Tuesday, May 2, 2023

This version of Peter Pan & Wendy goes straight for the symbolism

Think happy thoughts

The tale of Peter Pan has been adapted so many times that it has even had space for a totally forgettable prequel, a plainly atrocious sequel, and a teen romance remake. At some point it was going to be Disney's turn to revisit this story. So far, Disney has been happy with intentional mediocrity when producing live-action copies from its catalog of animated classics, but their new Peter Pan & Wendy is something else. Like the best adaptations, it's most interesting where it's not faithful.

You know this story. You've watched and rewatched it to the point you can quote it. It was read to you as you were getting ready to sleep, and you will read it to your children. But if we imagined that something new could be said with these characters, if they still had more story to offer us, what would they say? In this version, it turns out that Captain Hook has a deeper, more complex past that sets him as Peter's dark mirror image. It's not too difficult to add this layer to the character; Hook's relationship to Peter has always been one of exact contrasts. Whereas Peter is the immature male archetype that only lives for pleasure, Hook is the jaded male archetype that is incapable of pleasure. Both run away from life, both dread the passing of time, for dramatically opposed reasons. Here the theatrical tradition of casting the same actor to play both Hook and Wendy's father is abandoned, because Peter's enmity with Hook is not treated as a Freudian murder-of-the-father-figure fantasy. Instead, Hook is something more interesting to consider: he's the man Peter is terrified of turning into.

Peter Pan has the rare quality of being a fairy tale created in the 20th century, when the world had already seen diesel engines and electric light bulbs and the Suez Canal and heart surgery and Morse code over radio waves, but still within the timeframe when no one had heard of mustard gas, transistors, lasers, plastics, antibiotics, and nuclear fission. It was a transitional period, the last time anyone could conceive of a viable British Empire. Neverland is the last fantasyland that British children would know just before all fantasies were shattered. British children would go on to discover others; there would come Middle Earth, and Narnia, and Discworld, and (ugh) Hogwarts, but those places are colored by the bloodshed of the 20th century in a way that Neverland is not. Much like Peter himself, Neverland is in a suspended state, spared from time and its ugliness. With its cheerful pirates and grateful Natives, it's the last place where the British Empire could keep thinking of itself as innocent.

In that timeless bliss of ignorance, Peter and Hook turn from discrete individuals into symbolic forces. As tends to occur in the great hero/villain pairs, they made each other into who they are: it was Peter who cut off Hook's hand, and it was Hook who chose to bring his pirates on a lifelong hunt for Peter. Fittingly for two archetypes defined by their relationship to pleasure, the duel where Hook loses his hand can be read as an allegory for castration, with the hook being a malformed phallic substitute capable only of pain.

None of these ideas is new. Critical analyses of the psychological subtext of Peter Pan have repeatedly described their dynamic as almost constituting one dual character, as foreshadowed in the early scenes where Peter tries to chase and subdue his shadow self. What makes this movie unique in that regard is its willingness to openly explore that subtext. In the scenes where Peter and Hook discuss the hurt they still feel over their past connection, one can imagine either of them as talking to himself across time. If the two halves are not reintegrated, they will remain stuck in their endless battle, doomed to live as unfinished facsimiles of masculinity.

As a character who refuses to grow up, Peter is difficult to write for. In modern Western storytelling we expect the hero to learn and evolve. But Peter is a character type like those of Greek tragedy: when we meet him, he already is who he'll always be, and his flaws drive the events even more than his conscious choices. This movie finds a clever solution to the problem: as in the original text, Peter declines to settle in the real world to live with real parents, but once back in Neverland, he sets for himself a new mission that may challenge his self-image and even pull him out of his stubborn infantile ways.

The changes made to the story are not as drastic as one may suppose. They draw from what was already present in the text and extrapolate from reasonable conjectures critics have made for decades. Perhaps it could be argued that making all these ideas explicit flattens the content of the story and leaves little for the viewer's mind to chew on, but the visual symbolism makes up for what is lost in abstract depth. (One great example is the hideout where Peter lives with the Lost Boys, a cavern that Wendy enters in a shot deliberately filmed like a descent to the underworld, which unifies the themes of Peter's unconfessed longing for a mother with the hideout serving as a substitute womb.)

The counterpart to the choice of giving Peter an opportunity to grow at the end of the story is the choice to make Wendy a coequal protagonist. In her case, the moment of growth comes sooner: she realizes that ceasing to grow would be a form of death, so instead she gives herself the power to choose her future. The rest of her journey consists in trying to teach Peter that the same path is open to him.

There's a curious irony in a remake that presents such a strong case against staying anchored in the past. It may be a sign that Disney is finally learning to retell its classics in an innovative manner. If so, that's a happy thought to keep your spirits lifted.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.