Monday, January 13, 2014

Captain Hook: 1953 vs. 2014

Netflix recently added fresh episodes of "Jake and the Never Land Pirates" to its lineup, so the show has been playing in our home quite a lot lately.

A quick description of the program for those without young children: Jake and his friends are a good-natured crew of pirates who live in Never Land (the setting created by J.M. Barrie and later made globally famous by Walt Disney). The show appears to be an attempt by Disney to mimic "Dora the Explorer" while simultaneously capitalizing on the Peter Pan franchise.

Captain Hook is the antagonist, but he's cast in the mold of Swiper the Fox from "Dora," a hapless mischief-maker who would never actually harm anyone. That's quite a switch from his original Disney incarnation.

We think of Disney as being sanitized entertainment. But in the 1953 film, Captain Hook kills a man — in cold blood — within his first few minutes of screen time. One of his crew members is singing a song that's not to his liking, so Captain Hook shoots him to death. Think about that for a moment.

This is how Disney's story department viewed the character when creating the 1950s movie: "He is a fop...Yet very mean, to the point of being murderous. This combination of traits should cause plenty of amusement whenever he talks or acts."

Back then, a comic-relief character in a children's cartoon could murder people. It's amazing how far we've come.

I don't fault Disney's current staff for emasculating the Hook character, though the fact that pirates are no longer portrayed as bloodthirsty has to be good PR for Somali raiders.

The transformation of the Peter Pan character is no less dramatic. In the original versions of Barrie's stageplay, there was no Captain Hook — Peter Pan was the antagonist. (Barrie added Captain Hook later.) And even in the Disney film, Pan is mostly a menace.

Just look at the way he's drawn.

And yet, when Peter Pan makes (relatively rare) cameos on "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," he's depicted as a warm-hearted hero.

Interestingly, ABC's adult-oriented show "Once Upon a Time" portrays Peter Pan as a total monster.

So clearly people are willing to take risks with these characters — just not in front of children.