Showing posts with label Disney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Disney. Show all posts

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ten Frames: Peter Pan (1953)


10+ frames from Peter Pan, with final comments ad libitum.

1. This is a great look for Peter Pan, a look which is unfortunately inconsistent and lost over the course of the movie. The partial illumination of his face makes him look like a bandit and his toothy, pointy grin gives him an air of devilish mischief. And I think there is something devilish and dangerous about a boy—especially an energetic, talented, temerarious boy—who won't grow up, and the danger that poses for others, however heedless he is of his immaturity.

2. This game of cat-and-mouse between Peter and his shadow is a marvelous illusion of two characters and I love the weighting of the shadow's tiptoeing. It also hints at the psychology of Peter's immaturity: he has to subdue and reattach to himself the part of him that has grown up and been taken by Wendy. 

3. Perhaps because she doesn't speak, Tink is drawn with the most expressive face in the movie. Her jealous, gleeful chuckle at the kids' failed first attempt to fly is a delight, as is her surprise bump on the tush when she gets up comeuppance by tipping over.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Movie Review: Peter Pan (1953)


Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

After nearly 100 years, Disney movies have many reputations, most of them mostly wrong. I should know, as I harbored them until getting the opportunity to watch the classics with my own children. 

The first, that they're cheap knockoffs of classic literature and fairytale, is flat wrong. Books and stories were edited, generally sensibly, to make characters and arcs necessary for 70-80 minute animated films. That's perfectly fair, even if the movie turns out to be about something else and someone else entirely.

The second, that Disney movies always have tacked-on happy endings, is not generally true. Where an ending is glaringly different—like in The Little Mermaid—the new ending is suitable to the new character and essentially new story. It is at any rate more important that the ending is proper to the story and its characters.

There is in fact only one movie where the ending is plainly wrong for that reason, and that movie is 1953's Peter Pan. The mismatch of story and ending is all the more frustrating because the plot so perfectly paves the way for its proper ending and the film is animated with marvelous technical artistry.

That plot—that Wending Darling is whisked away to Neverland by Peter Pan, the boy who will never grow up, to play mother to Peter's Lost Boys—can be completed by one of two endings: Wendy decides she is ready to grow up and leave the nursery, as her father has promised she must, or she is not ready, and she begs her father to remain a child. Wendy's Neverland adventure is a playground in which she'll decide whether she's ready to grow up and the development is structured around three events in which she has the opportunity to be initiated into the tribes of Peter's eternal playground, or return home essentially grown up.

In the first, Peter brings Wendy to meet the mermaids of Neverland, among whom Wendy expects preferential, or at least equal or civil, treatment as Peter's special guest on the island. Peter, however, immediately forgets about Wendy and straightaway falls into his role of playing Big Man On Campus to the doting mermaids, who breathlessly hang on his every word as he repeats his oft-told tale of feeding Captain Hook's hand to the crocodile. When Wendy yoo-hoos for Peter's attention, the mermaids fly into a fit of jealousy and mercilessly tease poor Wendy with tugs and splashes until she lifts a conch to defend herself. Worse, Peter in response delegitimizes Wendy's outrage by telling her to calm down, even when the envious creatures admit they "were just trying to drown her."

Peter's forgetfulness and indifference is not senility or insanity, of course, but youthful impetuousness and the child's inability to recall and apply what is not in front of him. It's what most clearly characterizes Peter as a boy and what makes him a no-go as romantic interest and a just plan bad leader. 

We see this first when Peter exiles Tinker Bell on the spot and forever for trying to get Wendy shot out of the sky, even when we can plainly see Tink is jealous. Peter, though, doesn't read Tink's emotions and sees only her immediate transgression against Wendy. Yet a moment later he'll be ditching Wendy for the mermaids, and after that ditching the Mermaids to save Tiger Lily. Then he gets so caught up gloating over defeating Captain Hook that he nearly forgets about Tiger Lily, who is about to drown. When he finally flies Tiger Lily home, poor Wendy is is now totally forgotten and left to flap along behind.

The ensuing ceremony, in which the island natives make Peter an honorary member of the tribe for saving Princess Tiger Lily, is Wendy's second chance at being initiated into her place on the island.

In this, the set piece of the movie, the Lost Boys and even Wendy's little brothers join in a celebration of ecstatic dances and flailing fanfares. . . while Wendy is forced to gather firewood with the other women. When Wendy sees Peter rubbing noses with Tiger Lily, she's finally had enough of her second class status and throws down her firewood to go home.

Back at Peter's hideout, Hangman's Tree, Wendy sings a soft lullaby to the boys about the love and gentle beauty of mothers—whom they don't have in Neverland—so tenderly that they burst into tears and all agree, except Peter, to return to London with her. Even the pirates eavesdropping outside are moved to tears before they snag everyone, again except Peter, for whom they lay a trap.

At the Jolly Roger Wendy is tempted one last time to find her place in Neverland when Hook and his men promise a place for them on the Jolly Roger—and a free tattoo—by means of a funny and too brief shanty about the joys of working for Captain Hook. Wendy not only answers, and not only answers for all the boys, but is prepared to be the first to walk the plank to pay the penalty.

Alas, this is where the movie's trajectory begins to run awry. Wendy, who is prepared for independence, who has realized she has no place on Neverland, who has repeatedly been left behind by her flighty former infatuation, is ultimately rescued by her inconstant guardian. Worse still, she's rescued not only in-the-nick-of-time, but so nearly because Peter was busy rescuing someone else: Tinkerbell, who saved him from Hook's explosive trick and whom he calls "more important to me than anything in the world." To be rescued by Peter is what kind of ending for a girl on the cusp of adulthood?

Worse again, when Peter defeats Hook and flies Wendy back to her window, she tells her father that she's ready to leave the nursery, which feeling is totally incongruous with what has happened in Neverland. In a final frustrating moment, Mr. Darling sees the Jolly Roger sailing across the sky as a cloud and adds that he feels he's seen such before a long time ago, to which I add: so what? Isn't this movie about Wendy?

Certainly it would be welcome for Wendy's father to show the tragic aspect of growing up, in contrast to her newfound enthusiasm for it and Hook and Peter's denial of it, but it's a little late to shoehorn that in to the movie. That detail we would have welcomed in the opening act, not now.

The conclusion is such a frustrating ending, though, because the perfect ending is so obvious: Wendy takes charge of the Lost Boys and her brothers, commandeers the ship, and sails it and herself back to London without help, without pixie dust, and without Peter Pan, who again in childlike distraction forgets Wendy and flits off fighting Captain Hook once more. The two foes, locked in their perpetual struggle, illustrate the folly of fighting time. Back at home, Wendy tells her father, who is about to withdraw his threat that she must leave the nursery to grow up, that she is indeed ready to leave the nursery, and she does. 

Now that might not precisely be Barrie's ending to his play, but it feels like the ending for which this movie has prepared us. I would love to see it attached to this marvelous classic, instead of seeing the story slowly go off the rails in its finale. Every time I watch the end of Disney's Peter Pan I'm disappointed anew, because with its beautiful artwork and animation and clearly-delineated coming-of-age initiation scenes, it's otherwise quite compelling. 

It does have some technical issues too, though. It feels very choppy and the scenes don't flow into each other so well. Peter's impish, off-putting, somewhat threatening face—perfectly captured in the first shot of him—is gradually lost for a more boyish look. His arch foe, Hook, is inconsistent in his presentation: his voice is outright terrifying but he's constantly the subject of low-brow Flinstones-like gags that undermine him as a villain and don't fit with the tone of the movie.

And the tone is the best part of the movie and really its substance. It's built up through wondrous visuals like flights past Big Ben, cannonballs ripping through clouds, flirting with mermaids, hook-and-dagger duels, and marches through the jungle. The tone is that eager feeling, amidst all the fantasy and play, that you're ready for some real danger around the next corner, and you're kind of hoping to find it. 

Returning to the safety of the nursery is exactly opposite this, but the famous song which bookends Wendy's journey to and from Neverland would work with an appropriate ending as well, and perfectly so: what at the beginning referred to escapism and leaving fears of growing up now means, though the words are unchanged, using your new success and growth to leave your pretend world behind and take flight for the awfully big adventure that is life:

When there's a smile in your heart

There's no better time to start.

Think of all the joy you'll find,

when you leave the world behind

and bid your cares goodbye

you can fly, you can fly, you can fly!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Movie Review: Mary Poppins


Directed by Robert Stevenson (1964)

The quintessential Disney classic, Mary Poppins is best remembered for its spectacle of dance, animation, and music, most loved for the inimitable prim cheekiness of Julie Andrews, and most praised for the ingenious special effects that blended its many parts together into a marvelous whole. It's not really thought of as an especially well-plotted movie or a movie fraught with meaning, but it is. 

There's a purpose to the splendid gaiety, to the jolly holidays that stretch out from walks in the park and to tea parties that bubble up to the ceiling, and it's all smartly set up with a carefully constructed opening as clear or clearer than that of any high-minded drama.

When Mrs. Banks upon entering her stately Edwardian residence conscripts her housekeeping staff into singing an anthem to female suffrage–Sister Suffragette, which few seem to realize is played as satire–and has to be forcefully reminded about the well-being and whereabouts of her children by her exasperated, quitting nanny, we get the gist.

When Mr. Banks, after unwittingly helping his children's recently former nanny into a cab, enters his regal domicile and does not inquire about his children but rather sings a haughty paean to patriarchal grandeur, we know him. And knowing the parents, we know the plight of little Jane and Michael Banks.

When their new nanny, Mary Poppins, enters from the sky via umbrella, primped and proper, neat as a pin, Jane and Michael know new things will be afoot with their pert and perky nanny. Who doesn't sense that change is in the air is Mr. Banks, whose hardheadedness is foreshadowed in his very first appearance when, walking past the house of his neighbor the retired Admiral Boom, who has a massive ship's rostrum affixed to the top of his house, Banks responds to the Admiral's meteorological warning that Banks might be steering into a bit of bad weather, with an oblivious smile. The proud banker knows that the British pound is the envy of the world but not much else.

So while Jane and Michael follow Mary Poppins' prescription of both fun and discipline, of learning to get your feet wet and to take your medicine, and when they sing and dance and smile past the breakfast table, Mr. Banks balks at the unseemly hullabaloo. He doesn't like the chipper staff and cheery kids and even the chirping birds, for they have disrupted his stern ordering of the household with their lightheartedness. His reaction is epitomized in my favorite moment in the movie wherein Banks, fuming to his wife about the disruptive house-wide uproar unleashed by the new nanny, blurts out in exasperated exclamation, "And when I sit down at a piano, I like to have it in tune!" and his wife replies, "But George, you don't play." Banks enjoys the peace of mind that his domestic order brings him and thus he enjoys his family insofar as they participate in and reflect that order, but the order is all for its own sake and not for the people who make it.

This theme of rejecting order for order's sake and work for work's sake is also the subtle subject of the film's famous fantasy scenes with Mary and the kids, in which everyone enjoys leisure and diversion with no purpose besides itself. We see it in the carousel-ride-turned-derby, in Mary and Bert's tea-and-cakes lunch served by penguins (a marvel of animation), and in the kids' visit to Mary's Uncle Albert, who is liberated from his earthly confines by irrepressible laughter. Each adventure lifts the spirits and imaginations of the kids, a fact which continues to elude Mr. Banks, who just can't see past the nose on his face to put down work for some play. 

Banks' obtuse preoccupation with work comes to a head at the bank when little Michael doesn't want to deposit his tuppence to fund railways in Africa, but wants to feed the birds in front of St. Paul's. Michael wants to do a simple thing, a kind thing, for its own sake, not make a practical investment in future profits, which frustrates his father, infuriates the board of directors, and precipitates the most unexpected bank run in history.

At this point in the movie, though, we're fairly wondering about the logic of Mary Poppins' plan to save Mr. Banks. After all, she has no reason to the think at any point that he's realizing the winds have changed, that his children are happy and growing, and that he has remained the same. She even has to trick him into taking the children to the bank with him, an outing she must know is going to be a fiasco. The reason for Mary Poppins' indirect method of saving Banks is that she knows his change must come from within and must come from his choice to embrace his children over his work. A stern talking-to and a serious discourse will not persuade him. He needs to see the choice before him, a choice that will need to be made once the incompatible elements—the kids and the bank—are brought together. 

With such purpose, Bert's scene with Mr. Banks, in which the chimney sweep more or less explains everything, is terribly out of place. First, we didn't need the first two hours of the movie if someone is just going to explain everything to the protagonist at the end. Second, we're not really sure whether Bert is getting through to Banks or Banks is coming to his senses or whether he's just confused. The scene is played rather cagily, on purpose I think, because they wanted to explain a little but didn't want to end the movie at this point. Third, why is Banks listening to the chimney sweep, whom he doesn't know and who doesn't know him? 

It's an unnecessary exchange too, because the scene would have played brilliantly as a monologue, in which Banks reminisces about his old life amidst its symbols: his pipes, his fireplace, and his chair. Then when the children come in as before with their tender, honest apologies—and return the tuppence—but this time break his heart, it would be clear that he is coming around and we would be prepared for movie's masterful finale, in which Banks makes a last journey to the job to which he has dedicated his life and from which he knows he will be fired. As he retraces his steps we read Banks' long-awaited self-examination through the film's music, the Feed the Birds tune. What song was once tender and nurturing from the lips of Mary Poppins is now melancholic as Banks passes through the park where his children have played not with him but with their countless nannies, and when at last he finally diverts course—a recollection of Admiral Boom's advice—and approaches the the steps of St. Paul's, Feed the Birds has become a mournful dirge. We are struck by the gravity of what will pass: his pride and former life and self-image, or his family.

Banks has not made up his mind quite yet, though, and his coming catharsis is not destined to be a tragic one. When he enters the bank and is summarily fired and stripped of his symbols of power—his hat, red carnation, and umbrella—he finally realizes the absurdity of his intense commitment to his job and responds to his humiliating sacking not with spirited self-defense or recrimination, but with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! The whimsical refutation shows that Banks has finally given up his forceful molding of the breed and let his children reform him. Banks is embracing his firing with joy over his newfound freedom, freedom with which he rededicates himself to his family. 

Finally returning home, he patches his children's long-broken kite with newspaper (a symbol of his former preoccupation, his work) and as a perfecting touch, his wife follows suit and adds to the kite a proper tail, her suffragette ribbon (a symbol of her former preoccupation, her political cause.) At last the mended family together dances off down Cherry Tree Lane arm-in-arm and the kite takes flight, a symbol of their restored unity. 

All of that to the tune of the Sherman Brothers' Let's Go Fly A Kite, the use of which song integrates the film's theme of laying down purposeful work for purposeless, even frivolous leisure, with what that reorienting ultimately brings about: the salvation of Mr. Banks and the restoration of his family. And what better phrase epitomizes frivolity than "Go fly a kite!" which in this marvelous, ebullient finale is raised from a slur of abuse to a jolly exhortation to lay down your labors, embrace your family, and celebrate life.