Touring London With Peter Pan
Standing in line at Heathrow Airport, it looked to me that being a customs official checking the passports of incoming travelers must be a pretty tedious job. I watched one fellow in particular scan passports with a rather bored expression, repeating over and over, "Passport. Thank you. Next." He barely even turned his head to glance at the person presenting it.
Thus, I took it as a good sign when the man checking my documentation perked up when I told him what I had come to London for.
"Peter Pan?" he said. "The British movie, or the old American one?"
"Yeah, the Disney cartoon. The old one."
"You're kidding me? That's great."
I told him some of the stuff they had planned for us, and he looked impressed. I wondered if I was going to have the most interesting reason for being in London that he was going to hear that day. Forget people seeking political asylum or other such journeys toward a new world. I had gone second star to the right and straight on 'til morning.
Buena Vista Home entertainment had set up a full weekend for film and DVD critics and journalists to celebrate the company's new two- disc edition of the classic 1953 cartoon feature. Peter Pan - Platinum Edition is actually the third DVD release of this movie-- a favorite of mine when I was a child, so much so that I even still have the soundtrack on vinyl record and regularly take my coffee in one of my two Peter Pan mugs--so I was surprised it was getting such a push. The previous edition had some decent extras and was a pretty good disc overall, certainly a fair upgrade from the bare-bones first time out.
Or so I thought before I previewed the Platinum Edition in anticipation of my trip. This new Peter Pan transfer is so incredibly good, it makes the movie feel brand new. Most of the old bonus materials are carried over to the new set, and a few new ones round the package out, but the real selling point of this third time back to the well is the all-new digital restoration and the 5.1 sound mix. This has to be one of Disney's best clean-up jobs, making Peter Pan look clean and contemporary, not like a movie that is over 50 years old. For animation fans, this is the way we always hope these wonderful old movies will be treated.
So, I can't blame Buena Vista for wanting to show off and celebrate a little. They've got a great product on their hand. (For another glowing review, check Todd Douglass Jr.'s write-up.) One glance of the itinerary made it clear that some thought had gone into creating an event that wasn't merely intended to dazzle participating reporters out of sheer glitz, but was in line with the primary focus of the Platinum Edition's many bonus features. Going back to the original source of the movie wasn't just a mission to restore the picture quality, but the main thrust of the DVD trappings, as well. The bulk of the extras explore the lengthy construction of the story, tracing its move from book and stage to the silver screen.
One of the main features is "In Walt's Words - Why I Made Peter Pan," a dramatic, visual interpretation of an article Disney wrote for a long defunct magazine. In it, he explains how he was exposed to J.M. Barrie's play as a young boy, even starring in a production of it at his school. It instantly became on of his top-two favorite stories, right alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and when the legendary animator began moving his production company into the feature film business, he immediately put those two favorites on the docket. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, as everyone knows, lead the charge for a new style of animated moviemaking. Peter Pan proved a more difficult nut to crack. It took fifteen years from the initial greenlight to final product. Multiple art galleries and the various documentary programs try to piece together the ins and outs of the journey, the misguided detours and changing fashions that resulted in what finally ended up on the screen.
The importance of the Peter Pan story in Disney's life was the film's greatest asset and its greatest drawback. It was a movie he had to get right. Andy Siditsky, a creative executive at Buena Vista and one of the producers behind Peter Pan - Platinum Edition, described it as "the quintessential Disney magic movie" at the London press conference. Barrie's story embodied everything that Walt Disney felt about childhood and imagination, and his main goal was to release the tale from any constraints of prose descriptions or the then inadequate state of special effects in live- action motion pictures. Animation could do anything, and Peter Pan was going to reflect that. If Walt got it right, he'd make something timeless.
The fact that we're discussing a revival of Peter Pan over fifty years later is a pretty good indication that he did.
Choosing London as the place to kick off the festivities was more than just a convenient tie-in to the story and its origins. Walt Disney respected the Britishness of Barrie's writing, and he wanted to preserve that in his movie. While Disney's Pan is a bit of an all- American boy (especially as portrayed by Bobby Driscoll, who fit that bill perfectly), everything else about it maintains the tale's English beginnings. The setting in particular is firmly rooted in the London of the early part of the 20th century. Another of the extras on the Platinum Edition DVD is "Peter Pan's Virtual Flight," a computer animated tour of the city, recreating the path Peter and the Darling children took over London as they flew to Neverland. The contemporary production crew worked with original background art to make the flightplan come to life, passing by Big Ben and the Tower Bridge and even making a short stop in Kensington Gardens, where J.M. Barrie first conceived of the eternal boy. It's a fun little feature, and anyone who has been on the Pan ride at Disneyland will have a vague sense of deja vu when they watch it.
For those of us who were in England for the junket, we actually got to live it. Our hosts scheduled a helicopter ride over the city so we could see the landscape from the same perspective as Pan. While the overall face of the city has changed quite a bit since the last century, seeing London from that vantage point was still incredible. I had never flown in a helicopter before, and I'd say it's the closest to weightless I've ever felt. Looking out over the city and its famous landmarks was almost surreal, and if the event planners were looking to inspire a child-like sense of wonder in the writers they had brought out for the weekend, mission accomplished.
To further foster this illusion, our base camp for the weekend was a historical house not too far from Kensington Gardens that had been made over to resemble the Darling home, where Pan flew into the window and spirited the three children off to his eternal paradise. Both floors of the house were decorated with production artwork from the movie, all of which are also featured on the DVD galleries. Walking from room to room and up and down the stairs, we could see reproductions of Mary Blair paintings and chart the evolution of Tinker Bell from a brunette Varga girl to the blonde pixie that has remained the Disney Studios mascot to this day.
From this central location, we traveled to various points in the city, getting a more up-close and personal look at the important landmarks in Pan's flight. While some groups toured Big Ben, I was part of the team that went to the Tower Bridge. This technologically advanced structure was completed in 1894 after eight years of construction, and it was built to alleviate traffic across the River Thames while also allowing visiting ships continued access to London's various ports. The lower level of the bridge is mainly for land vehicles, while the upper pathways are for pedestrians. From up there, commuters could look out over the Thames and at the city in full.
After the Tower Bridge, we moved over to Kensington Garden, where a tour guide took us to several of the important spots where J.M. Barrie first started to spin his yarn, including his home, which faces the park. There is also a statue of Pan himself in the center of the area.
While this tour of London may seem an extravagant luxury out of context, when I watched the movie again, the purpose emerged. The various press events took place over Thursday and Friday, while Saturday, March 3, was set aside for a special screening of the film, a rare chance to see the new print on a big screen. Disney invited celebs and their children to walk the "green carpet," and many of the kids showed up in costume. There was at least one Pan and one Captain Hook, and several Tinkerbells, but my favorite by far were the two children dressed as the crocodile. Having kids in the audience actually made the viewing a real treat, as their laughter was infectious. Time hasn't dulled the movie's humor, and neither has my own increase in age. More than ever before, I was struck by the wonderful slapstick humor in Peter Pan--particularly in the early scenes with the befuddled Darling father and the canine babysitter, Nana. The animation is fluid and creative, marrying humorous drawings to realistic movements to create a sort of hyper- real comedy style. It's something I think only Pixar is able to recreate with contemporary tools.
More importantly, though, for me--and in relation to the event I was a part of--I was able to see all of the buildings and landmarks I had visited in real life recreated on the screen. If I had experienced a sense of deja vu viewing the virtual tour on the Platinum Edition DVD, it was nothing like watching the movie and thinking, "Oh, wow, there's the Tower Bridge. I've been there! And those swans Peter Pan is surfing on, those are swans in Kensington Garden!" For the first time, I could fully appreciate the remarkable attention to detail the animators had put into the production. It would have been easy to fake it and just sneak by with a very basic design, but instead the Disney animators took the time to get it right. By beginning in the actual city and then moving to Neverland, they created an air of believability that carried over to the wild and raucous sights and sequences in Pan's magical realm.
It's why the movie has survived so long, and why it still has a grip on the people who not only saw it when they were children, but on all the people who worked on the movie back in the late '40s and early '50s. Modern interviews with the animators and voice talent give shape to the documentaries on the DVD, ensuring they are more than just a basic runthrough of known information. In addition to the liberal use of concept art to show what these folks put into the creation of Peter Pan, Andy Siditsky and his crew also unearthed footage from the live-action reference movie made for the animation team. The voice actors didn't just perform their parts in an enclosed recording booth, they also went onto a soundstage and acted out the roles to give the artists something to work with. It's a very different way to look at a film we already know, and the glimpse of it we get on the DVD is the first time an audience anywhere has gotten a taste of this lost movie.
Two of the key players in this were, of course, the actresses Kathryn Beaumont and Margaret Kerry. The twelve-year-old Beaumont provided the voice of Wendy, and Kerry was in her early '20s when she acted as the model for Tinker Bell. Both can be seen as young women in these clips. Beaumont wore a harness to fly for the movie cameras. "I was a little nervous about the flying," she said. "That was the most challenging part of the animation, and the artists really needed to see the movement of flight--that weightlessness, the lightness, stepping down and going aloft. I was thinking, 'Oh, that's a long way up,' and then looking down, 'Oh, that's a long way down.'"
Kerry worked with oversized recreations of regular objects like scissors to give legendary animator Marc Davis a sense of perspective of a tiny pixie working in a normal-sized world. The relationship between Kerry and Davis in particular was quite unprecedented, with the artist and the performer working in tandem to give this imaginary character life. Both Kathryn Beaumont and Margaret Kerry were on hand for the premiere, and they also sat with the reporters the day before to discuss the experience of making Peter Pan. When Kerry was asked if she had in some way become Tinker Bell after being associated with the pixie for so many years, she explained, "I think Tinker Bell has become me. Years later, I was having lunch with Marc Davis and his wife Alice...and Marc leaned over and said, 'Margaret, you're still Tinker Bell. Look up on the screen, and there you are.' And so I had to come back and say, 'Marc, you're the one who did that.'"
(left to right): Karhryn Beaumont, Andy Siditsky, & Margaret Kerry
In fact, in their separate talks, both actors noted how the animators had managed to capture their personalities in the two characters. "I was pretty much the same age as Wendy, going through similar changes in feelings and attitudes as Wendy was experiencing," Beaumont said. "It was a special event for me, and what a marvelous opportunity it was for someone so young. What other children would have such an opportunity?" Beaumont even said her family and friends had been shocked to see her facial expressions and body language translated to a cartoon world. "The artists picked up my characteristics, the way that I moved and how I expressed myself." She believes it's this attention to detail that makes you forget that you're watching cartoons and see the characters as real people.
Even now, you can see how the two women fit their parts. Beaumont is warmer and more proper, whereas Kerry is more of an outgoing personality. "I've had more than one man walk up to me and say, 'I fell in love with Tinker Bell when I was eight years old, and I'm still in love with her,'" Kerry told us, "and my answer to them is usually, 'Well, I'm not doing anything next Tuesday, would you like to get married?'" She still displays the same coquettish self- confidence and charm of her cartoon counterpart. If you can, watch the documentaries with these two before you see the movie again, because I guarantee you that the image of both of them will come through for you when you see Wendy and Tinker Bell in action.
In fact, I think that was basically the point of this press event. We essentially got to live out the DVD extras, to see that they were more than just cursory filler to justify a second disc; yet, the extras themselves are so good, it was almost unnecessary. What Disney has done with this re-release is harness the idea of DVD as a full experience. The Peter Pan - Platinum Edition goes further than just a regular viewing experience normally goes, taking us beyond the screen to look at everything behind the story.
Naturally, none of that would matter if the movie itself wasn't such a gem. As I already noted, Peter Pan still works. In this case, "timeless classic" isn't some empty ranking. Watching it again, adults and children alike will be delighted by the humor and excited by the action. Perhaps more than my appreciation of the slapstick, I was impressed by the economy of storytelling on display. For instance, when we first meet Hook and Smee, the writers deal with a lot of exposition in a very short scene. Within one conversation, the audience learns everything it needs to know about Hook's grudge against Peter, how the pirate lost his hand, and why he's being pursued by a hungry crocodile with an alarm clock in its belly. The explanation is so smooth and efficient, however, you won't even realize it's happening. The animators make it look effortless.
Which I guess is the product of fifteen years of story development. Seeing the amount of effort that went into getting the script just right--including a new feature called "The Peter Pan that Almost Was" that recreated rejected sequences via the original storyboards and the Roy Disney-hosted commentary carried over from the previous DVD of Peter Pan--you'll be able to appreciate the precise surgery that the old Disney team performed on every project they undertook. Kathryn Beaumont says she sat in on the storyboard meetings and heard the spitballing of ideas first-hand, and she told me that seeing it again at the new premiere, all of those overheard conversations came rushing back; similarly, Margaret Kerry attests to the depth of information uncovered for the new documentaries. Watching the Tinker Bell-centric "Tinker Bell: A Fairy's Tale" was just as eye-opening for her as it will be for the audience. She said, "3/4 of the stuff I didn't know." Given that she was there the whole time, that's a pretty impressive ratio of known vs. unknown. ("I'm so cute in the interviews," she said. "I want to you to notice that." So, pay attention!)
So, in short, if the Peter Pan - Platinum Edition is one of those double-dips (or, in this case, triple-dips) you're on the fence about upgrading to, jump down and make the change. From the stunning new image transfer to the beefing up of the bonus features, this is the DVD presentation of this classic cartoon your library requires. While Disney might have been slow to get their DVD department up to snuff, they are more than making up for it now. This Platinum Edition is worthy of the distinction, adding to an already staggering catalogue of discs.
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Much thanks to Mac McLean at McLean PR and Claire Lundie and the other folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment for hosting this event and providing DVD Talk with the materials for this article.
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