The story of the boy who shunned time and refused to grow up is a timeless one that has captured the hearts of many who experienced it. Michael Jackson was famously said to be obsessed with the story. He probably took things too far. Walt Disney was another individual who found the story captivating and the producer within knew he could market it to a wide audience. He was so eager to get Peter Pan into production that it was originally planned as the follow-up to the hugely successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but the technology of the time wasn’t where it was needed in order to fulfill Disney’s vision. Disney also had a harder than expected time of securing the rights to create the film. All of this meant putting Peter Pan off for a little while and it would eventually see release in 1953 making it the 14th film in the Disney Classics series. It was also the last Disney film to be released via RKO while later pictures would be released through Disney’s own Buena Vista Distribution.
Watching old films from my youth can be enjoyable for many reasons. There’s the intrinsic nostalgia value of seeing something I remember fondly. There’s also the feeling of a new discovery. Peter Pan falls into the latter as it wasn’t a film I was exposed to much as a child. VHS tapes could be pretty pricey when I was a kid, especially Walt Disney releases that tried to make things seem more special with better packaging and a heightened sense of tradition. The whole vault concept was around then too, which for those unaware, is the concept by Disney of only supplying stores for a set amount of time with a given film before ceasing production. I remember the commercials would make it seem like these films would never be released again, which of course wasn’t true as most have been released multiple times since. As a kid, I never owned Peter Pan or saw it in theaters but I was exposed to it. It’s possible I had only seen it once before watching it recently following its latest release on Blu Ray. This kind of viewing experience is almost more fun as I get to approach the film almost for the first time where I’m more apt to take notice of the things I wouldn’t have as a kid. For the most part, only the film’s opening scene felt familiar to me. I attribute that to a poor attention span as a child. Even something with a running time under 80 minutes is a long period for a child to sit still. More often than not, when a movie was put on in front of me I’d watch the first twenty minutes before being inspired to play. Only the most exciting moments could hold my attention.
The film opens with the audience being introduced to the Darling family. The Mr. and Mrs. are getting ready for a party while the children are getting ready for bed. Mr. Darling is presented as a bit of a neurotic while Mrs. Darling is calm and together. The eldest of their children, Wendy, is a bit of a romantic with a love of fairy tales, especially Peter Pan. She has two younger brothers, John and Michael. John is the brainier of the two with a very naive sense of the world around him as illustrated by his willingness to fight pirates and Indians. Michael is the youngest and most impressionable. They’re all of a good nature with Wendy being the most strong-willed and the boys the most impressionable. Nana, the nurse dog, may be a canine but embodies the characteristics of a nanny. She dotes on the children and tries, in vain, to keep the nursery clean and organized. She is only slightly anthropomorphized in that she doesn’t speak or display any ability to maneuver in a way unfamiliar to a dog but is obviously of a human intelligence. A series of events leads to Mr. Darling getting short with the children and expressing a need to his eldest that she grow up. Wendy, unlike 99.9% of young girls, is heartbroken when her father informs her it’s time she move out of the nursery and into her own bedroom.
Peter Pan is introduced soon after as the Mr. and Mrs. leave for a party with the children tucked in for the night. Peter is presented as a boy of about twelve who embodies all of the characteristics of a child but heightened in a way to make them obvious. He’s brash, egocentric, and almost incapable of anything resembling empathy. He takes no situation seriously and is used to getting his way. He’s also fun-loving, care-free, and eager to share the fun experiences of life with other children. He has no desire to mature and grow up and seeks only to play for the rest of his days. With him is Tinker Bell, his pixie companion, as the two are attempting to retrieve Pan’s shadow which somehow ended up in the Darling household. The children are delighted to meet the real Peter Pan, and when he proposes they join him in Never Land, the boys are most excited to go. Wendy is a bit more reserved but the thrill of flying and seeing Never Land is too much for her to ignore.
The setting of London is presented always at night giving it a cold and charmless quality. Never Land is almost always presented during the day and is bright and colorful. It’s populated by a host of interesting characters that are both charming and menacing though rarely scary. Even the film’s chief villains, the pirates, are presented in a colorful manner. The man-eating crocodile, who seems to only have an interest in Captain Hook, is more funny than frightening and even the youngest of children are unlikely to be scared by this film.
Captain Hook is the film’s primary antagonist. He embodies all of the characteristics of a traditional Disney villain. He’s mean-spirited, hot-tempered, cowardly, and manipulative. The film suggests a mutiny may play out early in the film as Hook has kept the ship docked in Never Land as he has become obsessed with getting revenge against Pan, the boy who chopped off his hand and fed it to the crocodile. His first mate, Mr. Smee, is his most loyal servant that is ceaselessly bossed around by Hook. The film hints that he may be a decent person but never expressly confirms that. Also joining the supporting cast are the Lost Boys who all dress in animal-like costumes and follow Pan whole-heartedly. There are Indians on the island of Never Land as well who appear to engage in a friendly rivalry with the Lost Boys until the chief’s daughter, Tiger Lily, goes missing. Perhaps the most interesting member of the supporting cast is none other than Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell has become a popular character with young girls in recent years, even starring in her own series of direct-to-video movies. I’ve never seen any of those films for what I hope are obvious reasons, so I don’t know how she is portrayed in them but I assume it is not how she is portrayed in Peter Pan. Young fans of the character may be surprised to see she is a jealous, brat of a pixie. Her actions can, in part, be blamed on Peter who she clearly has strong affection for but he is dubious of such feelings. She is almost instantly jealous of Wendy and the attention Peter gives her. Tinker Bell is so jealous and spiteful of Wendy that at one point she attempts to trick the Lost Boys into killing her. Her actions actually cast her as a minor villain to Hook’s role of primary antagonist. Only by redeeming herself in the end does she avoid the label of true villain
The story plays out rather expectedly with Wendy eventually seeing the faults in Peter’s view of the world and accepts the responsibility of growing up. There’s a spectacular confrontation between Pan and Hook, while the stubborn character of George Darling sees the beauty in viewing the world through the eyes of a child. It’s a nice little tale on the wonders of youth that doesn’t beat the audience over the head with the notion of being a responsible adult. As with pretty much all Disney films, the exquisite visuals are set to song at times with most of the songs fitting into the narrative of the story as opposed to the broadway approach of the recent animated outputs. The only exception to this rule is the film’s most famous song, “You Can Fly!,” which occurs during the flight from London to Never Land. It’s a fun, uplifting, tune that is very much in the same style as all of the Disney songs from that era with a choir of individuals used for the vocals. It has that old, fuzzy, quality to the vocals but still manages to sound clear. “A Pirate’s Life” is probably the other well-known song from the film, with the “What Made the Red Man Red?” being known for more dubious reasons (more on that to follow). As someone who doesn’t often enjoy the song portions of Disney films, I can say these are not too intrusive but I did grow bored with most of the sequences, the only exception being the flying scene. “You Can Fly!” is the kind of uptempo song I can get into and enjoy and the scene is just long enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Over the years Peter Pan has become noteworthy for reasons beyond its visuals or story. The portrayal of the Indians has become somewhat of a touchy subject as it contains many of the old Hollywood stereotypes. When first encountered they greet others with the tired expression “How?,” and often charge into a scene with the battle-cry formed by shouting while patting their mouths repeatedly with an open palm. Their skin is of a reddish tint, some being obviously exaggerated, and the children hold a negative view of the Indians. At least John and Michael do, while the Lost Boys basically view them as playmates. The film early on teases that Indians are a savage and stupid lot, but this is the viewpoint of the naive John and the film dispels this notion by having him humorously outsmarted by the Indians while he explains their stupidity to the other boys. For anyone who grew up being able to view old Looney Tunes shorts on television, the portrayal of Indians in this film is far from shocking. This was commonplace for the era and as recently as the early 90’s this kind of thing was shown during children’s programming. I learned in school at a very early age that this was not an honest portrayal of Native Americans, and kids today might not even be familiar with the old “How?” greeting, but some unfamiliar with this film who buy it for their kids may be caught by surprise. To add a little extra shock value is the musical number “What Made the Red Man Red?” which is certainly not politically correct by today’s standards. I find it hard to get worked up by the number though, considering the most popular sport in the country today has a team in the nation’s capital called the Redskins. Beyond the reference to color, I didn’t pick anything out of the song that sounds particularly offensive, but I’ve never read the lyrics either. Apparently it suggests they became red as a result of blushing in their pursuit of women or something. Unquestionably, if the film were made today the song wouldn’t exist and it’s possible the Indians wouldn’t be included at all. If it sounds like something that would bother you then by all means look elsewhere for entertainment. There are plenty of other animated films out there with less controversial material.
On the whole, Peter Pan is a mostly enjoyable film and, controversy aside, a fairly harmless one at that. It doesn’t set out to make any bold, life-affirming statements and exists primarily as entertainment. As far as visual entertainment goes, it’s well done though it lacks a definitive visual moment such as Monstro from Pinocchio or the forest fire in Bambi. The flying sequence comes close, but falls a bit short of iconic status. It makes up for this with its signature song, “You Can Fly!,” and by having a very even presentation with no wasted scenes. At a running time of just 76 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and has a neat and tidy presentation. It’s an entertaining movie, more so for children than adults, but it does possess the ability to charm even older audiences. I don’t love it like I do some of the other Disney animated features, but it’s something I can watch from time to time and it’s a film that’s worthy of the term “classic.”