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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Peter Pan

Title: Peter Pan

Year of Release: 1953

Date Viewed: November 28th, 2010

MPAA Rating: G

Sunday the 28th was an unusual day. In the morning, I caught up with the latest Hawaii Five-O episodes. Then I treated myself to James Cameron's Aliens in the afternoon. After dinner, there came primetime entertainment. A new episode of Family Guy, a new episode of The Walking Dead and then finally Disney's Peter Pan. It was like the couch potato's equivalent of hitting the cycle.

Peter Pan was and still remains one of my favorite animated Disney films, even if it's not necessarily the best one. Its short running time was an encouraging factor in the decision to give it a watch. I wasn't likely to fall asleep before the end. Although my perception has changed tune over the years, the fun factor has never faded. It's a defining product for the Walt Disney company that demonstrates the best and the worst they have to offer.

For those that may be unfamiliar with the Peter Pan story.....well first off, I feel sorry for you. But here's a brief synopsis so you can see what you've been missing and so I won't waste too much time with the already informed.

There's a place called Neverland where nobody ever grows up. Neverland's forever young resident hero Peter Pan spends his time flying around and fighting pirates. One day, he takes a group of London kids to Neverland so that they won't have to grow up. They fight pirates and have a blast. Then the siblings return to London because they realize life is more meaningful there.

Brief enough? Clear enough? Yes? Good. On we go!

Through countless adaptations of books, stage and screen, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan story has delighted generations of children around the world. It is presented here in its most innocent form. Although the Disney studio has shown that it's not afraid to explore the dark nature of life, this offering is solely for laughs. Serious drama is nowhere to be found. Perilous situations exist only as set-ups for various confrontations. There is nothing grander at stake than just the standard "good versus evil."

Looking back at this movie as a more seasoned film buff, the material gave me some moments of shock that were never experienced during childhood. The movie is a product of its era, during a time when entertainment was much less politically correct. Stereotypical Native Americans with deep voices and stiff speech patterns only have two things on their minds; war and smoking. The pirates like to drink rum. (Today, the MPAA would penalize for that.) And of course, it wouldn't be the 1950's without a little sexism. Wendy is slower than all the boys, is horrified about everything and talks way too much; an attribute she naively admits to.

Here's another thing that I didn't realize at first. There are almost no likable characters. Tinkerbelle and Captain Hook are the only necessary antagonists. The rest grate on my nerves in different ways. Peter Pan for instance is like that guy in high school that all the nerds hate. The guy that is more athletic than you and enjoys showing off. The guy that's involved in every extracurricular activity and still manages to be a straight-A student. The guy that dates the most gorgeous girl in school. You get the idea. He has it all and we want it too. His runaway orphan followers look to him as their mentor, but cower in the face of danger. Just like the people that hang around that high school jock. Although it's not a far stretch from J.M. Barrie's vision, even Walt Disney himself has expressed remorse over Peter Pan's portrayal.

Enough bitterness. On to the good stuff.

There is one standout contribution to the movie that makes it a winner for me. Hans Conried's performance as Captain Hook. Virtually every line of dialog that came out of his mouth left me in stitches because of his over-the-top delivery. He must have been bouncing off the walls of the recording booth. Conried's Hook belongs in the same club with Chris Farley and Denzel Washington as the people that can make me laugh by acting angry. Conried also voices Wendy's father with equally amusing melodrama, continuing the long-running tradition of casting the same actor in both roles.

The other best moments of entertainment come from the battle scenes. They follow the Looney Tunes rules of physics. Someone can walk off the edge of a cliff but not actually fall until he realizes he's in danger. Someone with a six inch dagger has an equal chance against someone with a longsword, free of risk from having a limb sliced off. But it's a cartoon, right? Why should we be surprised? Well, if you look closely enough, most other Disney animated movies tended to get serious by the third act. Those climatic chapters came with more realistic conflict and action. This movie's all-out comedic approach is welcome, albeit a bit puzzling when you look at the comparisons.

The opening musical numbers are quiet and effective in soothing you into the wondrous imagination of Neverland. The middle numbers are more playful and are prone to getting implanted in your brain for weeks on end. The last few songs are a little less inspired, but mercifully kept short to allow the final conflict to be drawn out longer.

How delightful it was to discover that Disney's Peter Pan is still fun to watch after fifty-seven years of existence. Crafting the villains to be more entertaining than the heroes helps the movie stand out amongst the animation studio's other projects. Advocates of social progress may be horrified at how certain characters are presented. But they do not harm the moments of sheer joy that come with remembering what it was like to have a child's imagination; an effect that appears in every telling of J.M. Barrie's story.

Rating: 7

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