Of all the 1950s Disney features, PETER PAN (1953) is still my favorite. Although Walt Disney and his storyboarders missed almost all of the play's interesting subtext, they came up with a film so full of memorable set pieces and visual wonders that it would be unjust to dismiss it solely on the basis of failing to capture J.M. Barrie's intentions*. In fact, there are only a handful films from that era that still feel as fast-paced and action-packed as PETER PAN. And hardly ever has the studio managed to create a movie so timeless - nothwithstanding the dated attitude towards women and American Natives.
A Child's Outlook On Life
In my opinion, Captain Hook is one of the greatest Disney villains. And although this has been criticized ever since 1953 I daresay BECAUSE (and not in spite) of his dual personality as a menacing brute and a whimpering cartoon character.
|"...all the characters are really children with a child's outlook on life. This applies to the so-called adults of the story as well as the young people. Pull the beard off the fairy king, and you would find the face of a child." J.M.Barrie|
As you can see from the stills above (taken from the 1924 silent film version of the play), James Matthew Barrie emphasized the notion that all his characters are basically children in disguise, no matter how old they are. And I believe that this is indeed one of the things the filmmakers managed to translate really well to the screen. As an adult, it is hilarious to see all grown men in this film behave like children, especially when they cannot have their own way. And Hook, however much authority he has over the pirates, cannot have his way with Peter too often.
Traditional Color Coding
Humans perceive the color red most strongly. Therefore it has always been seen as a very powerful color that stands out against almost any other color, especially against gray and muted earth tones. So in classical paintings and illustrations leaders often wore red displaying their power. In the Technicolor "consciousness" red was to be kept precious, i.e. sparsely and deliberately used so its dazzling effect would not wear off.
It is therefore no surprise that group leaders in Disney features have been wearing red coats (sometimes with expensive golden buttons) from the very beginning in 1937. This practice did not stop during the 1950s when pastel shades came into fashion (most notably in CINDERELLA, 1950).
|Doc, the dwarfs' leader in SNOW WHITE and Jacques, the mice's leader in CINDERELLA.|
While red is associated with blood, fire, rage or passion, the color purple - although basically red with a blue tint - evokes different connotations.
Most importantly, Tyrian purple used to be a very old and very expensive color. It was therefore used almost exclusively for the elite like Roman emperors or later aristocrats. When synthetic colors made it widely available about a century ago, it remained associated with the upper class but often used in paintings of elegant women. On a basic visual level, violet and purple feel more artificial and therefore stranger than the "natural" primary red. Therefore supernatural occurences are often depicted in shades of purple (or artificially poisonous neon green).
About 100 years ago, the suffragettes adopted it as a color of dignity. And since shades of violet and purple felt (and still feel) different (they are among the least favorite colors) and are commonly associated with either snobby or insubordinate women and therefore individualism, vanity and extravagance - in short: non-conformism - purple is and was a natural color for ambiguous characters or outright villains. Also it could hint at the feminine side of male characters (traditionally strong colors like red were male and receding colors like blue were female like the Virgin Mary).
There is a strong tradition of Disney villains - especially women or effeminate men - wearing purple which is closer to red than blue. More often than not, non-conformism is portrayed as evil and must be fought by the protagonists.
|Grumpy, the angry dwarf in SNOW WHITE and Lady Tremaine, CINDERELLA's evil stepmother.|
Characters with a more controlled exterior appearance like the wicked queen are often wearing red underneath or inside a coat or cape, so that it only flashes up during frantic movements (as can be seen here).
|top left: wicked queen, top right: evil coachman, bottom left: Lady Tremaine, bottom right: queen of hearts.|
Just to show that this concept has not been abandoned in more recent films, you could look at the violet sea witch Ursula (THE LITTLE MERMAID, 1989) or the bullying leader Gaston (an update of Brom Bones) in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991):
|Gaston from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.|
Obviously red coats have been commonly used to make captains and flamboyant pirates stand out not only from a picture but among their crew as can be seen in the following illustrations by the great Howard Pyle:
|"The Buccaneer was a picturesque fellow" by Howard Pyle.|
|"Captain Keitt" by Howard Pyle 1907.|
|Look at the black hair and moustache in this Howard Pyle illustration.|
|Captain Hook as we first see him: wearing a blood red coat with golden hems.|
Establishing The Villain
Before we see Captain Hook for the first time, we see a reddish wooden door that gets pierced with knives by the bored crew while Smee skips and bounces to a pirate's shanty mentioning "Hook".
He behaves like a real drama queen while getting prepared to be shaven by Smee.
Of course, the crocodile comes precisely at the right time. And like Peter, Hook's second antagonist is also completely green. Interestingly enough, the crocodile never seems to be menacing or even thinking about eating the boy, so it is not surprising that they are on the same side of the color wheel, so to speak. [Note: in the original stage productions Peter used to be red and brown because his clothes were supposed to be made of (autumn) leaves. So the highly influential decision to give him a naturally green Robin-Hood-like appearance must have been a very deliberate choice by the film makers.]
Although Hook is not wearing his coat, he is none the less covered in a piece of cloth, a barber's blanket to be precise.
|This is one of my favorite shots because of the one-eyed expression that is picked up later in the film.|
Hook's conflicting appearances as strong/evil and weak/fearful have been firmly established in this expository sequence by contrasting the flamboyantly red pirate with a pink and purple child that ducks and covers.
Next I will look at how these changes are varied during the film and how the surrounding colors define the characteristic look of each sequence.
* Two major points are lost in the adaptation:
1) J. M. Barrie's Peter is a self-centered and therefore cruel child with little concern for other people. This rather dark and ambiguous aspect of his personality is barely touched upon in the film.
2) Peter is a preadolescent boy with no understanding of love between a boy and a girl. He does not even know the concept of a kiss (as seen in the beginning of the film, the "thimble" allusion of the play is hinted at by having Tinker Bell glare from under a thimble when Wendy tries to kiss Peter). When Wendy falls in love with Peter and repeatedly tries to talk to him about that he is completely oblivious of what she is trying to say. Therefore it seems to be a major blunder that Peter gets red after Tiger Lily "kissed" him at the powwow.
Considering these alterations one can comprehend the rather strong British reactions that Walt Disney "murdered" Peter Pan when the film was first released.
|Tinker Bell with thimble on head; Peter turns red after Tiger Lily's "kiss".|
**Note: I am not saying that these color decisions have all been conscious or entirely based on rational rules. I am pretty sure that a lot of it simply felt right and was intuitively done because it looked right to the color stylist. But there is little doubt that once the basic concept was laid out they sought for coherence throughout a film.