Week 14: Peter Pan

Childish Awe on Full Display

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Originally Released: 1953

I suspect Walt Disney really connected with the idea of never growing up, which is a big part of the magic of Peter Pan. As an adult, Walt’s career revolved around the idea of reaching back to childhood, as evidenced in the animated films and Disneyland. And who can blame him. A child is free to imagine up adventures such as pirate battles, flying, swimming with mermaids, and just about anything else. And Peter Pan encapsulates this feeling perfectly.

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Peter Pan was in the works for many years before it was finally released in 1953. As a child, Walt was able to see the original play by J.M. Barrie which began its run in 1904. It had a lasting impact on him, and when he began work on feature-length films in the 1930’s, his plan was for Peter Pan to be his second film, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, this did not happen, in part because Walt felt that the skills and animation techniques of the artists had not advanced enough at the time, and needed more refinement and improvement in order to successfully achieve Walt’s vision for the film. Thus the production was shelved for a time, like many of his other early films.

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Production picked up again in the late 1940’s, and this time Walt Disney and his “Nine Old Men,” were able to achieve Walt’s vision and create some fantastic work in terms of animation. In fact, not only was the team able to capture the great spirit of the play, but they also were able to do more, because in animation you can create and do things that simply aren’t possible on stage or in live-action. It ended up being a perfect medium for a story about childhood adventure and wonder.

A sampling of the things I noticed and enjoyed as I watched this time include many of Wendy’s expressions of awe, happiness, and disapproval, Tinkerbell’s sassy attitude, and Captain Hook playing the piano. The flying scenes work remarkably well, too. Then there’s the silly old crocodile. He doesn’t speak at all, but he is a scene-stealer whenever he’s present, with his dog-like mannerisms, good use of “mickey mousing,” and his taunting of Captain Hook.

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Not only does the film work well from an animation standpoint, but it just works as a story and a film. The plot moves along at a nice pace, we learn a lot about the main characters and their strengths and weaknesses, and there is plenty of action, drama, and comedy. To tell the truth, I probably enjoy it more as an adult than I did as a child. It is great entertainment.

Something I found interesting is that a few things carried over from Alice in Wonderland and made their way into Peter Pan. For example, the voices for Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont), Smee (Bill Thompson), and Mrs. Darling (Heather Angel) were the same actors voicing Alice, the White Rabbit, and Alice’s older sister. Another interesting piece of trivia is that the opening song “The Second Star to the Right” was originally written as “Beyond the Laughing Sky,” in which Alice was supposed to sing at the beginning in the meadow before she sees the white rabbit. However, the song was dropped because they felt it was shaping up to be too similar to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Later, though, the composer used the nice melody for the song and rewrote the lyrics to work in Peter Pan.

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This leads me to the last thing I greatly enjoyed about this film: the music. Both the songs and the score are highly entertaining and very memorable. Heck, even a song that didn’t make it into the final cut somehow became a success. I already mentioned the sweet melody of “The Second Star to the Right,” but there is also “Following the Leader,” “A Pirate’s Life,” and more. The music and score really add to the overall feel of the movie.

The animation, plot, and music all combine to make Peter Pan stand out as yet another standout piece of Disney magic. It is a great reminder for us to not completely forget the inner child in us all.

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Week 13: Alice in Wonderland

“Curiouser and Curiouser,” Colorful, Quotable, and Memorable

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Originally Released: 1951

I have never read the children’s books by Lewis Carroll which this film is based from, but watching Alice in Wonderland again makes me want to read them so I can compare the stories chosen for the film with their source material, and to also compare the style and feel of each medium.

Walt Disney was, unlike me, very familiar with the Carroll books. He actually began his career with a loose adaptation in his 1920’s Alice comedy series, a series of shorts that combined live action with some very early animation (click here for a sampling of the series and see how far animation has come since those early years). After Walt Disney’s studio was established in Hollywood, an Alice in Wonderland film was in and out of production for approximately 20 more years, undergoing many revisions and changes in content, theme, and style, before it was finally released in 1951.

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There were many reasons for this long process, but one reason is that apparently the contents of the books are very episodic in nature, and they have been found to be very difficult to adapt to the screen while retaining a strong narrative in traditional Hollywood fashion. Indeed, even in this Disney version this is noticeable as we watch Alice jump from one situation to the next. The film didn’t grab me emotionally like Cinderella, Bambi, or even Dumbo. However, this did not limit my enjoyment of the film because in terms of whimsy, art style, color, creativity, and imagination, few films are able to come close to what Alice in Wonderland accomplishes.

The film is just full of memorable characters, songs, and quotes. Surely many of us have at one sung to ourselves or to others “No time to say goodbye, Hello! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!” or at one time or another have had the urge to yell “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!” Then again, that may just be me. But most will at least be familiar with where these quotes come from as well as who said them.

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My favorite scene has to be the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. It doesn’t get much wackier than this. All the different tea pots, the colors, the wordplay, and the brilliant animation combine to make an scene that to me is unforgettable. It is to the point that if this movie is mentioned, immediately my mind will conjure up an image from the very merry un-birthday party before I think of any other part of the film.

But from a truly artistic perspective, I believe the introduction of the Queen of Hearts, with the deck of card soldiers marching through the maze by her castle, is the best part. The bold red of the cards contrasting with the greens and greys of the castle and maze is a nice touch. The soldiers crisscrossing and getting shuffled together and then breaking out in groups is fascinating. And the shapes and distortions of the landscape is very interesting to look at. All these things contribute to make this really inspired animation and art.

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The concept art for this and many of the other early Disney films was done by an artist named Mary Blair. As I have been watching the special features for each film, I have learned more and more about her, and it is clear that today the Disney animation studios and historians have a great amount of respect for her and her work. She was just as instrumental to the films as were the “nine old men.”

Mary was a part of “El Grupo,” the team that toured South America with Walt, and that trip inspired her and helped her develop a very distinct and contemporary art style, which she put to use in creating the concept art for the films. However, while her concept art served as a basis for many of the early films, by the time the final version of the film came out many tweaks were made, to the point where you may not recognize the relationship very much.

This is not the case with Alice in Wonderland, however (and in Cinderella to a lesser extent). In most of the film, and especially the castle, what you see on the screen is essentially what was painted by Blair. This is part of what gives the film its uniqueness and adds to the nonsensical, whimsical feel. It was a great move to incorporate this into the film.

Ultimately, what we have in Alice in Wonderland is a film which, while light on the typical Hollywood drama and emotional payoff, is a feast for the eyes, ears, and imagination. And as a bonus, it inspired me to read a book, and anything that does that can, in my view, be considered a success.

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