In Steven Spielberg’s Hook, Peter Pan’s brief yet substantial return to Neverland offers the iconic character a new view on the mundane existence that has become his ho-hum life as a stressed-out corporate lawyer with a neglected family. Of course, if anyone was going to make Peter Pan bourgeois, it was going to be Spielberg, who expectedly turned the wild, dark pleasures of both J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Disney’s animated Peter Pan into a particularly manipulative Parents magazine article.
The explicit need for and dangers of fantasy, powered by stories and books, was always at the heart of Barrie’s play and subsequent novel, but the author stressed innocence and grace over the story’s elements of adventure and violence. In its most elemental form, it would have made a lovely project for the late Eric Rohmer. Speculation aside, Disney’s animated adaptation of Barrie’s classic remains stronger in the memory than the 1924 original and the decidedly darker 2003 remake, precisely because of its focus on the playful side of the original narrative and its indifference toward an adult audience.
Okay, the fact that Peter Pan is a product of Disney’s salad days of bold, colorful 2D animation is perhaps a greater deciding factor in the film’s status as an animated classic. The beats of the script, which was credited to eight writers, certainly don’t help the cause, though the film is almost immediately involving. Beginning in the Darling household with Nana tending to the children as Mr. and Ms. Darling prepare for a night out, the film nicely sets up the whirl of activity in anticipation of Wendy’s (Kathryn Beaumont) move into a single room, out of the nursery where her younger brothers, John and Michael, reside.
Maternal in her very nature, Wendy is apprehensive about the move and its implications of impending womanhood, and this coincides and intertwines with the arrival of Peter (Bobby Driscoll), who’s in search of his escaped shadow. After a quick flying lesson, Wendy, John, and Michael follow Peter off to Neverland and find themselves in a land of endless imagination and adventure, though notably less unpredictable and inventive than that of Wonderland, and this is where the leash is taken off, for better or worse.
Peter’s battle with the nefarious Captain Hook (Hans Conried) is thankfully more central, but unfortunately less memorable than John, Michael, Wendy, and the Lost Boys’s startlingly racist confrontation with Native Americans, but the real issue is the film’s pacing. At a scant 77 minutes, the cluttered frenzy of Peter Pan, which credits Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske as directors, feels unwieldy, but not purposefully so, drowning the story’s loosely tended-to themes in its unyielding sense of quasi-comic abandon.
The iconic conflict between Hook and Peter is dulled, which by extension dulls Barrie’s still-potent ideas concerning the limits of imagination and the corrosive power and servitude of remaining almost entirely in one’s own fantasy world. Hook and his crew’s buffoonery, especially in reaction to the crocodile that ate his hand, is promising at first, but it quickly registers less as funny than as a way to keep the stakes low. The sour feelings between Tinker Bell and Wendy are similarly initially fascinating, as Tink (and to a lesser extent, Tiger Lily) gives the film a wider view of burgeoning womanhood and serves as a cautionary tale about how jealousy over men can turn women bitter, jealous, and open to manipulation. Sadly, nothing much comes of it.
As Hook is sent scurrying away with Smee and the Darling children make their way back home from Neverland, it becomes clear that Wendy will now take her inevitable adulthood in stride, and it’s mildly comforting that the womanhood envisioned here is not one strictly involving marriage or maternity. In fact, Wendy’s maturation seems to coincide with a dismissal of both her role as John and Michael’s proxy mother and as Peter’s would-be bride. It’s a surprising conclusion, and though it suggests wiser heads in the writing room in comparison to other Disney films, it’s at once frustrating and a relief that this version of Peter Pan is, well, childish.
Peter Pan's consistently dazzling A/V transfer continues Disney's sterling reputation for Blu-ray quality. The colors are stunning throughout, from the whites, grays, and browns of Nana to the bright greens of the crocodile, never suggesting that overly sleek look you get with more modern, glossier pictures. Black levels are lovely and rich, contrast is very strong, and detailing is superb. The audio, though not all that dense, sounds great. Musical numbers are beautifully retained and elsewhere, dialogue is crisply pronounced out front, while effects and music are perfectly balanced behind it. Other than in the theater, it's unlikely this film will look or sound any better on any format.
It's to be expected, at this point, that Disney will offer a plethora of extras with their Blu-ray releases, and Peter Pan is no different. It begins with Roy Disney's hugely informative audio commentary, a holdover from the DVD release of the film, which features snippets from interviews from animators, actors, filmmakers, and writers who were involved with the film. The conversations touch on the adaptation of Barrie's work, the look of the film, and the construction of the story's long-known characters. Nearly as interesting is "Growing Up with Nine Old Men," a pretty thorough look at Disney's most influential animators via interviews with their family members. The deleted songs and scenes are hit and miss, but mostly disposable, as is the "Music and More" featurette. More interesting is the Backstage Disney compilation, which consists of five behind-the-scenes featurettes which look at Walt Disney's reasons for making the film, the production, and alternative story ideas that didn't make it into the film. The interactive features, including Disney Intermission, the Sing-Along, and Side Bars, are more annoying than can be clearly expressed. Trailers are also included.
Disney's playful, scatterbrained variation on J.M. Barrie's play and novel soars on Blu-ray with an expectedly superb A/V transfer and a treasure trove of extras.