Peter Pan: Platinum Edition Review
It's funny how, in so many of Disney's animated features, the sidekicks or incidental characters have a habit of becoming more iconic than the protagonists themselves. What would Pinocchio be without Jiminy Cricket, or Alice in Wonderland without the Cheshire Cat, or Aladdin without the Genie? These are the characters that feature on all the merchandise and promotional tie-ins, and, I suspect, are ultimately responsible for drawing children and adults alike back time and again to the films in which they appear. The heroes, on the other hand, have a habit of turning out to be rather bland in terms of both design and personality, even mildly irritating on occasions. This is certainly true of Peter Pan, which features a protagonist so full of himself that one has to wonder why any of the Darling children would ever agree to fly away with him to Never Land, let alone contemplate staying there with him. Instead, the one character that people tend to remember more than any other, years after they have seen it, doesn't even have a single line of dialogue: in the grand tradition of the Disney sidekick, Tinker Bell has eclipsed the titular Pan as the film's mascot, and in turn has become as much of an icon for the Disney studio as the infamous castle logo or, perhaps, even Mickey Mouse himself.
The source material, as most people know by now, is an early 20th century play (and later book) by Scottish author J.M. Barrie, and the Disney adaptation is, if not the most faithful, then easily the most widely known of the bunch. After being admonished once again by their bullish father for their immaturity, the Darling children - from oldest to youngest, Wendy, John and Michael - receive a surprise visit from the flying rascal Peter Pan. With the aid of his mute and miniscule fairy companion Tinker Bell, Pan spirits them away to Never Land, where he and his cohorts, the Lost Boys, stage mock battles with the local Red Indians and are engaged in perpetual conflict with the nefarious Captain Hook.
Peter Pan arrived at a crucial time in Disney's history. Following slim pickings both during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the studio had gradually begun to ramp up film production once again, returning to its staple of lavish fairytale adaptations after spending the better part of the 1940s on anthology pieces such as Saludos Amigos and Make Mine Music - films that, despite not being entirely devoid of charm, were largely rather forgettable and were clearly designed as little more than filler material. The onslaught of the 1950s brought about something of a return to form, with the well-received Cinderella and the imaginative but less successful Alice in Wonderland.
Peter Pan largely follows the template set by these two entries, eschewing the animal sidekick comedy of the former and toning down the surrealism of the latter, but adopting the same loose, whimsical story structure. Annoying as he may be, Pan, the boy who never grew up, is an appropriate metaphor for the "kid in all of us" that reviewers so often like to refer to when praising animated films. Of course, in today's more cynical times, it has become a little too fashionable to attach all sorts of sinister interpretations to this storyline of a "child at heart" spiriting away a group of innocents - particularly given the Michael Jackson connotations. The exaggerated depiction of the Indian tribe is unlikely to go down too well with viewers of a more sensitive disposition either: Pocahontas this is not (and a good thing too, if you ask me).
The stand-out elements, however, all involve the wicked Captain Hook. Brilliantly animated by Frank Thomas, he is flamboyant, absurd, and arguably the animation's world ultimate bastard - a brilliant synergy that Disney has attempted again and again to recreate, with characters such as Jafar in Aladdin and Scar in The Lion King. He also happens to be ably voiced by Hans Conried, a radio performer also provided the voice for the children's father, which continues a long-standing tradition from productions of the stage version - an intriguing way of subliminally connecting the two major villains of both Never Land and the "real world". Hook is easily the most three dimensional of all the characters in the film, and certainly infinitely more engaging to watch than either Peter Pan or the infuriating Wendy, who has come to stand as the very definition of the prim, stuck-up Disney damsel - a callback to Alice of Alice in Wonderland, only without the vivid imagination.
Discounting the various anthologies produced in the 1940s, Peter Pan is probably the slightest of all the animated features produced during Walt Disney's lifetime. It's certainly entertaining, but it's ultimately a little empty. It's individual elements - the "You Can Fly" sequence, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook and his banter with the bumbling Mr. Smee, the crocodile who serves as Hook's arch-nemesis - rather than the film as a whole that is memorable. Nonetheless, it's an immensely enjoyable entry in the Disney filmography, certainly much better than virtually anything being produced in the animated domain today, and was, at the time of its original release, a much-needed commercial success for the studio. Criticisms about substance aside, there's a reason for this film being so beloved.
This 2-disc Platinum Edition marks the third time that Peter Pan has been released on DVD. The first, released in 1999 as part of the Limited Issue series, used the same master as the already available LaserDisc and was generally considered to be something of a disappointment. In 2002, it was re-released as a Special Edition, featuring an improved but rather harsh-looking transfer and a reasonable array of extras. As such, hopes were understandably high for this latest release.
Unfortunately, the new edition really is a bit of a mixed bag. While the rampant edge enhancement of the previous release is nowhere to be found, it seems that DTS Digital Images (formerly Lowry Digital), Disney's regular partner in these ventures, have once again thrown artistic intent out of the window in an attempt to deliver an impossibly clean, "flawless" digital experience for the 21st century. By far the biggest problem is that the overall colour, brightness and contrast values of the image have been tweaked into oblivion. Tinker Bell was originally supposed to have an overexposed glow, which, on this release, has been dulled down severely, making the glow look more like a muddy shadow. Actually, "muddy" is the word of the day here: the colours are generally dull and sickly. The decidedly red Indians are now a gloomy shade of brown, more suited to something like Pocahontas than this altogether more colourful cartoon world, while Captain Hook now looks like he has liver damage. Everything is so murky that the hand-inked, cel-animated characters, who should be vibrant, threaten to disappear into the backgrounds. I've inspected the DVD on both a monitor and a calibrated TV: it just doesn't look right.
Respected cel restoration expert Stephen Worth, and animation directors Oscar Grillo and Milton Gray, have all criticised this new restoration, while Chuck Pennington has provided visual evidence that each subsequent home video release of Peter Pan has taken its visuals further and further away from Walt Disney and co's original intentions. I've never personally seen the film on an actual print, but I feel more inclined to trust the informed opinions of experts like Stephen Worth than the staff of DTS Digital Images, who have shown a cavalier attitude towards artistic intent several times in the past, perhaps most significantly with Bambi, which was so heavily noise reduced in an attempt to remove any semblance of the movie ever having come from film that the image smeared and warped during camera movements.
Luckily, the audio is of a much higher standard, and constitutes a definite improvement on that of the previous releases via the inclusion of the original mono audio track, which sounds as clear as can be expected, accounting for age. A souped-up 5.1 "Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix" is also provided, and while it certainly sounds considerably more expansive than its mono counterpart, purists will obviously want to give it a miss. French and Spanish 5.1 dubs are also provided, in addition to English subtitles for the film itself (but, unfortunately, not the extras).
The extras for the various Platinum Edition releases have tended to vary in terms of both quality and quantity. Broadly speaking, The Lion King was, until recently, considered to be the weakest, presenting a series of lightweight featurettes instead of the insightful documentary not unreasonably expected for an entry in Disney's most prestigious DVD line, and generally devoting more space to interactive games and other child-oriented activities rather than solid factual material. Unfortunately, Peter Pan's extras are even more lightweight, with very little of value included here that wasn't already on the previous Special Edition release.
The audio commentary, moderated by Roy E. Disney and featuring comments from a variety of guests, ranging from animators who worked on the film (through a combination of recent and archive audio recordings) to animation historians (the ubiquitous Leonard Maltin and John Canemaker), is a very good one, but chances are that many people will already have heard it. Its inclusion here is certainly much appreciated, though. The first disc also includes a song selection feature, allowing you to jump to any one of the five main musical numbers in the film, with or without on-screen lyrics, in addition to a read-along storybook and a trailer for an absolutely hideous-looking CGI direct-to-video Tinker Bell spin-off.
On paper, the second disc would appear to include a fine array of features, but appearances can be deceptive. Split into Disney's now-standard quartet of sections, the first, Music & More, provides an interesting look at two musical numbers that never made it into the final film, as well as two songs from the film, Never Land and The Second Star to the Right, being murdered by Paige O'Hara and T-Squad (the latest group of Disney Channel brats, fresh off the assembly line) respectively. Games & Activities, meanwhile, houses the usual array of tedious babysitting devices for pre-school children, including a read-along version of the story and a rather painful series of puzzles which purport to teach you how to become a Lost Boy, just like the characters from the film. Moving on...
The bulk of the decent material is, predictably enough, to be found in the Backstage Disney section, but it quickly becomes clear that even it is somewhat lacklustre in quality. A feature-length documentary like the ones found on The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp and virtually any other Platinum Edition title you could care to mention, is nowhere to be found. In its place is You Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan, a 16-minute featurette made for the LaserDisc release and carried over from the previous Special Edition. It's every bit as lightweight as you would expect, and really tells you nothing that couldn't have been gleaned from the much better audio commentary on the first disc.
The 8-minute In Walt's Words: Why I Made Peter Pan, meanwhile, is considerably more interesting, presenting an abridged narrated version of an article Walt Disney wrote in 1953, explaining his love for Barrie's story and what drove him to add it to the roster of Disney adaptations. This particular piece is introduced by veteran Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who crop up through this DVD to provide overviews and introductions, similar to the manner in which Andreas Deja was featured on the Platinum Edition of Bambi and Eric Goldberg on Lady and the Tramp. Also running for 8 minutes, Tinker Bell: A Fairy's Story provides an entertaining, if lightweight look at the iconic character, with a plethora of original artwork and archival footage of previous interpretations of the character, in addition to comments by the likes of animation historian Jerry Beck, directing animator Marc Davis, live action reference model Margaret Kerry and Disney producer Don Hahn. The 21-minute The Peter Pan That Almost Was, meanwhile, is the longest and probably most interesting of the featurettes. Using storyboards and explanations by Clements and Musker, it provides an intriguing look at some abandoned concepts and ideas that were greatly revised for the final film. Concluding this section is a 1952 featurette, The Peter Pan Story, again carried over from the previous DVD, and an extensive gallery packed full of art from various stages of the film's development.
Oh, and the fourth and final section is Peter Pan's Virtual Flight, yet another of Disney's clumsy and pointless 3D flythroughs, replete with some of the most rudimentary CGI you're likely to see this side of a Sega Saturn video game.
It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to consider Peter Pan to be the most disappointing release yet in the Platinum Edition series. While Disney has released other, poorer DVDs, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect something more from a line that the studio itself claims delivers "state-of-the-art bonus features" and top-notch audio-visual presentations. Those who don't already own this title on DVD should pick this release up, if only for the inclusion of the mono audio, but those who have one of the earlier editions would be advised to consider whether it's worth it in the long run.
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