Blu-ray Review: “Peter Pan” and “Frankenweenie”
As a father of a four-year-old girl, I read a recent Atlantic blog post about Disney princesses with a shock of recognition, though so far we’ve been spared the worst of the marketing excess. What the author missed, however, was any consideration of the movies themselves, other than this schoolmarm scold: “Regardless of the more recent generations of empowered princesses in Disney movies, the overall princess trope promotes traditional notions of femininity and an unhealthy focus on physical beauty.” With “empowerment” a dirty word anymore (interviews with “empowered” women in porn strike the same selfless and noble tones as Hillary Clinton’s) it’s time to look beyond that and see what else Uncle Walt and his successors have to offer. Quite a lot, actually: Beyond the beauty and the artistry of the animation, and the timeless charm of the songs, there are paeans to friendship and cooperation, a core belief in family units conventional and unorthodox (princess/dwarf, right from the get-go), respect for outsiders (all those helpful rogues), and faith that the forces of darkness can be overcome (often from a blameless tall from a high tower; see Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Tangled). And if the ladies wear pink, so much the better for my daughter.
Beloved and reviled, the Disney princesses provide cover for Peter Pan. The thing is a minefield of anarchy. Disobedient kids. A bad dad (albeit one who threatens his daughter with exile to her own room, a punishment unlikely to register as such with today’s children). A boy who can fly. A naughty fairy. A pirate with a missing hand. A troublesome crocodile. Mean mermaids. Time bombs. And a song about “red men.” “Red men!” You can’t get more 1953 than that. If Peter Pan can merit a Diamond Edition on Blu-ray, surely Song of the South can, too.
Relax. Properly contextualized, it’s all good. (And not quite so madcap as the prior entry in the Disney animated canon, 1951’s Alice in Wonderland, which my kids haven’t seen yet.) My daughter quite happily gave up Belle and Ariel for Wendy and her sometimes questionable playmates, I think because it starts off in a recognizable (very recognizable) world of harried parents and squabbling, imaginative kids, and she noted early on that Mr. Darling and Captain Hook have the same voice (the inimitable Hans Conried’s). The linkages between the real and the fantastic and the testing of boundaries tickled her, in a different way than the princess movies. The make-believe and play here are on a different, more grounded level, however absurdist the antics. It’s a lesson in loosening up and having fun. And it is LOL funny at times, with Song of the South star Bobby Driscoll, winner of a Juvenile Academy Award in 1949 and regrettably a lost boy himself, a delightful companion in mischief as Peter Pan’s voice.
Or it could just be that Tinker Bell is so amusing, with her jealousy (an unprincessy notion, usually reserved for the evil queens) and pixie dust. She has her own line of movies, you know. Oh, and the “red men” song is, what can I say, a highlight of all the high-spirited nonsense. Disney purists balk at the revivified colors of these Blu-rays, saying they betray the hues as shown in theaters generations ago; you and your kids won’t. The gorgeousness that was always there but suppressed by inferior home video formats is a draw, so to speak.
If you can pry your kids from the feature (a brisk 76 minutes, as they mostly were back then), there’s much else to enjoy, including a sing-a-long track, a storybook app, and deleted scenes and songs. Older viewers will enjoy a new feature about the “Nine Old Men,” Disney’s directing animators, whose last team effort this was. Included from prior DVDs are a commentary track hosted by Roy Disney and five making-of featurettes. Think a wonderful thought and add it to your growing collection of Disney classics on Blu-ray, which returns to those confounding princesses this year with the addition of Mulan and The Little Mermaid.
The Disney-produced short Frankenweenie (1984) launched one of most distinctive film artists of the late 20 century–who, after being fired, departed for Warner Bros. and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman. Struggling to redefine itself the studio couldn’t figure out what to do with animator Tim Burton, whose goth-comic, monster kid sensibility seemed out of step with anything it might want to try. By 1993 and The Nightmare Before Christmas bygones were bygones and its one-time prodigy delivered a beloved holiday hit. Twenty years and more collaborations later we have a feature-length expansion of that touchstone short, and Burton has his second chance at an Oscar.
Disney’s more successful Wreck-It Ralph has the awards mojo in its favor, though Frankenweenie is more than an also-ran. Disney sensibility, which Burton was pushing against, is crowded out by his own in the film. The live-action short starred Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, and Barret Oliver (The NeverEnding Story); the movie features a cast of cutesy stop-motion grotesques, voiced by a class reunion of Burton actors (Martin Landau, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder among them), and has a score by his long-time composer Danny Elfman. It’s also in black-and-white, for that Late Show feel. (Plus pop-out, Mad Magician-era 3D, if your home theater setup rolls that way.)
The one-act short now has a three-act structure. The first part pretty much follows the short, where suburbanite science whiz Victor Frankenstein, bereft over the loss of his dog in a car accident, jolts him back to life with lightning. The second act, however, bogs down in the sentimentality that screenwriter John August brings to Burton’s lesser movies, like Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; here it’s a lot of bromides about being nice to misfits and the importance of scientific exploration, as if the anxious townspeople have no reason at all to be upset about a zombie dog in their midst. (I must be getting older, in that I see their point.) In the last half-hour, however, Burton whisks that all away for a rollicking attack on a county fair by a bunch of student-created monsters, like a Gamera-sized turtle and crazed sea monkeys who could be the cousins of the ack-ack aliens of Mars Attacks! Like Sparky, I was in stitches. The last scene, reminiscent of Young Frankenstein, is adorable. As handsome as his movies continue to be, Burton is stuck in a groove lately; this one partially dispels the thud of the emptily caloric Dark Shadows.
No surprise, Frankenweenie makes a top-notch Blu-ray, with a resplendent image and soundtrack. Extras include a concise making-of (I could look at the models and miniatures all day), a short film pitting Sparky against flying saucers, and a look at a Frankenweenie touring exhibit. There is also the HD debut of the original short, as the filmmaker comes home again to Frankenweenie.