For those best acquainted with the story of Peter Pan courtesy of Disney's animated adaptation, elements of the silent classic that predates it may come as quite a shock. I've grown accustomed to adaptations being in a breathless rush to leave the Darlings' home and soar to Never Never Land as quickly as possible. Here, the entirety of the first act is set in and around the children's bedroom, not flying anywhere near the second star on the right until after the half hour mark. We get to spend quite a bit more time with Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Cyril Chadwick and Esther Ralston), and it's especially intriguing to see what a prankster the irascible father can be, with a lengthy series of gags revolving around decidedly unpleasant tasting medicine.
And while Mr. Darling still very much takes issue with Nana ruling the roost, other elements would change significantly in the animated version with which I'm most familiar. There's never any talk of Wendy (Mary Brian) having grown too old to continue sharing a room with her young brothers. As many bedtime stories as Wendy has told, none of them involve Peter Pan (Betty Bronson) or the fantastic land he calls home. None of the Darling children had so much as heard of Peter until he flies into their nursery in search of his shadow. Here, we even get to see how distraught Mr. and Mrs. Darling are as they watch their children soar off towards the horizon.
And while those who know and love Peter Pan will recognize many of the beats of the plot from there – Tinker Bell (Virginia Brown Faire) duping The Lost Boys into shooting down that Wendy Bird! Captain Hook (Ernest Torrence) and his band of pirates kidnapping Tiger Lily (Anna May Wong)! Mermaids! A ticking crocodile! A climactic battle aboard the Jolly Roger! – this adaptation is infused with its own distinct brand of magic, never feeling like something I've already watched time and again.
It's fascinating how Peter Pan's effects work continues to endure after nearly a century, adopting many tricks from the original stage performances. I can't help but be charmed by George Ali's exceptionally memorable performance as Nana, the family dog-slash-nursemaid, aided greatly by a costume allowing for such expressiveness. Even if I can occasionally see the wire harnesses that allow Peter and the Darling children to take flight, there's something remarkably smooth and elegant about the way they soar in the air. Given how teriffic it looks all these decades later, I can easily imagine wide-eyed children at the time marveling at the sight. You will believe a boy can fly! The wee fairy Tinker Bell is realized at times by a living, breathing actress, thanks to some inspired camerawork, production design, and optical wizardry. But it brings such a smile to my face to see that even a light bobbing around on a fish line can be so utterly convincing. That there's something tactile there makes Tink feel all the more present.
I love nearly everything about Peter Pan: the entrancing effects, the beautiful set design, the size and scope of the battle royale aboard the Jolly Roger, the intertitles that incorporate so much of Barrie's brilliant dialogue, and especially its delightful performances, even if the two Darling boys aren't left with particularly distinct personalities. Much like the the original play, those in the audience aren't just passive onlookers – we're part of the story too! Tinker Bell needs our help, and Peter breaks the fourth wall to draw on the power of our belief. At the same time, the heavy-handed American patriotism is rather at odds with a story I think of as being so inexorably British. And golly, there sure is a lot of kissing! One of the chief conflicts of the film is that Wendy is enamoured with Peter, but despite her best efforts, he looks to her only as a substitute mother. Peter's backstory and emotional tumult are a more significant part of this adaptation as well.
Though this silent adaptation runs nearly a half hour longer than Disney's animated classic, the pacing is exceptionally nimble for much of Peter Pan. It certainly doesn't feel as if we don't leave the nursery for more than a half hour, in particular. The energy does languish in the unnecessarily extended finalé, disappointingly, though I suppose any return to normalcy would be a steep comedown after the awe and adventure of Never Never Land. But such concerns are remarkably few in number. I can't recall the last time I was so wholly entranced by the magic of a film as I found myself with this adaptation. As wholly and completely as the medium has changed over these past 95 years – from the advent of sync sound to modern-day digital sorcery – the awe and wonder that Peter Pan inspires hasn't diminished in the slightest. Highly Recommended.
Peter Pan was for many years believed to have been lost – the same unfortunate end as untold thousands of other films from the silent era – until a 35mm print was unexpectedly rediscovered in 1971 . That print, coupled with a 16mm print later unearthed in Disney's archives, formed the basis for a restoration in the mid-'90s. Despite being generations removed from the original camera negative, this presentation of Peter Pan is frequently stunning:
Though the elements available prevent Peter Pan from soaring to the same heights as the most striking silent films on Blu-ray, its limitations never detract from the overall experience. The image is still sufficiently crisp and detailed to be immediately recognizable as high definition. Its filmic texture is as fine as could be reasonably hoped for, given the circumstances, and I'm not left with any concerns about digital artifacting or the like. A myriad of light scratches are often visible, though the eye is primarily drawn towards them on the intertitles. Though very much present, wear isn't terribly intrusive otherwise, as you've likely already noted in the screenshots throughout this review. The vignetting around the edges of the frame is, of course, to be expected, nor does the flickering pose a meaningful distraction. And while the original tinting isn't to my tastes, it does help to visually distinguish between locations, especially when cross-cutting between, say, the Lost Boys' Forest of Make-Believe and the camp of Tiger Lily's tribe.
To even assign a 'Video' score to Peter Pan seems unfair, given how miraculous it is that, nearly a full century after its original release, we're able to experience the film at all. Yet despite these unavoidable limitations, I don't feel the need to grade on much of a curve. This is a lovely presentation, and I have no doubt that it's a deeply rewarding upgrade over the previous DVD release as well.
Peter Pan arrives on a BD-25 disc at an aspect ratio close to 1.37:1.
The score that Philip C. Carli composed and conducted with the Flower City Society Orchestra in 1996 is presented here in 16-bit, uncompressed stereo. The instrumentation is impressively clear and distinct, and I can't help but marvel at how deftly Carli captures Peter Pan's whimsy and sense of adventure. It's especially fun in the aftermath of the pirates' siege on the "redskin" camp, mirroring Hook pounding on the tom tom drum and the faux-tribal victory whoops. Another highlight is the wood block that cleverly represents the clock presaging the crocodile's appearances. Woven in with Carli's original compositions are elements of Sir Henry Bishop's "Home! Sweet Home" – diagetically, as Mrs. Darling plays it on piano – and a triumphant "America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee)".
Being a silent film, it follows that there are no English subtitles. Those in need should note that Peter Pan's intertitles have not been translated into any other languages. Also included is the feature-length commentary discussed below.
The enclosed booklet features "Peter Pan Escapes Cinematic Neverland", which Frederick C. Szebin wrote for "American Cinematographer" back in 1995. Among a variety of other topics, the article touches on some of the fantastic elements Barrie originally envisioned for this film adaptation that ultimately didn't make it in.
Also of note is that Peter Pan is an all-region release.
The Final Word
Even after nearly a century, the first of Peter Pan's many film adaptations remains among its greatest – boasting charms, thrills, and a boundless imagination that continue to dazzle these many decades later. Highly Recommended.