with a generally superior tone (“Ah, yes, jealous females can be tricked into anything”), and the offer of a free tattoo to anyone who will sign up to his crew, Hook is peerless. Smee’s a bit too much of an eighth dwarf to be really winning, but like nana, the crocodile is an ideal complement to Hook, nursing infectious joie de vivre over its mission.
For all that the picture inoculates itself against the darker or more resonant elements of the Barrie play (the kids’ worried parents aren’t even aware that they are gone), it also institutes improvements all its own on occasion. The framing device is marvellously, potently cyclical, as we are told at the opening “All this has happened before, and it will happen again”, and at the end we hear George, witnessing Peter’s cloud ship, say he saw it before, “a long time ago, when I was very young”.
It’s easy to see why the Disney picture is the best-loved big screen Peter Pan, for all that it isn’t quite an unalloyed masterpiece (Disney was reportedly discontent with it, because he didn’t think Peter was likable enough, which is finding fault in the wrong areas if ever there was). There are certain elements that naturally lend themselves to animation over the live arena, and the more cartoonish those are, the better the four directors deliver. But in all versions I’ve seen, the essential conundrum yet to be solved, and it’s by no means confined to Barrie, is how to make the protagonists – and their goals – as engaging as the villains.