Based on James M. Barrie's popular 1904 play, Disney's 1953 animated version of "Peter Pan" doesn't quite live up to its famous stage counterpart. Is it any wonder? The stage play took on a life of its own, becoming a public phenomenon. Not even Disney could match its reputation. Nonetheless, the film is colorful, spirited fun and provides its own particular delights. What's more, this new, Special Edition DVD offers pleasures of its own, too, with improved picture and sound and a host of additional bonus features.
First, the movie, where we find all of Barrie's imaginative characters, plus a few new ones. The Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, are whisked off to Neverland by Peter and his pixie partner, Tinker Bell. There, they meet up with the creations of Wendy's fantasies: Captain Hook, Mr. Smee, the crocodile that swallowed the clock, Princess Tiger Lily, the Lost Boys, and have to do battle with pirates and Indians to win their way back home.
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Hook. He is a fine, dastardly villain. So good, in fact, that when the 1991 live-action update was made with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, the producers were canny enough to realize it was the pirate's story and name it "Hook." Voiced in the Disney film by versatile comic actor Hans Conried (who also does the father, Mr. Darling), Hook combines the right degree of menace and humor to entertain children and adults.
Peter, on the other hand, comes off rather one-dimensionally, almost always acting the prankish rogue; he is voiced appropriately by young Bobby Driscoll, who had previously done among other things, Disney's "Treasure Island."
It may seem petty of me to say so, but I see the film suffering three distinct drawbacks. First, there is no single musical number to associate with the story; indeed, there are no songs that are particularly memorable. "You Can Fly" and "A Pirate's Life" are the only pieces I could recall from previous viewings. Second, the comedy is mostly slapstick, lots of chases and pratfalls, and not always too funny. Third, more than a few people may take offense at Disney's depiction of Native Americans for their stereotyped appearance and speech.
These shortcomings are not serious enough to dampen most viewers' spirits, I'm sure, but they keep the movie from consideration as a true Disney classic.
One can hardly fault the picture quality in this newly remastered Special Edition. Like Disney's earlier DVD transfer, the colors are rich, vivid, and clearly delineated, only this time they appear even brighter and more cleanly rendered. Disney's animation style is nowhere near as detailed or well textured as it was in "Pinocchio," but there is still much to admire in the radiant tones and brilliant hues. Hook looks resplendent in his refulgent scarlet coat.
The sound has now been opened up somewhat in Dolby Digital 5.1, and while it doesn't compare to today's discrete five-channel affairs, like the picture quality the new audio is clean and clear, and the limited frequency response and dynamics of its day have been reproduced as well as possible under the circumstances. An effort was made to keep voices in the front center channel and orchestral music spread out to the left and right speakers, but little meaningful information reaches the rear channels. It's still pleasant enough sound.
It probably isn't a coincidence that Disney released this new Special Edition simultaneous with the theatrical release of their new animated sequel, "Return to Neverland." Be that as it may, it's good to have "Pan" available in an edition that contains more than just the movie. The first and most important new feature is an audio commentary hosted by Roy Disney that includes the words of animators, film historians, critic Leonard Maltin, and several of the people who worked on the original production. Next is a sixteen-minute documentary, "You Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan," that involves numerous interviews and is introduced by Uncle Walt himself. Then, there's a twelve-minute promotional featurette, "The Peter Pan Story," made in black-and-white for theatrical showing in 1952. Naturally, we can't escape a promo for Disney's new movie, so there's "A Look at Return to Neverland." A still frame gallery is next, succeeded by a songbook sing-along, "Following the Leader," and a storybook read-along, "Peter's Playful Prank." Finally, there are Sneak Peeks at seven other Disney DVD titles, a "Pirate Treasure Hunt" game, various DVD-ROM materials, and thirty-one chapter selections. English, French, and Spanish are provided for spoken languages, with English captions for the hearing impaired. All of this is tied together by an imaginative if slow set of animated menus.
Now, if only I didn't have to complain about Disney's habit of prefacing all of their discs with a multitude of warnings and advertisements that one has to wade through with the "forward" button, all would be well. But, alas, it wouldn't be a Disney DVD without the commercials, so I guess we have to live with it.
I'm probably being a fuddy-duddy criticizing the film itself. Children always seem to love it, and adults will have already made up their minds about it. Its first half holds up well; it's by the last third that the action begins to flag. For a lot of folks these days, Disney's "Peter Pan" is the only version of the James M. Barrie tale they know, even "Hook" beginning to fade from memory. Yet, if we must have only one enduring account of Barrie's creation, we could do worse.