Monday, June 13, 2005

All Things Peter Pan

The story of Peter Pan has been a persistent presence in our lives lately, much like Peter himself visiting the nursery until he finally persuades everyone to fly off to Neverland.

It started with a family viewing of Finding Neverland wherein Johnny Depp stars as a playwright with scissors for hands, er, who pens the now classic Peter Pan and Kate Winslet plays the doomed, widowed mother of the boys who inspire him. I resisted this movie because scuttlebutt was that it was a disease movie (where the main engine of the plot is someone wonderful dying of a terminal disease and all the steel magnolias get their big scene to attempt to touch your heart without your permission, which makes many of us in the reluctant audience feel like rendering our review with the aid of a chuck bucket). But the charms of Kate Winslet were enough to place my grumbly butt in a seat for family movie night, with a curmudgeonly warning that if it veered into disease movie cliche land, I'd bolt and go read blogs or something. Thankfully, it was tasteful enough to center on how others are affected when a loved one dies rather than train the camera on the deathbed and line the area with chewable scenery. And as such, it was a legitimately touching entire-Kleenex-box-weepie, especially when the little boy, Peter (yes, him), is trying to understand a world where both his mother and father die. Not since the little trooper in Terms of Endearment broke our hearts so completely that I heard grown men openly blubbering in the showing I attended has a child's grief been portrayed so bracingly. It moves any parent to want to save all children from any possible harm and suffering.

Now, like Terms of Endearment, Finding Neverland is also leavened with much humor and magic, so it's not all sniffling and sweaty eyes. I wouldn't recommend it were it otherwise. The portrayals of James Barrie's various inspirations for the story of Peter Pan are brilliant. The juxtaposition of the real life Peter growing up too quickly pressed against the fictional Peter who never has to grow up is just one of the many. A seemingly evil mother trying to steal Kate and her family from Depp (Barrie), who is the template for Capt. Hook, is another. I still wonder how much truth was bent to provide these dramatic touch points, but to be honest I don't really want to know. The fiction will suffice for now.

And speaking of the fiction, the live action version of Peter Pan from 2003 is spectacular. I had wandered through the living room a couple times when MPC1 was watching it and was amused by what I saw, but hadn't sat down for the whole voyage until this last weekend. What a joyous little piece of entertainment. I swear, all the best movies anymore are the kid flicks.

For example, one reason Wendy has been brought to Neverland is because of her wonderful stories. In one scene, the pirates have Wendy and the boys captive, and even the pirates are so rapt by Wendy's stories that in the midst of Captain Hook having Wendy tell a story to wrangle valuable Peter Pan information out of her, it comes out that one of the pirates is featured. The pirate beams, "Didja hear that Cap'n! I'm in the story!" Hook shoots him on the spot. Not since Pulp Fiction has a character's demise via a gun been so damn funny. For some reason I don't recall, a second pirate is dispatched moments later. Smee opines over his shoulder to the camera, "The story's just begun and two dead already! How exciting!" We alarmed both the cat and the dog with our howls of laughter. Do check it out.

We were watching Peter Pan because my daughter had her first dance recital the next day, and the ballet was - yup - Peter Pan. Now, this isn't the Bolshoi's classic version of Peter Pan that made Catherine the Great weep so profoundly for the endangered Tinker Bell that she claimed she'd swear off horses for a couple months if it would help the poor little fairy. No, this was cobbled together from ballet cliches, new age music (particularly during Tinkerbelle's big and completely inexplicable solo), and direct liftings from the soundtrack of the Disney version. But I'll be damned if seeing my lovely daughter come out to play a marionette in the Darling's nursery didn't make it feel like the best damn ballet EVER.

It totally removed all uneasiness my wife and I had over the amount of makeup we were directed to apply to our young daughter's face. It was surreal to see an entire lobby of little girls made up like Gloria Swanson on a Cecil B. DeMille daiquiris and delusions night. Makeup tends to bring out the eventual adult face these little babies will use to break hearts, which tears at a dad's soul like a monsoon in the rigging. On stage, under the bright lights, the eye shadow and lipstick washed out enough to make them all look like little girls again, though.

Well, save for the high school senior who played Wendy. Dear Lord, I'm sure many of the dads in attendance are still ashamed of the thoughts nubile Wendy in her nearly transparent babydoll dress stirred. I know I am. (This just speaks to the fact that no one consulted an adult heterosexual man on the girl's costume. If her father is still around, I doubt he saw it under the hot lights until performance time.) Fact: Most men past a certain age feel so pervy for oogling anyone under twenty-five that we just turn it off and don't even usually notice. But once in a while, a pop fly will come at you out of nowhere.

Brief group pervy moment aside, it was a sweet, sentimental time in life where the memory machine in the mind engages to record every detail down to the smallest molecule and when hard moments visit, which they eventually always do, this is one of the memories that will flip past on the greatest hits reel to bring back the joy that keeps us sane. Forever in my mind will my sweetie twirl onto the stage, beaming that smile, and dance like the prettiest doll in the universe.

This threefold trip through Neverland has come to be an unintended exploration of mortality for me, and a revisiting of the loss of our baby girl a couple seasons ago. As anyone who's lost a child can tell you, the grief never goes away. It just hides out in the canyons of the heart and can always be heard in the echoes that sometimes bounce back.

The struggle with maintaining hope and finding the strength to enjoy the happiness that life has to offer can be as desperate at times as the insomniac's search for restful sleep. Sometimes all that can be done is to take heed to the gentle reminders everywhere that joy and happiness do eventually return from wherever they hide, and all you have to do is wait it out, just like - and pardon the triteness of this if you can - a child believing in fairies and clapping her hands for Tinkerbelle can bring about the miracle of restored life.

And if you wait, sure enough, happiness pirouettes onto the stage and makes you feel a little embarrassed - just a little - for the that brief moment you took slightly too seriously that moment of darkness that precedes the orchestra striking that first note as the lights begin to glow again.


For those of you who were wondering: Yes, this post has a lot in common with the following joke:

A woman spotted the mother of a young child at the checkout line in the grocery store. The child was screaming at the top of her lungs, grabbing stuff off the shelves, and throwing things. All the while the woman remained level, and said things like, "Calm down, Heather. That's OK, Heather. Don't cry, Heather." Usually parents in this predicament are angry towards their children, so the woman walked up and commended the mother, "I just wanted to say I noticed how kind you are to your child. Most parents aren't as patient as you. I take it her name is Heather." To which the mother replies, "No, I'm Heather."


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