Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Steven Spielberg Entering his Third 'Peter Pan Phase'


There was a period in Steven Spielberg's career that some writers and critics coined as his "Peter Pan Phase". The reference was to the fact that the director was refusing to grow up much like the tight-wearing boy who pranced through the air in Neverland. It was believed Spielberg was making sugary, fantasy adventures that may have had some more complex ideas and emotions that were masked and blurred by stories with child-like wonder and whimsy.

By some this may have been deemed an actual criticism and flaw against Spielberg's work, but I couldn't disagree more. Especially since his first "Peter Pan Phase" would be during the early to mid-1980s that saw him direct classic pictures like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (you could also throw in 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind to extend this phase). To increase the notion of dabbling with the mystical and magical, you'd look at his producer credits at the time that include Gremlins, Goonies, and Back to the Future.

For example, E.T. is believed to be Spielberg dealing with the impact of divorce on a child. A heavy theme that gets smothered by the adventure of a children's relationship with a sweet-toothed alien that resembles putty. Spielberg has gone on record in the past saying Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was his own way of working through a failed relationship he was suffering through at the time.

You could see how he was accused of retreating from real emotions by plunging into fantasy. But again, I personally don't see this as a bad thing nor really even something new amongst creative people. Some of the greatest tales of adventures and fantasy were created with the writer dealing and working through more complex themes that can't necessarily be grasped at first look. Stephen King often admits to many of his horror stories being about something much more than just things that go bump in the night.

I'd much rather go on an epic adventure that may have been initially fueled by feelings of loss or ways to deal with one's actual personal life then just be presented yet another melodramatic story. E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark may be pure fantasy, but their also deceptively complex stories that also happen to be two of my all-time favourite movies. I wouldn't change a thing.

Spielberg was seen as growing up in the mid to late 1980s by helming pictures like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. If that period is truly deemed as Spielberg growing up, then 1989 to the early 1990s has to be his return to Neverland. He steeps himself in fantasy and wonder again with pictures like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park, and of course, his literal "Peter Pan Phase" with Hook (fittingly about a grown-up Peter Pan). After that with a few exceptions, Spielberg could be seen as abandoning Neverland with much more serious and emotionally complex movies like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich.

I completely confess I'm simplifying things to make a point here. Spielberg in the last twenty years did make yet another Jones adventure, extensively dabbled in sci-fi, and directed the Tintin feature. He has never fully abandoned that sense of wonder and childhood, but over the past few decades, he is more associated with making 'Oscar-worthy' fare like Lincoln and War Horse. You hear about Spielberg helming a picture now and you automatically think a Best Picture contender and something with some serious weight (even if he has his detractors that think even his dramas are far too light and bubbly).

This fall's Bridge of Spies completely fits into the modern perception of Spielberg. A dramatic thriller that is based on true events set in 1960s and about the Cold War and stars Tom Hanks. It is about a lawyer who is tasked with negotiating with Soviets Russia for the safe return of a pilot who was shot down in their borders. It is one of my most anticipated movies of the year and even though it is months away from being screened has to be considered a major Oscar contender.

Then that all changes after this year, as Spielberg suddenly is ready to chase shooting stars and seek his inner child again. We have an adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel BFG, which is a children's classic about a girl teaming up with a big friendly giant to capture a group of nasty, man-eating giants. It feels like something perfect for early 1980s Spielberg.

It now looks like he won't stop with that children's tale. It was announced today he has signed to direct an adaptation of Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One. The story is about a teenager jacked into a virtual utopia known as OASIS who goes on an adventure to discover an "Easter Egg" that will allow him to inherit the estate of the deceased creator of the world, but as it always happens, must compete with some less than scrupulous individuals. So basically, another picture that seems to fit perfectly with a Spielberg of another time. A Spielberg that would expertly turn this into a whimsical and wondrous adventure that a young Christopher would excitedly reenact in his backyard (many bike rides in the mid-1980s was my own return to E.T.).

If this truly is a return to Neverland for Spielberg with his same talents and eye for young adventure, then maybe Everett may have a modern movie to open up his imagination and trigger him to recreate in his own backyard. I'm sure this time will also have themes and concepts that he doesn't fully grasp but will still register with him on some level. Spielberg was and will hopefully prove to be the master of capturing childhood adventure on the big screen.

The foray into Neverland may be short as Spielberg is also set to direct a picture potentially starring Jennifer Lawrence based on the memoirs of war photographer Lynsey Addario, It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War. So, he won't be away from the Oscar hunt for too long and be back dealing with serious subject matter.

Sometimes the most serious stuff is best dealt with in children's tales and epic adventures. I'm excited with Spielberg's return to movies that are targeted towards kids and families. My son and daughter will have a chance to see one of the truly great directors weave his magic again and witness the heart of a man who has never been afraid to embrace his childhood.

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