Blu-ray Review: Peter Pan (1953) - Diamond Edition

An enduringly fun fantasy adventure that presents a few troubling themes when subjected to closer scrutiny.

By , Contributor

Walt Disney’s 14th animated feature, Peter Pan, has arrived on Blu-ray with a beautiful transfer (albeit one that largely obliterates any natural film grain), 7.1 lossless soundtrack, and a fan-pleasing array of supplemental material (both old and new). Of course, as with any classic Disney animated film, this 1953 production has a built-in audience of longtime fans as well as another new generation just waiting to discover its admittedly superficial pleasures.

For me personally, this was my first time revisiting Peter Pan since its 1982 theatrical re-release. Never one of my favorites as a child, I think my cool appraisal was due to my impression of the title character himself. Arrogant and self-absorbed, Peter is a difficult hero to warm up to. His willful, defiant wallowing in the trappings of immaturity and youthful indifference are off-putting to anyone who values the wisdom which (hopefully) accompanies age and experience. Of course, I wasn’t thinking those things as a child (I think I might’ve simply not cared for that little green outfit he always wears), but they definitely struck me now.

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For those completely unfamiliar with the plot, Peter Pan focuses on tween Wendy Darling (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) and her younger brothers, John (Paul Collins) and Michael (Tommy Luske). When their parents, George (Hans Conried) and Mary (Heather Angel), head out for a night on the town, the children are visited by Peter Pan (Bobby Driscoll). A resident of Neverland, Peter refuses to grow up. He lives in a state of perpetual irresponsibility with the Lost Boys, a small group of animal-costumed pre-adolescent males.

Peter, accompanied by the precocious pixie Tinker Bell, whisks the Darling kids off to Neverland where they eventually run afoul of Peter’s arch nemesis, Captain Hook (also Hans Conreid, appropriately). Hook hopes to be rid of Peter once and for all so he can rule Neverland. It’s a battle of youth versus age, with Peter viewing—as only children can—the authority figure Hook as a one-dimensional threat. I’m not arguing that Hook is all that sympathetic, but he clearly represents the father, boss, and teacher that Peter and the Lost Boys don’t have (or want).

PETER_PAN_PE-Photo_05 redux (188x250).jpgWorth noting is the fact that the film’s strongest, most independent female character is depicted in easily-dominated miniature form and not granted a speaking voice. Tinker Bell represents the onset of puberty (note her dismay at her widening hips). Her feelings for Peter have developed beyond mere friendship. Sensing Wendy’s potential to usurp Peter’s attention, she even attempts to murder this girl who she views as an intruder. But Peter, blithely self-satisfied living in a state of eternal boyhood, remains oblivious to Tinker Bell’s burgeoning adult point of view.

Also of special note is Disney’s now jarringly politically incorrect depiction of Native Americans. Referred to as “redskins,” “injuns,” or more generally as “savages,” the Native Americans encountered by Peter and company are routinely disrespected and regarded as uncouth simpletons. Yes, it is a reflection of the era in which the film was produced (and of course, the cultural insensitivity of those who produced it), but that doesn’t mean the filmmakers should simply be forgiven their lapse in taste and intelligence. In no way would I support any alteration of these story elements; that’s the way the film was made and should forever remain. But it does present the opportunity for some teaching moments for conscientious parents who object to the idea of perpetuating cultural stereotypes, generation after generation.

Some of the above is based on an adult’s perspective of what could be thought of as a mere fantasy aimed at children. Peter Pan does present a fun experience if you don’t spend much time thinking about it. The animation is top notch from start to finish, the songs are memorable, and the voice talent infuses the characters with indelible personalities. The story is not without depth, it’s just that the deeper layers are a bit troubling when more closely inspected.

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The Diamond Edition Blu-ray of Peter Pan offers a stunningly clean, colorful 1080p high definition transfer, framed at 1.33:1. Aside from the fact that this is hand-drawn animation created during the heyday of the form, this could nearly pass for a recent production. The only caveat I have is that just about any trace of natural film grain has been buffed right out of the image. It looks tremendous, but I’m not sure it accurately represents the film’s theatrical presentation. Early on, when Peter and the Darlings first fly over London, there is a short sequence (just under 20 minutes in) where grain is visible, as well as slightly duller colors and a softer image. I’m not sure if this was intentional or an oversight during the restoration, but it does offer a glimpse at a more “vintage” appearance.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix valiantly attempts to open up the original mono mix and largely succeeds. I’m not sure the sound design really calls for such expansive treatment, but the surrounds are used judiciously in support of the sound department’s original intent. It’s a natural sounding mix, without an abundance of fancy directional effects that would draw attention to the fact that this inevitably alters the original theatrical presentation. For purists, this edition does include the original mono mix. Unfortunately it’s a lossy Dolby Digital track, but still better than not having the original mix at all.

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The supplemental material is extensive, porting over the material from a previous DVD edition as well as adding a number of newly produced extras. The primary new bonus is the 41-minute featurette, “Growing Up with Nine Old Men.” Walt Disney’s core group of nine animators has passed on, but their surviving children share heartfelt memories of their fathers in this piece. Two deleted scenes and two deleted songs are offered up with storyboards, concept art, and (in the case of the songs) some new visuals in order to convey these sequences.

An optional introduction by Diane Disney-Miller runs about one minute. Optional viewing features include “Disney Intermission,” “Peter Pan Sing-Along,” and “DisneyView.” “Intermission” only takes effect when playback is paused—a series of simple “Pirate Training” animations pops up, giving younger viewers something to watch until playback resumes. “Sing-Along” provides song lyrics in the form of subtitles at the appropriate times. “DisneyView” is a subtle but cool feature that fills out the black window-box bars on either side of the image with static, painted backgrounds that roughly match any given scene.

Beyond the new content, the Diamond Edition also includes the audio commentary (hosted by Roy Disney, but featuring a slew of participants) and numerous featurettes that appeared on the previous DVD special addition. All told, however one feels about Peter Pan as a movie, this Blu-ray edition is a fan-pleasing package that also includes a standard DVD and a third disc containing a Digital Copy. Easily recommended for collectors of classic Disney animation.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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