Peter Pan Platinum Edition: Faith and Trust and a Little Bit of Digital Remastering
According to one of the special features on Disney’s Peter Pan Platinum Edition, Walt Disney took on the title role in a school production of the original J.M. Barrie stage play. During the climactic duel scene, Disney was hoisted aloft by a block and tackle system, only to end up sailing into the audience. Despite this mishap, Peter Pan remained one of Disney’s favorite works, with work beginning on an animated adaptation even while Snow White was still in production.
Peter Pan begins in the Darling household, as the eldest daughter Wendy is exiled from the nursery and her two younger brothers, John and Michael. That evening, the children receive a visit from Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up, and his pixie sidekick Tinker Bell. They all travel to Neverland, where they must do battle with a crew of pirates led by the foppish Captain Hook.
In many ways, there was no greater meeting of the minds than that of Barrie and Disney with the animated Peter Pan. Its theatrical success in 1953 reversed the studio’s fortunes in the wake of the financial failure of Alice in Wonderland. It has gone on to become one of Disney’s most beloved animated films, and with good reason. If ever a work was suited for the medium of animation, it is Peter Pan. Supposedly, Barrie constantly sought out better means to bring the fantastic elements of his stage play to life. Disney’s animated version unlocks the play’s magic perfectly. It is hard to believe that Barrie would be upset at how Disney’s “Nine Old Men” brought the play to vibrant life, despite whatever liberties were taken with the story.
There is nearly nothing that Peter Pan gets wrong as a film. Casting is pitch perfect, with Bobby Driscoll’s Pan having the right mix of willfulness and free-spirited caprice that plays wonderfully off Kathryn Beaumont’s slightly starchy Wendy. Radio star Hans Conreid continues the theatrical tradition of playing both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook and does a marvelous job at both, lending Hook a wonderfully hammy theatricality that makes him one of the most memorable Disney villains, even though he and his pirate crew are about as menacing as mashed potatoes. Peter Pan also gets more than its share of thrilling action sequences with its characters engaging in madcap fisticuffs and wild derring-do with wild abandon, and it doesn’t waste a second at any time.
The animation is also a marvel to behold. It is hard to believe that Peter Pan was the product of a financially strapped studio, considering the artistry on display in every frame. The use of shadow and silhouette alone would make this an animation masterpiece, but those shadows are pushed into the background easily by the incredibly high quality of the character animation. Since Tinker Bell is entirely mute, she has to act purely through pantomime, and the fact that her personality comes off as clearly as it does is a credit to live-action models Margaret Kerry and Kathryn Beaumont and to Tinker Bell’s character animator Marc Davis.
It’s worth pointing out that Peter Pan is probably the Disney movie for those whose tastes run more towards the Looney Tunes side of the aisle. Peter shares the same sense of playful sadism that drives Bugs Bunny, and Captain Hook shares the same over-the-top mania as Yosemite Sam. A number of the sight gags also seem lifted straight from the Warner Brothers’ playbook, with double-takes and defiance of gravity drawing big laughs, especially in the scenes between Hook and the crocodile. Indeed, the animal characters like the crocodile and nursemaid dog Nana, along with the Indian tribe, could easily be lifted from this movie and dropped seamlessly into a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
If you’re actively looking for anything at all to gripe about, it’ll probably be those Indians. On the commentary track, Marc Davis even notes that they probably wouldn’t have been able to do the Indians today the way they were done then. However, even they end up fairly well-off when compared to the more egregious stereotypes of the period. They are played for laughs quite successfully, and thus end up being as inoffensive a caricature as Chico Marx.
As with all Disney’s Platinum Edition releases, Peter Pan has gotten a digital clean-up and a new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Colors seem to be more muted in the remastered edition, sometimes quite drastically. The screenshot to the left shows the same scene from the 1999 single-disc release and the newly remastered edition. The color in the Chief’s face is the most obvious change, but his tunic and Peter Pan’s outfit also show a more washed-out color, while the teepee in the background seems much more vibrant. These changes don’t appreciably degrade the film’s presentation, but the remastering isn’t as dramatic an improvement as some of Disney’s other DVD re-releases. Similarly, the new soundtrack also seems to have been recycled from the older Special Edition release. As a result, the decision to re-purchase this edition if you already own Peter Pan on DVD will come down to the quality of the extras.
Unfortunately, those extras are something of a mixed bag, especially when compared to the extras included on other Disney DVDs. The movie itself is accompanied by a full-length commentary track hosted by Roy Disney. This seems to be the same track from the 2002 Special Edition DVD release, with comments from Disney animators Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnston; film critics and historians Leonard Maltin, John Canemaker, and Jeff Kurtti; actors Kathryn Beaumont and Margaret Kerry; and some recorded comments from Walt Disney himself. While the commentary is interesting, it rarely connects with the action occurring on screen. Since it is recycled, it also presents no added value to anybody who has the earlier Special Edition release.
On disc 2, a 15-minute documentary tracks the long path that Peter Pan took through the Disney studios. The documentary places the movie in historical context, both relative to the stage play and the output of the Disney studios in general, and also features more comments from the commentary track participants. “Why I Made Peter Pan” is a dramatic reading of a magazine article by Walt Disney, published at about the time the movie was released and revealing Disney’s deep affection for the original story. “Tinker Bell: A Fairy’s Tale” is an extended appreciation of Peter Pan’s pixie sidekick; as interesting and informative as it is, it is also pretty obviously intended to drum up interest in the upcoming Tinker Bell direct-to-video movies. “The Peter Pan that Almost Was” features a variety of alternate story ideas, usually in the storyboard stage; this feature will probably be of real interest only to serious Disney buffs. One of the elements from this segment, “The Pirate Song,” warrants a brief featurette of its own in the music section, alongside a featurette on another deleted song (“Never Land”) that also gets a music video with Paige O’Hara (the voice of Belle from Beauty and the Beast) doing the vocal honors. The obligatory pop-remix music video and assortment of games are also included.
The most puzzling addition to the extras disc is the “English Read Along,” tucked into the “Games and Activities” section. It turns out to be the entire movie, but with subtitles that highlight with the on-screen dialogue. While improving childhood literacy is an admirable goal in itself, one wonders why this feature wasn’t integrated somehow into the subtitles of the movie on disc 1, freeing up space for more interesting special features on disc 2 (like a tribute to the tragically short career of Pan voice actor Bobby Driscoll, for instance). The special features of this Platinum Edition are mostly satisfying on their own, but when compared to a release like The Little Mermaid or Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan turns up wanting.
In the past, the extras and remastered presentation made it an easy decision to double-dip on one of Disney’s Platinum Edition releases. Peter Pan seems to be the exception to the rule—the additions and improvements from the older Special Edition don’t seem to add up to make it a sure-fire re-purchase. However, if you’ve never owned Peter Pan on DVD before, the Platinum Edition is a slam-dunk—a wonderful presentation of one of Disney’s finest animated movies. Like its leading lady, Peter Pan straddles the world of childhood and adulthood and manages to appeal to both equally, reflecting the benefits and detriments of both. If nothing else, the Platinum Edition provides a good excuse to get reacquainted with this classic film.