11 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: WHEN YOU LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND

When the Disney Studios released its 14th animated feature, Peter Pan, in 1953, it was two years since their most recent full-length project, Alice in Wonderland. This was the first time that a full calendar year went by without a new Disney feature since 1945. Hold on to this fact, because it's going to be important later.

Walt Disney first attempted to get his hands on the film rights to J.M Barrie's Edwardian children's play in the mid-1930s; one assumes that at the time it was meant to be the follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because pretty much everything else was. The problem being, the rights to Peter Pan resided with the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, which jealously guarded the material - and why shouldn't they? One assumes that having worldwide control of such a popular story was quite a good position for children's healthcare organisation to find itself in. Eventually, Disney acquired the rights in 1939, with the intention of making Peter Pan the film to follow Bambi, just then entering production (this was before Dumbo had been put on the fast track; indeed, maybe before it had been selected as a Disney feature subject at all). Of course, World War II made the notion of any film following Bambi a flimsy proposition, and with only some story work and character designs having been begun, Peter Pan was shelved.

It was revived in 1949, when the impending release of Cinderella had rejuvenated the animation studio, and the production of Alice in Wonderland hadn't yet descended into abject misery. I cannot say how much of the 1939 work was dusted off, and how much was begun fresh; my suspicion is that most of what ended up onscreen dated from the post-war years, however, for there is an unquestionable post-Cinderella look to the characters and sets in the finished Peter Pan. We certainly do know that the story work was mostly scrapped; Walt had become concerned that excessive fidelity to the play would have resulted in a film much darker than he wanted to make, and so he demanded a great many changes chief among them that Captain Hook, the villainous pirate, should be kept alive at the end (he had come to the conclusion, quite correctly, that the animated Hook was far more appealing than the stage Hook, and the audience would like him far too much to enjoy seeing him die). All of this theoretically had to be agreed to by Great Ormond Street Hospital; I have no idea what kind of deal Walt had managed to strike with that organisation, but it is quite undeniable that Peter Pan ended up much closer to its source material than had Alice and Wonderland, Bambi, or Pinocchio.

The survive-at-all-costs mentality that had driven the production of the package films in the 1940s may have vanished by the time this film was deep into animation (by which time Cinderella had saved Walt Disney Productions from immediate financial danger, and within a few years money would entirely cease to be a concern for the company), but it continues the early Silver Age tradition of focusing above all on being entertaining and friendly: Alice in Wonderland may have indeed been a rather unsupportably ambitious project, but the films immediately preceding and following it were much simpler in all respects. Peter Pan is one of the few Disney movies that I remember enjoying a great deal as a child that gives me a great deal less pleasure as I grow older: while the Golden Age films continue to dazzle with their emotional density and visual splendor, Peter Pan, like its protagonist, doesn't grow up: it is absolutely a "family movie", the kind that parents go to because they know their kids will like it, and it certainly provides a fair amount of entertainment to anyone who goes in without an undue amount of cynicism. But for all that, it is not an especially mature film, probably the most "kiddie movie" of all the 1950s Disney features. When you stare at it for a while, trying to suss out what it all means, not everything that you find is altogether satisfying.

The story ought to be familiar to anyone who grew up around English-language literature, but I'll quickly recap: there are three children in the Darling family, from youngest to eldest Michael (Tommy Luske, son of the movie's co-director Hamilton Luske), John (Paul Collins, who continues to act in bit parts to this day), and Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Disney's Alice, in the last film of her absurdly brief career). Wendy delights her brothers with stories of an adventurous boy named Peter Pan, who lives in Never Land and doesn't grow up. Their father George (Hans Conried) is tired of his nearly-pubescent daughter continuing to entertain childish notions like Peter Pan, and after a series of stupid accents and childish play drive his temper to the boiling point, he declares that this shall be Wendy's very last night in the Darling nursery.

As chance would have it, Peter Pan himself (Bobby Driscoll, one of Disney's favorite child stars before he became a young adult and was driven vaguely crazy by his fame; this was the first time in history that Peter was played by a male actor) has come by to listen to Wendy's story that night, and when he learns that she is going to grow up the next day, he takes the three Darlings with him to Never Land. There, they meet the famed Lost Boys, and experience a spate of adventures involving the island's mermaids, Indians, and of course, the local pirates, led by Captain Hook (Conried again, fulfilling the wise tradition that the same actor play the pirate and the father), who wants to revenge himself upon Peter for cutting off his hand and feeding it to a ravenous saltwater crocodile.

Despite the title, and despite Peter's significant prominence as a point of reference for anglophone audiences, Peter Pan is actually first and above all the story of Wendy Darling, at least in Disney's telling (I haven't read the play, or Barrie's own novel adaptation, in a great many years, and my memory of it is somewhat fuzzy). The primary dramatic conflict is certainly not between Peter and Hook - we are watching what is clearly defined as only the final stage in a months or even years-long contest between them - but between Wendy's desire to stay young and innocent, and her increasing awareness of what it means to be adult. Peter is the prime mover of the action, the individual who represents to Wendy, just as much as he does to several generations of adults, the desire to stay a child in perpetuity; it is as a result of coming into contact with this figure of her fantasies that Wendy is directly confronted with the meaning of her claimed desire to never grow up, and he ultimately proves to her that the right thing to do is to leave Never Land and accept responsibility and maturity. Because Wendy learns to her disappointment - and re-watching the film for the first time in a good five years, I learned to my shock - that Peter, the boy who won't ever grow up, is pretty much a dick.

I don't know how I managed to avoid noticing this before, because it's all over the place: in his first meeting with Wendy, in the Darling nursery, he acts with a complete dearth of social grace, flatly proclaiming that "girls talk to much", and ignoring his dearest friend Tinkerbell the instant that he has somebody new to talk to. On Never Land, he repeatedly laughs at Wendy's misfortunes, such as when she is insulted and attacked by the mermaids who fawn after Peter's attention - which he is already happy to give, leaving Wendy stranded and ignored on a tiny outcropping of rock. In the sequence where he rescues Princess Tiger Lily from Hook, he is so pleased with his skill at outsmarting the pirate that he completely forgets that the princess is drowning until Wendy reminds him. The breaking point is when he goes from being merely rude to actively arousing Wendy's jealousy, flirting and dancing with Tiger Lily at a celebratory bonfire.

In essence, Peter does not only represent the free spirit and joyful will of an eternal child, he also represents childhood's narcissism and solipsism. To Wendy, who is brought to Never Land to be the mother (not a girlfriend, not a female Lost Boy, but the mother), Peter's irresponsibility is as irritating as it is charming, and as a result of her experiences, she learns that her father isn't quite the ogre she assumed. We in the audience are a step ahead of her, since we got to watch as he took the family's St. Bernard Nana outside, having decreed that the children do not need a dog for a nursemaid any longer. To the Darlings, this is a cruel, capricious act of a tyrant, but as George ties the dog up, he apologises to her, with great sincerity and clear regret. He is a practical and unimaginative man, but he is at heart a good man, and Wendy's arc through the film is to learn this fact, as she prepares to join him in being essentially good, at the cost of putting away childish things.

Sort of.

Here's where things start to get muddled, and the evident "kid's movie" mentality of Peter Pan gets in the way of its theme. See, fighting pirates is Fun! So is flirting with mermaids, and hunting Indians, and all the other things that mark Peter's irresponsibility. And, knowing that the main draw for the juvenile audience is that escape into a world of play and adventure and fantasy, the filmmakers managed to romanticise Peter in a manner that jars with his treatment elsewhere in the film. Tied to a mast in the pirate ship, Wendy - who has spent the last day learning just how much Peter can't be trusted for anything - confidently asserts that he will rush in to be a hero. Which, of course, he does. But even before that point, Wendy has a sort of puppydog eagerness to be by Peter all the time, and no matter how many times he acts indifferent to her, she always rebounds immediately.

One could also suggest that the film's denouement works rather badly against the rest of it: George makes amends for his actions by permitting Nana back in the house, and permitting Wendy to stay in the nursery as long as she will. Thus, all of her apparent growth and acceptance of her own maturity is set to naught; she does get her own version of Never Land after all, and while we can understand that some day she will move out of the nursery, there is no reality for this character after the end of the film - and at the end of the film, she has been allowed to abandon her new-found knowledge of adult responsibility.

How this fits together thematically, we're left to work out for ourselves. And heaven help the viewer who managed to catch the subdued but not entirely eradicated hints of Wendy's impending sexuality! This is still a Disney film, of course, without nearly as much emphasis on childhood romance as the 2003 live-action film by Universal, but hints are scattered all throughout that Wendy is old enough that those certain feelings are beginning to make themselves felt. Unlike in the play, she offers to kiss Peter, there's none of this thimble nonsense: she leans right over to plant one on his lips. The rivalry between Wendy and Tinkerbell is explicitly sexual in nature - given the limitations of a mute pixie and family-film mores. And it's striking, if you want to see it, how clearly the mermaid's interest in Peter is sexually-motivated: they flirt and giggle like teenagers, threatening Wendy with their maturity - they are the only women in the film besides Mrs. Darling who plainly have full breasts - and Wendy's jealousy of them is, like her jealousy of Tiger Lily, plainly not just offense that she's not getting attention from her idol. I suggest, though, that you notice absolutely none of this if you want your viewing of Peter Pan to be happy and untroubled; for Disney's treatment of this material is to blithely ignore it, because isn't it SO GREAT that Wendy gets to keep sleeping in the same room as her younger brothers?

That said, Peter Pan works, despite my concerns about how it works. It is without doubt a more fun film to watch than Cinderella, at least, and more deserving of classic status. It's arguably the most cartoonish of the non-package Disney features made up to that point: broad humor based in the gross violation of physical laws, coupled with caricatured character design that's made up of fairly simple lines and a general lack of detail. None of this bothers me very much, because for the most part it works: whatever reservations I may have about the merits of Peter Pan the character, he is certainly a fine example of an animated boy adventurer, and his swashbuckling is genuinely entertaining - if it was not, I don't suppose I'd have gone on for so long about how problematic it is.

I think the simplicity of the movie's design and animation is at least partially a reaction to the strain of making Alice in Wonderland. That film was the most exploratory thing the studio had released in nine years, and everybody hated the experience of working on it. Thus with Peter Pan, everything is scaled back to the approximate level of detail of a cartoon short - and let us not forget that Disney's cartoon shorts were of significantly higher production quality than e.g. Warner's Looney Tunes, whatever we might say about their relative value as cinema. So I'm not trying to slight Peter Pan. But can anyone argue in faith that the colorful, often very exciting backgrounds reflect the same passion for detail seen in Cinderella? or the awareness of graphic design and art history seen in Alice in Wonderland? I would certainly not expect so. Though the studio was congenitally incapable of producing flat-out simplistic backgrounds during this phase of its existence, Peter Pan comes closer than any other Silver Age feature. They work for the film, mind you - the film simply does not require rich, painterly backgrounds because it is at heart a boys' own adventure story, and requires only illustrations, not the creation of a world unto itself. That those illustrations are done very well, by the same team that did the design work in the previous two films, does not change the limited goal they were designed for.

This "childhood adventure" mentality takes the film to some varied places: the gorgeous flight over London (animated by Eric Larson, one of the most unsung of the Nine Old Men), with the song "You Can Fly" trilling up and down on the soundtrack (it is the best song in the film, although the instrumental score in this film is arguably better than any of the numbers; a rarity in Disney, though not as much in the Silver Age, when the songs were generally not of tremendously high quality); the slapsticky fun of the final swordfight between Peter and Hook; and in one jaw-dropping moment, to the most absurdly racist scene I am aware of in all of Disney. Set in an Indian camp - to call the characters Native Americans would be a lie and an insult - the song and dance number "What Makes the Red Man Red" gives me my best chance yet to bitch about the hypocrisy of keeping Song of the South off DVD; I haven't seen it since I was very tiny, but I am almost completely certain that it has nothing even a quarter as hypnotically offensive as this song - unless the history books lie, and SotS includes a raucous bit titled "Yassuh, I Sho' Does Love Watermelon," I can't imagine what in that film could possibly even come within swiping distance. Of course, playful racism against the indigenous people of the Americas was part of the cultural fabric of being a little white boy in England and the U.S. into the '60s at least; but that doesn't make this sequence and easier to watch. The most god-damned thing, though, is how much fun it is anyway, thanks mostly to the great work of animator Ward Kimball in directing the chief. A quintessential Kimball creation that bears no similarity to actual human beings, the chief is a marvelous exaggeration, and would be one of Disney's great comic creations in the 1950s, if not for the whole arch-racist thing.

As far as the animation goes, I side with the consensus of history that the outstanding character of the film, in all respects, is Captain Hook: beginning with Hans Conried's glorious voice performance (in a very lengthy career, his only other similarly great work was as Dudley Do-Right's nemesis, Snidely Whiplash) of the best-written character in the script, and completed by Frank Thomas's direction of the character, a stunning achievement of comic villain that puts Thomas's Queen of Hearts to shame. Vocally and visually, Hook is a magnificent melodramatic bad guy, all broad gestures and facial mugging; as a cartoon punching-bag, he is subject to any number of physical indignities, which he takes with the resilience of a Bugs Bunny antagonist. Thomas was by this point perhaps the finest animator of exaggerated comic behavior in Disney's stable of artists, and Captain Hook remained, I think, his best work in this direction; though his treatment of Cinderella's stepmother is otherwise his most technically accomplished character. She is so limited and still, though, while Hook exhibits the full range of tricks for creating movement and establishing the physical reality of a character that Thomas had learned and developed in his time with the studio.

Since Thomas has in later years been so linked with Ollie Johnston, it is well that Johnston's contribution to Peter Pan was Hook's cheerful, inept right hand man, Smee (vocally performed by Bill Thompson). Smee is even more of a cartoon comic type than his boss: so round and squashy that he seems likely to roll or bounce from place to place than walk, but he is nevertheless treated by his animators with respect, given plenty of business that keeps him constantly moving and flouncing in a manner not drawn from life at all; but he is still a believable presence, and his sheer goofiness is a fine counterpoint to Hook's operatic silliness.

The third great character, though given less time onscreen than you likely remember, is the pixie Tinkerbell, the second of Marc Davis's exemplary female characters. Performed by actress Margaret Kerry in live-action reference footage, (apparently much of her personality came from Kerry's work, particularly in the famous mirror scene), Tinkerbell is a great pantomime character, whose range of emotions are a perfect match for Davis's noted skill with facial animation. Her silent expressions give her more depth than Peter has in the whole movie, and the degree to which she feels annoyance and betrayal and self-satisfaction - thereby driving the movie towards its climax - is something truly special, the kind of perfect hand-drawn acting that justifies the whole concept of animation.

Which is something that becomes rather important in discussing Peter Pan, for the film came out at a very strange moment in Disney's history. You will recall that I mentioned that it came after a one-year gap, the first in seven years. I don't know that this was calculated or deliberate, but it fits into the meta-narrative of Disney in 1953 rather well: for that was the year when Disney animation very abruptly became a boutique product, rather than the meat and potatoes of the company's output. This trend had been in the offing since Song of the South, but it was really kick-started by the 1950 release of Treasure Island, the studio's first all live-action feature. Coupled with the ongoing True Life Adventures documentary series - which witnessed its first feature-length work, The Living Desert, in 1953 - it was evident that live-action was the future of Walt Disney Productions, though the true onslaught wouldn't begin until 1955.

In the meantime, theatrical animated shorts began to peter out. 1953 saw the last Mickey and Goofy shorts released until 1983 and 1961, respectively; only Donald kept getting starring roles of the main characters. There were still occasional one-off shorts, like 1953's "Ben and Me", but these became quite rare after this time as well. Only on the television anthology series first called Disneyland did short-form Disney animation really thrive. Outside of that - and for a reason I can't explain, that doesn't seem to count - Disney animation became more of a special thing after 1953, not the company's raison d'être, like it had been in the '30s and '40s when they cranked out shorts by the handful. Now, seeing a Disney cartoon in a theater was an event, and the end of the one-a-year feature schedule seems to me to set up that shift.

It was the end of an era, altogether: two of the finest artists in the studio, Ward Kimball and Mary Blair, never worked on an animated feature after this (Blair went to the theme parks, Kimball was given leave to pursue various educational and other peculiar one-offs, beginning with the masterpiece "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom", returning for some of the live-action/animation hybrids). This was the last film to feature the work of all of the Nine Old Men - the animators who established most of the rules that governed Disney animation, and by extension just about all American character animation, ever after. Walt himself began to lose interest in the animation department at an even more accelerated clip, though he still tried to give guidance during the story development process. Though classic films and masterpieces were still to come in the Silver Age, Peter Pan was the last film in the transition by which the Golden Age of Disney animation truly and finally came to its end.

3 comments:

Zev Valancy said...

I read Barrie's novel of "Peter Pan" a couple of years ago, and he's more than a dick--he's basically amoral and bloodthirsty, not to mention creepily sexualized. The whole novel is really more icky than fun, in my opinion.

Cameron said...

now that you point out their shared voice, Wendy and Alice actually LOOK more like each other (at least, to me) than either looks like any other Disney heroine. i wonder if Kathryn Beaumont looked like that?

GeoX said...

Kathryn Beaumont's still around, it transpires. And she has a website! Okay, it's an unofficial website. I think that only strengthens my points.