Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Peter Pan Mythos 2: The Disney Live-Action Remake and the Original Stage Play.

There are certain stories whose history is so convoluted that its easy to get lost in the forest for the trees.  Perhaps a better analogy is that it's a bit like taking what seems like a straight-forward path on the outside, and it isn't until you've turned the umpteenth corner into yet another dead end that you realize you're lost in a maze.  That's what it's been like for me when it comes to untangling both the history and the nature of Peter Pan.  Yes, I know, it's not the kind of statement the average person can ever take seriously.  Why on Earth get a headache over some dumb children's book?  That's the basic commonsense line of thinking on matter like this.  Well, the unfortunate news is that the joke is on anyone who thinks like that, at least when it comes to the jumbled history of Neverland.  Not only is there no such thing as an exact straight through line to be had in this corner of the library, the conclusion at the end of the labyrinth (if you can even manage to reach it) is so damned unexpected that it's like you can't decide whether to be relieved or stunned and confused out of your mind.  This, however, just begs the question of why go to all that trouble over any story if it gives you that much of a headache?  My only justification for pressing on has been twofold.  In the fist place, it was the idea of genuinely good story wanting to be told that acted as a guiding thread thread through all of this.  The second reason is that this story has a happy ending.

It's true that trying to understand the history of the Lost Boys and their Flighty Leader can be a challenge at the best of times.  Perhaps trying to understand this story is the sort of job that should only be tackled by the experts.  The kick in the teeth there, however, is that in everything I've read on this matter by the professional literary critics, not one of them has ever been able to see the whole truth, even when it was staring back at them from the page, stage, or screen.  So the task of setting the record straight falls to just some random guy out of nowhere who won't shut up about his favorite hobby.  As a result, I'm here today to discuss two facets of the Pan Mythos.  The first is fairly recent, the Live Action Disney remake version.  The second part I intend to examine is J.M. Barrie's original stage play, as that's where this whole darn thing got started.  Peter and his adventures all began as stage characters before they ever landed within the pages of a book, or on the silver screen.  So today, we're going to look at each version one at a time, and what it will reveal is a history of literary ironies.

What it all boils down to is this.  Of all the works of literature that I've studied on this blog, Peter Pan is the one narrative archetype that has consistently struggled the most in order to get it's story told with as much completion, and in the best way possible.  I know that's not a sentence that makes all that much sense, yet I'll swear its the truth.  I've never run across a cast of characters whose story has been more at the mercy of uncaring hands than Peter, Wendy, and their friends, or even their enemies, for that matter.  This is all part of an account of the Little Story that Could.  The Neverland Saga has turned out to be one of those stories that wound up managing to tell itself against a ridiculous number of insurmountable odds.  Perhaps the purest irony of this story is that it's greatest obstacle remained its original creator.  It's a history that's worth telling if you can do it well.  It's a tale of ideas with creative potential being squandered first by its initial author, and then later once more, by an industry on what appears to be its last gasps.  It's also a narrative of the eventual triumph of artistic creativity. 

An Outline of the Story and It's Troubled History.

I think most audiences still have some idea of the Peter Pan story.  In brief, its the story of a group of children who belong to the Darling family (Wendy, Michael, and John) and the adventures they have one night when they are whisked away to a far place called Neverland by the titular Boy Who Could Fly.  Once there, the children encounter all sorts of perils and excitement, featuring encounters with Lost Boys, Mermaids, a Crocodile, and Pirates.  The chief obstacle Wendy and her brothers have to deal with, however, is how to survive the wrath of Peter's arch-nemesis, Capt. James Hook, and whether or not they will ever be able to return home again.  This is the merest summary possible.  However, Peter Pan seems to be one of those constant myths.  Part of a handful of perennial staples of childhood.  It's the sort of tale, in other words, that almost everyone has grown up with.  We know Peter and his adventures, in other words.  Some of us have known him since we were no more than five years old.  We're familiar with Neverland also.  We know its unreal geography like our own backyards.

Peter is one of the pantheon in the great nursery of of childhood memory.  He occupies the same mental (and sometimes literal) shelf space with similar icons such as Snow White, Robin Hood, Huck Finn, Mowgli, and Alice.  Peter even shares something in common with the last three imaginary celebrities on that list.  All of them together were the result of a very productive period near the end of the 19th century, and the early start of the 20th.  This was the time when the Fantasy genre first began to make a name for itself.  Together with the work of writers like Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Lewis Carroll, James Matthew "J.M." Barrie's initial debut of Peter Pan (first as a sideline character in a book called The Little White Bird circa 1902, and then as the main lead of a stage play of the same name, just two years later) marks both the author and his character as both a contributor to and staple of a genre of writing that's best described as Victorian Romanticism.  It was a period of time from roughly the 1840s to somewhere just before 1914, with the onset of the First World War.  

Spanning both the Victorian and Edwardian eras, I call this birth of modern popular children's fiction a strain of Romanticism because in many ways it just makes sense to view all of the major writers who worked in this period as more or less inheritors of the same literary aesthetic practices and techniques such as those developed by William Blake, John Keats, and S.T. Coleridge.  None of these poets invented the idea of folklore, or the notion of journeys into perilous realms.  What makes them all count, however, is that poems such as Endymion and The Ancient Mariner were the vanguard publications signaling the first major underground tremors of a re-awakening appreciation for stories of the fantastic that would later become an eruption with the arrival of the first major spate of storybooks for young readers.  In fact, it was even two of the Romantic authors, Charles and Mary Lamb, who helped kickstart the whole thing with their joint publication of the plays of Shakespeare transcribed into a book of prose short stories.  From there, writers like Frederick Marryat and R.M. Ballantyne would go on to write the first few Boy's Own Adventure tales, and then John Ruskin helped complete the beginning with the 1851 publication of this little fantasy book called The King of the Golden River.

In the wake of all this gradual build-up, a kind of cottage industry began to take root as writers as diverse as Edith Nesbit or more obscure names like Mary Louisa Molesworth, Juliana Horatio Ewing, or Andrew Lang began to create the first type of popular fiction ever geared toward a mass audience readership.  The interesting thing is that while I'm not sure anyone involved with this Victorian Renaissance was deliberately trying to break new ground or anything like that, what they ended up doing was collectively giving the Fantasy genre its modern identity.  Perhaps the most remarkable part about this particular artistic achievement has been its long term durability.  While it has updated its appearances with the passing of years, its basic, fundamental nature and narrative contours have maintained a remarkable sense of cohesion; something that the passage of time has done little to erase.

The key thing to remember is that this entire creative spring was and remains the result of the literary aesthetic developed by the likes of Blake and Coleridge.  "The word Romanticism is a loose enough term to describe this shift in sensibility", according to Prof. Stephen Prickett (6).  And that makes writers like J.M. Barrie an inheritor of sorts.  There's an almost perfect irony lying in wait when we reach his part in this larger story of genre formation.  While it's true enough to claim that Barrie was one of the Romantic inheritors of the Victorian/Edwardian Age, his own contributions tell a story laced with a lot of bitter ironies.  James Barrie grew up in a Burgh of Scotland known as Kirriemuir to Working going on Middle Class parents.  In theory, it's possible to assume that Barrie might have had the chance at a normal life.  Under other circumstances, all might have gone well, and the young lad would have had to endure no more than the normal life of a 19th century Highlands boy.  Unfortunately for the real author, two things got in the way of an experience of normal reality.  The first was that his mother always preferred his older brother David over any of her other children, including him.  And when James was 6, and David was just shy of his 14th birthday, Barrie's older brother suffered a fatal accident when he fell ice skating.  These two events combined to take a toll on the writer's mind.

What we're talking about with J.M. Barrie is the clinical case study of a writer formed out of a fundamentally dysfunctional family setting.  For whatever reason, his mother became psychologically attached to her first child.  Young David Barrie was made the apple of his mother's eye to the point where it soon became obvious that he was the only child she ever really cared for, and none else.  This is the type of situation that can happen families all over the world.  The parent becomes guilty of a kind of favoritism amongst their children which is unhealthy at its core, and by all means should be avoided in order to stave off the kind of simmering jealousy as that which first grew and then festered between young James and his older brother.  It has to be noted that whenever a parent does latch onto a favored son or daughter in this way, the causes are often far from normal.  If you dig deep enough, you'll soon find a personal psychological motivation that has a lot more to do with questions of personal comfort or ambition.  The parent is more concerned with re-living their own life through their children, rather than seeing the child as their own personality in need of growth and all the proper encouragements.

This seems to have been the ultimate case of Margaret Barrie, James' mother.  When David, her favorite son died, Margaret never took it as just the obvious tragedy that it was.  Instead, there is the sense that she felt that life, the universe, what have you, had cheated her out of this unspoken personal desire and ambition on some fundamental level.  In other words, it wasn't David as a son that she was interested in.  Rather it was David as a means to some selfish, personal end that she was ever truly interested in.  Now those means and ends had been wrenched from her.  In his own biography, James Barrie records how his mother was "inconsolable" at David's passing, and in a sense that's true.  It was just perhaps a lot less to do with sorrow over the loss of a child, and more concerned with a now forever undefined goal of personal power being taken away from her.  Whether or not James himself was aware of this remains a matter of speculation.  Although one can't always rule it out.  Margaret Barrie was, in short, a fundamentally selfish person, and this inability to engage with the world on its own terms went on to have a detrimental effect on her only remaining son.  It resulted in a boy who never grew up.

Margaret Barrie's consequential mismanagement of her son James left the author with a series of crippling inferiority complexes.  Chief among them seems to have been a general lack of trust in other people, especially adults and the normal relationships that tend to develop amongst grown-ups, such as genuine romantic feelings.  The result was one failed marriage that seems to have remained sexless and childless.  Nor is it all that surprising considering the way his own childhood had conditioned him in a general direction away from all the normal human contacts.  J.M. Barrie, then, is a portrait of the artist as a maladjusted human being.  This is best on display in the one creation that has guaranteed him a very ironic immortality.  Turns out the story of Peter Pan serves as a great textbook example of all the ways a good story idea can suffer when its in the hands of a writer whose mental capabilities are perhaps missing a few beers shy of a full six-pack.  The initial concept of Neverland and its inhabitants started out as an embryonic idea that began to evolve and take shape from Barrie's interactions with the children of the Llewellyn Davies family.  I covered this toxic relationship in an older review here.

The gist of it is that Barrie's stunted psychological development meant that his chronic inability to develop a full trusting relationship with others meant that his interactions with the Davies boys (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas) while never reaching the most dangerous levels of child/adult interactions, did always manage to contain this unhealthy level of manipulation about it.  One gets the sense that Barrie enjoyed chaperoning the kids not for the sake of their own well-being, and instead more for the way they could serve as his own living, collective security blanket he could use to hide away from both the world, and more importantly his own troubles.  This same strategy seems to  have bled into his writing practices as he began to construct the secondary world of Neverland out of his interactions with the Davies boys.  What's interesting to note is that the trouble of using others for one's own neurotic purposes appears to have had as deleterious an effect on make believe personalities just as it does on real life ones.  In each case, we have Barrie trying to act as an author both on the page and in reality.  The trouble with inflicting a fundamentally selfish behavior pattern on others is that it begins to take a psychic toll on those within the abuser's social circles.  These are just basic psychological facts.
It's what happened to the Davies boys, many of whom came to bad ends, and a lot of it might have been due to the same kind of mismanagement that Barrie inherited from mistreatment at the hands of his mother, and which he in turn passed on to them.  In many ways, it's possible to claim that the finished Pan faired no better.  Now of course I'll have to admit the obvious here.  The safety of real children comes first before works of fiction any time, day or night.  Not just as a matter of commonsense, but also down to an intrinsic psychological necessity.  There's just something in the human mind that won't allow us to rest easy with the suffering of others.  For all we know, that might be the closest origin point to the nature of morality itself.  At the least it says something when the only way to ease a tortured mind is to help prevent the same from happening to others.  Sadly, no one was there to protect Barrie or the Davies children,  It's just odd after noting something like this, that the same pattern of abuse also tends to play out in the pages of the original finished draft for the play of the Boy Who Won't Grow Up.
If we apply this rubric to the finished play script, then what it reveals is a story that wants to tell itself, and yet it's never really given a chance.  You start to get the sense that the author might have a legitimate idea for a very good Fantasy yarn with a lot of narrative potential in it waiting to be developed.  Now the regular way this process works is that the writer just has to find the correct way to tap into that exact same potential contained within the creative idea, or archetype that has flashed up like a flare from the Imagination.  Stephen King has compared the actual job of telling a story on paper to a nine to five job akin to brick laying or building a fire.  I tend to think of it as an intellectual game that works like a cross between solitaire and Go Fish.  All the artist can do is develop patience and commitment enough to wait for the ideas (if any) to come, and then just see if they can tap into that Imagination well enough to not just place the story on the page, but also do it in the best way possible, so that the artist can be able to unearth something similar to a living fossil with a life of its own.

Bear in mind, I've just described the normal way of writing fiction.  Barrie never goes this route.  Instead, imagine what happens when what sounds like a cast of characters with a lot of creative potential start to form and come together, creating this enchanted island background for a secondary world.  As time goes on, this cast begins to work gain a better idea of who they are, or what their roles could be, and what sort of narrative can be spun out from their interactions.  There's a sense of promise as things begin to coalesce and a clearer picture of the overall story begins to emerge.  It's the story of this group of average children on the cusp of adulthood, and their shared difficulties in coming to grips with the pressure of growing up, and how they chance to meet this other kid who comes from a faraway land, located somewhere "second to the right, and straight on till morning".  

What follows is some kind of adventure as this flying boy named Peter takes Wendy and her brothers on a journey through this secondary world.  The story then should play out as a coming of age tale for the siblings John, Michael, and their big sister as their experiences in Neverland teaches them about the tragedies and triumphs of childhood, as well as the real significance of what it means to grow up.  Nor are they only ones effected by their stay in this fantastical otherworld as Peter's time with Wendy and the close calls they have in their shared encounters fighting off the schemes and machinations of the wicked Captain Hook prove to be not just a lesson for Wendy and the boys, but also something of a growing experience for Peter Pan as well.  The following summary is made to give the reader a sense of how the original story idea might have presented itself to Barrie over time as it began to take shape through his interactions with the Davies family.  As was said, though, if this is in any way close to how the story might have appeared in Barrie's mind, then what happened next is best described the ultimate act of creative dismantling of a narrative concept and it's creative potential by the author himself.

You see, the best and most standard way of handling any possible idea for a work of fiction is for the author to get out of the Imagination's way, and let it weave together all the necessary narrative threads that it needs in order to produce as complete and successful a book, film, or play as possible.  This creative necessity of getting out of the way, and letting the tale tell itself is of especial importance whenever it becomes clear that the story idea in and of itself contains all the artistic potential ready to order in its initial conception.  This is how it was for J.R.R. Tolkien when he scribbled the words, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit" in an idle moment on a piece of paper.  From there, the Professor knew his duty as author was to stand aside and let the world of Middle Earth open and bloom forth in his mind's eye.  The results of that particular moment of carefully shepherded and guided inspiration have created what is almost a literary institution in it's own right.  Neverland has something like this reputation, yet it's never scaled to the same heights as Hobbiton and its environs.  I think a lot of the reason for that stems from Barrie not being able to get out of either his or the story's own way.

Unlike Tolkien, Barrie was the not so proud possessor of a highly neurotic outlook on life and people in general, and this bled over into his composition in a way that hurt the story of Neverland big time.  Rather than stand aside in watchful attention, and letting the Imagination do as it will; it's like the moment the characters began to form and start performing their narrative, Barrie would step in, and force them into these artificial actions that just kill whatever momentum the story might be trying to build upon.  To give a good idea of what I mean, it's best to take a look at the some of the worst offenses Barrie commits as a writer.  It's impossible to cover the entire play, even the space of an extended essay review.  What can be said about it in general, though, is that the whole thing reads like a bad imitation of a Sesame Street skit with all the wit, intelligence, and good humor removed.  Rather than finding the right way to encourage a child audience by talking up to them in a manner that doesn't just respect but also elevates their growing minds, all Barrie can manage is to fill most of his scenes with padding of the merest Victorian treacle.  The kind of stuff that was left behind years ago by the likes of Kipling, Nesbit, or Mark Twain is utilized because Barrie realizes he doesn't have much to say.

Instead, even a simple read through the play script gives one the somehow uncomfortable feeling that Barrie wants little children to play all the roles, because it sure as hell sounds like those are the collective narrative voices that he's written for.  In other words, there's a kind of self-assured sense of possession in books by Kipling or Twain that's missing in Barrie.  A lot of the reason for this comes down to a basic sense of respect for the reader present in the work of the former scribblers that's missing from every page of Barrie's text.  What becomes clear is that the writer has no genuine regard for his audience whatsoever.  There's none of the epic, yet somehow cozy grandeur to be found in all of Kipling's best work (even the Just So Stories which were specifically written for young readers, and yet whose diction and cadence recalls the mode of Homer or the King James Version).  Nor is he capable of the wry, knowing, yet always inviting "It's-you-and-me-against-the-world-kids" ethos of Twain.  Now there may be some who claim this might be unfair, and that each writer has their own unique style.

Well, to all that, I say here's the best that Barrie is able to conjure up under his own steam.  The scene takes place after a prostrate Wendy has been settled into an ill-defined resting place after getting hit with an arrow.  A bare bones description makes the whole thing sound like it could be a maybe suspenseful moment between life and death.  So how does Barrie write all this down?  Let me just apologize ahead of schedule, and place a different kind of trigger warning on the stuff you're about to read.  "Peter,' shouted another, 'she is moving in her sleep.'  'Her mouth opens,' cried a third, looking respectfully into it.  'Oh lovely!'  'Perhaps she is going to sing in her sleep,' said Peter.  'Wendy, sing the kind of house you would like to have.'  Immediately, without opening her eyes, Wendy began to sing:

"I wish I had a pretty house,
The littest ever seen,
With funny little red walls
And a roof of mossy green.'

"They gurgled with joy at at this, for by the greatest good luck the branches they had brought were sticky with red sap, and all the ground was carpeted with moss.  As they rattled up the little house they broke into song themselves:

'We've built the little walls and roof
And made a lovely door,
So tell us, mother Wendy,
What are you wanting more (76)"?

Well, I can't speak for others, yet I think I've had enough, if it's all the same.  The worst part is to then go back and try to survive a read through the original play script.  If you do, you'll find this exact same scene with the precise, identical lines spoken by all of the same players.  It goes right down all the way to the actions of the house assembling itself to some second rate drivel that's trying to pass itself off as legitimate pantomime.  Here's the real kick in the teeth about all that.  I've just quoted lines from the official novelization Barrie made of his own play a few years after its debut.  That means the writer transferred all the creaking machinery of the stage version right into the one place where it didn't have to go.  Part of the appeal of turning a play like this into a legitimate novel lies in the very sense of creative freedom that the writer is allowed to have.  You don't have to rely on trick wire work and sliding pasteboard sets when it comes to writing a book.  Once you've made the switch to this other medium, it is more or less the basic duty of any halfway decent writer to hand over the car keys and let the Imagination rip off into the farthest reaches it can go for.  Barrie, in other words, had the perfect opportunity before him.  He could have expanded the original source material into something real.

He could have devoted more time and effort to letting the story and its cast have a voice of its own.  He had ample opportunity to take his time with the material.  To stop and observe both the characters and the imaginary settings they moved through.  From there, he could have gone just about anywhere, if he was willing to treat the creative idea with whatever proper and natural integrity it both deserved and might have had, if given a chance to shine.  The closest we ever seem to get to this potential, however, is when the narration treats us to a series of backstory vignettes about all of Captain Hook's crew members.  This is the one time the book highlights the kind of creative potential it could have had.  For the briefest of moments, it looks and sounds as if the story is starting to come to life in a way that matters.  There's a building sense of emerging dimensionality to a group of extras who up till now have just been background figures.  It's very much like watching a series of paintings stir and come to a fascinating kind of life.  You want to see what the story is going to do with all of these characters.  Then they're never mentioned again and relegated to the disposable extras they were from the stage play.  The author allows himself to lose a chance at genuine creativity because it's not what he cares about.   

Barrie could have allowed the world of his secondary realm to open out into a depth and breadth that might have rivaled, or perhaps even gone on to inspire the size, scope, or perhaps certain elements of Middle Earth.  Instead, history goes on to record that it was the kind of treacle writing like that found in Barrie's play that Tolkien said he made a deliberate effort to get away from when crafting his own Perilous Realm.  And so a real opportunity was lost to give the story its proper voice all because the writer never truly wanted any of that.  It gets worse on a technical level when you consider that the passage above is trying to describe a house assembling itself through some kind of magic.  Yet the description itself is so vague that it's almost difficult to tell what's even going on.  I altered nothing there.  It is all down to the slap-dash, don't-give-much-of-a-shit style of none but the author himself. 

The problem at the heart of Barrie's execution is that it is insincere.  There is no real sense of trust or of great and important secrets shared between confidants as there is in Twain or Nesbit.  The author has no genuine sense of respect for his audience, young or old, and so as a correlative, he also can't find it in him to treat his character with the dignity of their office.  If you can't find any value in your fellow man, why bother extending the same courtesy to a make-believe pack of cards?  This seems to have been the kind of thought process going on in Barrie's head, as he never really wrote the story so much as he manipulated it all for his own personal, neurotic ends.  It's like watching a grown man build a sandcastle, and have the horrific realization creep up on you that you're watching an unsound mind playing a twisted kind of game for his own amusement at the expense of others.  There's bound to be a clinical term for all of this, yet it's just not actual Creative Writing 101.  J.M. Barrie, then, in the strictest sense is not a writer but a manipulator, both on and off the page.  As a result, both fictional and real life people have suffered for it.  The irony being completed by the fact that even when he tries to construct a hideaway from others for himself Barrie is forever trapped with the root of his problems.

It makes for a pretty messed up life story, as well as a fictional story with little to no life or much anything much of else in it except for a catalogue of the authors bitterest complaints and resentments against what he views as a hostile world full of heartless children and devious mothers.  The funny thing is how after all that, it is still just possible to say there was a silver lining to this horizon.  J.M. Barrie was a failed writer who stumbled upon a good idea.  In the priceless words of Peter S. Beagle, he was "A Bad Poet with Dreams".  Not that he ever did much with them.  However, the one correct thing he did was to write enough down so that it is still possible to get a bare bones outline of the story beats.  All that remained was to uncover the story fossil by finding out how to put all the right meat on its bones.  While I am happy to say that someone eventually found a way, that's still not what we're hear to talk about.  Before we can make it to sunnier climes, there's still one more problem to address.

The Disney Live Action Version.  

I don't know what there is to say about this version of the Pan myth.  Except that it was like watching a car crash happen in excruciating slow motion because the driver was trying to make some kind of desperate course correction that just made things worse.  The current crop of Disney remakes are a peculiar, often aggravating Frankenstein creation unto themselves, and could almost be considered their own subject.  I'm just going to stick with the company's attempt at remaking Peter's story.  Not just because that's the subject of this article, but also because the way the studio is handling the story of Neverland is emblematic enough in itself.  This is the kind of "movie" that is better at telling how Hollywood is struggling not just to stay afloat in a highly competitive marketplace, but also in terms of its ability to hang onto any creative potential at all.  David Lowery's Peter Pan and Wendy is a very informative failure in that respect.  It's not just a film (or more accurately, a product) that is bad.  It goes out of its own way multiple times to explain all the ways it sucks, and why this happens to be the case.

In that way, Lowery's aborted efforts can make their own very ironic claim to a form of artistic originality that I'm not sure anyone knew was possible, much less ever would have expected.  It's the kind of "film" that doesn't tell a story, in the strictest sense.  Instead, this is the sort feature that telegraphs the message "I am the product of a studio system that may very be on its last legs, and has no clear idea of how to save itself.  Please send help".  What we're given then works less as a legit story, and more as an interesting curio piece.  It's an abortive attempt at a movie that is nonetheless kind enough to display all of its flaws in such an obvious fashion that the critic's job of dissection is made easier than one could have hoped for.  I almost want to say you can take a ruined experiment like this and place it in a museum somewhere.  That way anybody who wants to examine the story of artistic decline can have an almost perfect specimen to point to going forward.  In this sense, what Lowery was forced to shovel out counts as a truly remarkable specimen for all of the most ironic reasons.

To start out with, much like Barrie's original efforts, what the audience is given amounts to less of a genuine narrative, and more of an unsuccessful attempt at trying to make one.  The key difference is that while the original author was too caught up in his own mental illness to bother with the actual craft of writing, Lowery and/or the Studio are coming at it from something like the opposite direction.  It's clear enough that the makers of this film were desperate to try and correct what they regarded as the flaws of the original source material.  And to an extent, it is possible to sympathize with this idea.  Both the original Pan play and novel are examples of a potentially good idea that was never given enough room to breath and be its own thing.  The punchline to all this, however, is that in trying to course correct, Lowery and Disney have fallen into what might termed the opposite side of the coin, or trap.  In their desperation to make sure they don't repeat all of Barrie's mistakes, they managed to recreate the same mistake of enforcing a stifling control on a set of materials that needs to do its own thing.

As a result, the idea for Neverland is once more firmly under the thumb of would-be authors who won't allow it whatever voice it needs.  The only major difference lies in the nature of the product's final expression.  Whereas Barrie's was slapdash and uncaring, the movie displays all the hallmarks of people who are desperate to make sure you know their hearts are in all the right places.  The curious thing is how all this does is result in a strategy of trying too damn hard, and hence not being able to please anybody.  It also doesn't help that the Studio showcases the same lack of commitment towards the archetype that Barrie did.  All that's changed is the nature of the lack of discipline.  Rather than being at the hands of a single, uncaring author, the story is now a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.  This leads us once more into all the same familiar stifled plot beats.  Wendy's not sure if she wants to grow up.  Peter arrives and offers her the shelter of Neverland.  The adventures the kids have their convince Wendy's its best to embrace life as it is.  All of it remains a hypothetical achievement that is still underdeveloped and unexplored.  Except this time, the failure stems from a bad moralism.

At least that's the best way I can describe the deficiencies of this picture.  It's not that the ideas the Studio is trying to get across that are bad.  In fact, when removed from the context of this film, all of them can be said to be a positive benefit.  The trouble is this non-movie convinces me that a lot of the trouble that major studios have had with trying to make a good moral point is that they are just too outside the lessons they want others to learn in order to understand it all themselves.  The best example of this is when they try to make Wendy an illustration of female empowerment.  This scene comes right at the beginning of the film, and its when she's playing at pretend swords with her brothers, Michael and John.  Quite by accident, Wendy sends John's sword crashing into a mirror, leaving the household shy of one looking-glass.  Now the film makes it clear this was a complete and unintentional mistake.  Something not worth turning into spilled milk and crying over.  However, this makes what happens next so inexplicable and counter-intuitive to the message it wants to convey.  When her parents find out about the broken glass, Wendy immediately shifts the blame to her two brothers, and they just take it.

After the boys have been given an undeserved scolding, and Wendy told that she needs to take better care of them, the parents leave.  A rightly bewildered John then turns to his sister and asks why or how on Earth she could be so heartless like that.  The gist of Wendy's response is contained in the very lines the script gives her actress Ever Anderson to read, and I quote: "It's every man for himself".  It's at this exact moment that the film first commits a tactical error and then goes on to compound it throughout the rest of the movie's runtime.  Nothing that happens afterwards ever forces Wendy to re-think either her words or actions in that brief moment of what sounds like abortive character building.  If the purpose was to show that the Darling family sister is a spoiled brat who needs to grow up, and her trip through Neverland was then portrayed as an abject lesson in humility and courage, then this scene, however insufferable, could still be made to fit in a way that made logical sense.  However, the script never dwells on this moment ever again, and instead goes out of its way to portray an immoral action as no real big deal.  Instead, Wendy is consistently played up as always being unquestionably in the right.

The screenplay never spares her a moment where she begins to reflect that she might have done a selfish thing.  There's never even one instant where she goes to her own brothers and apologizes to both Michael and John.  If anything, the film goes out of its way to make it seem as if they are just clueless ciphers who need to be rescued by her for an assumed incompetence.  Now, most parents would realize right away that all the behavior I've been describing are the actions of a spoiled, and potentially even mean-spirited little brat.  The kind of personality best considered a school bully in the making.  It's the type of situation in real life where calls for some kind of disciplinary action on the part of parents, guardians, and even teachers and principles is necessary.  It's therefore interesting to note the way in which the adaptation seems to deliberately fly in the face not just of commonsense, yet also the basics of human psychology.  Rather than showing her in the wrong, the film makes the odd yet seemingly deliberate choice to reward Wendy for her conduct.  Like I said, she is not so much as questioned for the neglect of her brothers, much less called out on it.  Instead, the script goes on to try and make the case for Wendy as something of a natural born leader, even of a ragtag group such as the Lost Boys.

In all of this, Peter himself appears very much to have been relegated to the role of a background figure at best.  This sidelining isn't what bothers me about the picture, though.  The real issue for me with this remake lies in the troubling implications of its beliefs about women in particular, and life in general.  It's clear enough that the film is designed to go after a message of empowerment for women.  And, to be fair, that is a goal well worth pursuing.  This is especially the case in light of the abuses that girls young and old have had to suffer in life.  The problem, however, is that this seems to be exactly the kind of worthy goal that this movie ought to pursue, and yet it never does, not really, anyway.  The crux of the issue lies in those exact same lines Wendy is given to recite: "Every man for himself".  It sounds like we're meant to think she is smart for holding such an outlook on life.  It is yet another way in which she is to be seen as a natural leader.  At one point she even tells Hook that he has "grown up wrong" to his face.  The irony of this moment is that Hook for all his villainy is shown to be more of a natural leader of men than she is.  It gets even worse when you apply the selfishness as a value ethos that this remake version of Wendy holds to, and realize that this Hook still manages to come off as better than her.

When all of these screenplay elements are placed together, the picture it paints begins to sound a lot less like the growth of a school yard bully, and more like the origins of some future tyrant.  I myself can't quite believe I'm having to write this.  Yet I'll swear this is the kind of character flaw trap that the film has committed itself to.  By siding with the idea of "Every man for himself", the film is essentially rewarding Wendy for being as selfish as she possibly can.  In committing itself to such a vantage point, the film appears to be affirming some hard line Hobbesian view of life and human nature.  If everyone is a bully or tyrant at heart, then why bother with rules, or what others think about them.  This same schizoid Miltonic outlook even has its own side riff on the main theme in form of how the picture handles the remade version of Tinkerbell.  They have casted her with an African-American actress, and the only major line she is given comes near the end when she tells Wendy: "Thank you for hearing me".  Just to make things clear, the movie is having a Black person thank a White one, and the Anglo party in the conversation is always being painted as some kind of selfish bully, at best, or a tyrant in training at worst.  And the movie wants to treat Tink's thankfulness without a single trace of irony.

If it is at all possible that the screenwriter(s) for this film cannot see the sick and fetid hole they've dug themselves into, then we are truly dealing with a level of ignorance that I'm not sure anyone could have predicted.  The only other alternative is to surmise that at least someone in the production behind this film secretly believes that there is no such thing as equality for either women or African-Americans, and that they are deliberately smuggling in their conviction that all life is just nasty, brutal, and short on a hidden level of trolling.  Neither option is a good one, and there's no way I can even bring myself to call this a movie.  It's more like a feature-length insult to human decency and dignity.  I never thought I'd be able to say it was possible, yet someone has found a way to take all of the flaws of the source material and amplify them into something more than a thousand times worse.  Never have I ever had the opportunity to be faced with such a thankless task as a critic than having to review this film.

Conclusion:  The Good News is There's a Happy Ending.  

Out of all the stories its possible to talk about, I think that Peter Pan is the one with the most convoluted and twisted history out there.  It begins its "life" right out of the starting gate as a story idea with a lot of creative potential, only to get mangled by its original author into something trite and artificial.  Jump a hundred and twenty-one years later and this current incarnation of the Mouse Kingdom outdoes the original writer by taking the initial concept and turning into something even worse.  The kind of product that seems to exists solely for the art of trolling. and doesn't deserve to be called any kind of movie, much less an entertainment.  It really does seem as if Peter and his friends all amount to the most put upon cast of characters in the history of fiction.  Long before the mismanagement of properties like Star WarsDC, or Marvel, it looks as if J.M. Barrie was the first one to beat them to the art of abusing fictional characters and situations for fundamentally short-sighted and selfish gains.  Thus has been the initial struggle of the Pan mythos.  It's no surprise then that any real discussion of the history of this particular narrative is bound to come off as meandering and uneven.

And as I said way back at the beginning, any attempt to talk about the gradual creation of Neverland was going to be a difficult, if not torturous slog to go through.  I also said something else, as well.  Before launching into all the awkward details just gone over, I mentioned, in addition, that this story has happy ending.  It's because I've seen not one, but two proofs of this that I'm able to end what might have been an otherwise less than pleasant read on an optimistic and upbeat note.  Turns out I wasn't joking when I called Peter Pan the little story that could.  In spite of all the abuse this tale has suffered at the hands of others, it really did wind up finding one or two moments in the spotlight when it was allowed the glory of just telling, and therefore being its true self.  A lot of it goes back to the fact that while Barrie himself was never much of a storyteller, it was a genuine creative idea he'd stumbled upon.  Roger Lancelyn Green has stated that "Peter Pan holds a peculiar position: his is the only story of recent centuries to escape from literature into folklore.  For every person who has seen the play or read the story there are hundreds who know perfectly well who and what Peter Pan is (34)".

This still seems to be the truth even today, and I don't think that would have happened if there wasn't a really good idea at the heart of his story.  Without that, Peter wouldn't stand alongside the likes of Little Red Riding Hood or Pinocchio.  So I guess that begs the question of why has Pan and his adventures stuck around for so long?  Green comes close to the answer, I think, when he claims that "Besides being a fairy-tale character, (Peter, sic) is also a symbol - of what, precisely, even Barrie could not find the words to describe (ibid)".  I don't think the original author ever wanted or cared to find all of that out.  If he ever knew what the true meaning of the story was, then he most likely took one look and then ran like hell the other way, all while freely cribbing from the initial concept as he saw fit.  Nevertheless, Green's criticism seems to be more or less on the right enough track.  In trying to reach for the meaning of the Neverland myth, he has a lot of perceptive things to say about the nature of the creative idea.

"Fairy tale and adventure story, legend and history, yielded scraps of coloured glass that would fall into place in the kaleidoscope of (Barrie's, sic) mind to form the picture that was to be Peter Pan...But the essentials were all the old dreams of children and storytellers since the world began (38-39)".  With this passage, I think Green has taken us as close as he can to the actual truth at the heart of the myth.  It makes sense enough to me, at least, that Peter and Neverland really do stem from the same well of ancient dreams just talked about.  In other words, the story was and remains a genuine psychological archetype, and if we accept this premise, then it is possible to theorize why it occurred to J.M. Barrie of all people, and not someone else.  It goes back to something I've claimed elsewhere.  I'm of the fundamental belief that storytelling is sometimes part of the mind's way of protecting itself from insanity.  You hear stories of patients being plagued by dreams in their sleep.  A psychiatrist like C.G. Jung would claim that in those cases, dreams can often serve as a wake up call, of sorts.  It is, or can be, the mind's way of either highlighting the nature of the problem the patient suffers from, as well as presenting potential solutions couched in dream symbolism and metaphor that can be of assistance.

The truth, as Jung saw it, was that a lot of dreams and story ideas are a natural safety guard.  Something that is there to offer the patient or subject a solution to their problems by either pointing to or giving them the tools they need to emerge from their own neurosis, or even psychosis as the case may be.  It may sound incredible, yet it is far from clinically impossible.  The Collective Unconscious, according to Jung, was the mind's own built-in safety net.  Far from being a mental junk drawer where we stash away and repress all the dark or unwanted material of our mind, Jung held that the Unconscious was in fact an ordered and ordering function that helps to keep us stable, even in the midst of trauma.  As a result, I believe that Jung is the one psychologist who has ever come close to giving us a sense of the practical, or even scientific uses and reason for the existence of stories and storytelling.  We do it to help keep ourselves sane.  I further think that this is both the ultimate meaning and reason for why the idea of Neverland popped into Barrie's mind.  It was there as a natural enough response to his own mental dilemmas.  The problem there was that the patient was too far gone for the story to help.

The Imagination was pointing out a solution to the author's problems, and yet the offer was just simply refused, no more or less.  It's like they say in that all-important first step in Alcoholic Anonymous.  You've got to first be willing to admit that you have a problem before you can begin to address it.  That proved to be a step too far for James Barrie of Kirriemuir.  And so the author eventually left the stage, leaving just the story itself in the spotlight, incomplete, yet still full of creative potential.  The happy ending stems from the fact that eventually someone came along and was able to recognize that potential for what it was.  While I can't tell how much of the actual story fossil was dug up out of the ground, I can claim that the excavation was good enough to say that we can now enjoy two canonical entries of the Neverland saga.  There will be plenty of time to talk of each of these in turn, further on down the line.  For now, it is enough to note that the story of Peter Pan all is that of a battle against the odds.

It's the tale of an idea for a story that popped into someone's head, the same way all fictional narratives start.  In this case, however, it was an example of a good idea with cropping up in the wrong place and the wrong time.  It's notable for being the first example I know of where a good idea was spoiled and abused by not one, but two rotten minds.  The first was its original author, and the second was a once great film company that now appears to be running on empty.  It's the kind of history that I don't think I would have believed if I hadn't studied it all in detail.  As it stands, I can recommend neither the James M. Barrie stage play, nor the original book.  There's also no way in hell, or any possible green Earth that I'll ever be able to encourage anyone to go see an experiment in trolling women and minorities, because that's all the current live-action remake is.  It is a specimen of anti-art that is beneath all possible contempt.  That just leaves us with the original story idea itself.  I know it sounds counterintuitive, yet I'll swear this is the truth.  In spite of all the nonsense that the story of Neverland (and also its collective audience throughout history) have been subjected to, it still remains an idea worth a good telling.

Roger Lancelyn Green described the character of Pan as a symbol.  If I had to take a wild guess at what he represents, then I'd have to call him less a symbol of childhood or eternal youth, and more one of Romanticism in and of itself.  By this I'm not saying he should be considered any kind of poster boy, or anything like it.  The Fantastic genres have developed over the years into something far too grand to ever be codified and summarized by any one character or figure.  However, I do think Peter can stand as one of Fantasy's prime exemplars, right up there with Huck and Alice.  His is a story that, at its heart, is supposed to tell of three intertwined themes.  The first is the dignity of children, the second is what might be called the need for Romanticism to come of age, and the third is how the first two ideas all seem to tie together into a question regarding where the true dignity of a human being lies.  That may sound like a tall order to ask of a simple children's story.  However, if you'll recall, didn't a book like The Lord of the Rings manage to accomplish something very similar, if not exactly the same?

Besides, which, as I've already pointed out, there were at least two or more creative minds out there who were able to be inspired by the Pan myth in a way that allowed the story enough room to tell itself to the fullest human extent possible.  Once that was all done, what emerges is less of a children's story, and more the sort of novelistic fairy tale of the kind you might find in the pages of Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub.  This more completed version of the Neverland saga is worth a further examination, as it allows us to gain a sense of what kind of story we're reading once the narrative is told in full.  It's a chronicle worth talking about in not one, but at least two more examinations of the Peter Pan myth.  If this review has turned out to be more of a slog, then the good news is from here on out, we get to switch gears a bit, and begin to discuss how the little story that could found its happy ending not once, but twice upon a time.  That, however, as the old tellers liked to say, is a story for another day.

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