Disney Review: Peter Pan (1953)

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Year of release: 1953
Running time: 76 minutes
Based on: “Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” by J.M. Barrie
Availability: last released on DVD in 2007
Sequels/Spin-offs: direct sequel “Return to Neverland” (2002) and the Disney Fairies franchise (2008-present)

Plot: On her last day before “growing up”, Wendy Darling and her brothers are visited by Peter Pan. He takes them to Neverland: a magical place where nobody grows up. There, they meet beautiful mermaids, proud Indians, Peter’s gang of Lost Boys and dastardly pirates led by Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook. After Peter’s pixie friend, Tinkerbell, becomes jealous over Wendy’s arrival, she discloses the location of the Lost Boys’ hideout to Hook. However, when Hook kidnaps the Lost Boys and the Darling family and plants a bomb in the hideout to kill Peter, she rushes in to save him, nearly dying in the process. Peter returns to the pirate ship for one final battle, defeating and humiliating Hook. He sails the pirate ship back to London (with help from a little pixie dust) and returns the Darling family to their home.

The Heroes
Described by the narrator as “the spirit of youth” at the start of the film, Peter Pan is energetic, brave and suitably childish – everything you would expect from a boy who can’t grow up. Of course, the fact that he has never aged and either has no parents or can’t remember his original family leaves him a little confused over simple things like romance and mothers. This is particularly unfortunate, as it seems like every female character has fallen for him – Wendy, Tinkerbell, Tigerlily (the Indian Chief’s daughter), the mermaids – and a lot of the film’s conflicts stem from the jealousy that he accidentally provokes between these characters. He is also unflinchingly truthful, refusing to fly in his final battle with Hook after swearing that they would fight on even terms, even when it seems that he is certain to lose. Ultimately, Peter is a very likeable hero, though Disney do not delve as deeply into his character as other adaptations do: the consequences of living full-time in Neverland are never really explored and the question of Peter leaving to live a normal life isn’t raised at all.

Compared to many versions of Barrie’s story, Wendy is not given an awful lot of development in this film. We see her still clinging to the childish stories she tells to her brothers at the start of the film and by the final minutes she has accepted that she needs to grow up, but this switch comes across as a snap decision rather than a gradual process. While visiting the mermaids and rescuing Tigerlily with Peter, she still seems to be full of wonder and childish glee, but after seeing Tigerlily kiss Peter at the Indian camp she almost immediately demands to go home and is insistent that she and her brothers have to grow up. Indeed, straight after this switch she becomes a very good substitute mother to the Lost Boys and her brothers, acting with a maturity that she had no sign of possessing only five minutes before. In addition to this sudden change, her character at the start of the film is almost that of a fangirl, noticeably scaring Peter and occasionally causing irritation with the viewer. In the end, it feels like Wendy is always a secondary character in comparison to Peter, never receiving the attention that he does.

Despite having no dialogue at all, I find Tinkerbell to be the most interesting character in the film. Her alliances during the film provide the main turning points in the plot and her relationship with Peter is rather fascinating. She’s also quite sexualised for a Disney character, both in the way she is drawn and in her attitude. Her main drive in life seems to be her attachment to Peter and she turns on him when he appears to put Wendy before her, going as far as to plot Wendy’s demise with Captain Hook. Of course, when Hook attempts to kill Peter too, she rushes to his rescue, nearly sacrificing herself as a result. The fact that we can interpret her every emotion during this ordeal simply through body language and facial expression is quite an achievement for the animators.

If there is one thing this film is not short of, it’s heroes. Other characters fighting alongside Peter include Wendy’s brothers, John and Michael, and the Lost Boys. John is surprisingly mature for his age, becoming the natural leader when the Lost Boys decide to pay the Indians a visit. Michael is very young and full of adventure; he’s not as irritating as most animated characters his age. The Lost Boys are a collection of fairly one-dimensional characters: much like the dwarves from Snow White, they each have a primary character trait (the strong one, the witty one, the twins etc) and not a lot else.

The Villains
As evil as he is hilarious, Captain Hook is something of a departure from the Disney villains we’ve seen so far. He is most definitely evil, never thinking twice before threatening the lives of children, but his reactions when his plans fail are so comically over-the-top that he provides a lot of the film’s funniest moments. In particular, his fear of the Crocodile (who ate his right hand after Peter threw it to him) provides some amazing moments where Hook begins to hear the tell-tale tick-tock noise, his whole body jerking in unison with the sound as his face is frozen in terror. These moments often lead up to a brilliant chase scene, with Hook running on water to escape the Crocodile’s jaws. Interestingly, it’s shown through conversations with Smee and the other pirates that Captain Hook is not native to Neverland and that the pirates have simply been harboured there ever since Hook began his battle against Peter Pan. The pirates are actually quite angry at how long they have been stuck in the same place, with many losing patience with their distracted captain.

If Hook is a comical villain, then his sidekick Smee is pure comic-relief through-and-through. When Smee isn’t hurriedly trying (and failing) to do his captain’s bidding, he’s being a coward. It’s a little difficult to understand why he’s even on Hook’s side in the first place. It’s a good thing he is, though, as they make for a fantastic double act, producing the biggest portion of the film’s humour.

The Story
Peter Pan has had many adaptations over the years, some of them as well-known and loved as this one, so the plot of this film should be little surprise to any viewer. Disney does a good job at juggling the large cast of characters, making sure that everyone gets their moment to shine (and that no characters outstay their welcome). This said, it sometimes feels like the story could do with a little added tension: although Peter and Hook’s battle is quite tense at times, the Darling family seems to be in no hurry to return home, even after deciding they want to grow up, which only furthers Wendy’s lack of appeal. This isn’t helped by the fact that Disney changed the ending of the story so that the children were only gone for one evening in the real world, rather than several days as in the original play.

One interesting aspect of Disney’s take on the story is his subtle study of who (or, more precisely, what) Peter Pan really is. The film opens with the cryptic line “All of this has happened before and will all happen again” and another part of the opening narration refers to Peter as “the spirit of youth”. Finally, at the close of the film, Mr Darling appears to be hypnotised by the pirate ship sailing across the sky, commenting that he is sure that he saw it once before, a long time ago. While never showing it on-screen, Disney appears to be suggesting that Peter Pan visits all generations of the Darling family in their youth, a theme that is used in the Barrie’s novel adaptation of the play (and is also played with in the Disney sequel, Return to Neverland, which has Wendy’s daughter meeting Peter). These clues are brief and can be difficult to piece together on first-viewing, but it provides a surprising amount of depth to Disney’s adaptation.

The Music
Like Alice in Wonderland before it, Peter Pan is practically bursting with music, but only some of it has passed into popular culture. “The Second Star To The Right”, which plays over the opening titles, is the song most-commonly found on Disney compilation CDs, but many people tend to think of “You Can Fly!” or “Following the Leader” first. Other recognisable songs include “A Pirate’s Life” (possibly the quintessential pirate song) and “Your Mother and Mine” (a beautiful, quiet song sung by Wendy to The Lost Boys). One song that you will never hear on a compilation CD is “What Made The Red Man Red?” which is full of some fairly horrific stereotypes of Native American culture. Perhaps the oddest feature of the soundtrack is “Never Smile at a Crocodile”, which is only heard as an instrumental piece but was, in fact, written with lyrics especially for the film.

The Visuals
Peter Pan sports an impressive array of locations, from the Darling’s home of London to a mermaid lagoon to a deadly cave to The Lost Boys’ hideout in the jungle. It’s probably the largest collection of “locations” I’ve seen so far in this review series and it only gets more impressive when you consider that any shot of Tinkerbell often requires a scaled-up version of the backdrop to make her appear small. The character animation is also fantastic, with Hook’s crazed reactions and facial expressions definitely topping the bill. On the other hand, the design of the Indian tribesmen is less than flattering, becoming very offensive at times. I guess it’s time I addressed that…

Other Points of Interest
This isn’t the first time we’ve come across some “insensitive” characterization of racial minorities in this review series, but Peter Pan is probably the worst I’ve encountered so far. Disney make no attempts to portray realistic Native Americans, instead giving them cartoon faces (very large noses, overhanging hair – quite different from the realistic proportions of the white characters) and exaggerated animation. Their song “What Made The Red Man Red?” suggests that their red skin (which, in another example of racial stereotyping, is actually red) is from blushing during their constant pursuit of women and that they always say “Ug!” (again, racial stereotyping) because the first Indian man shouted this when he first met his mother-in-law.

The only member of the tribe to avoid (some of) this stereotyping is Princess Tigerlily who has a fully-defined face and is actually very pretty – which I guess she has to be, so that Wendy will be justifiably jealous of Peter’s attraction to her. As far as I can tell, Disney has never made any attempts to disguise or censor the portrayal of Native Americans in Peter Pan though, as noted before, the tribe’s song is never ever used outside of the film.

Upon its release, Peter Pan was met with mixed reviews, some believing that it moved too far away from Barrie’s original play. The quality of the film’s animation, however, was almost universally praised. It was a commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year in the US. Over the course of numerous re-releases, the film grossed over $87 million.

Peter Pan got the Disney-sequel treatment in 2002 with the surprisingly-not-bad “Return to Neverland”, which centred around Wendy’s daughter, Jane. More recently, Tinkerbell has been spun-off into her own franchise, “Disney Fairies” (a franchise that is threatening to over-take Princesses), with three films already released, two in development and many, many other appearances in every form of media you can think of. And all of this in under four years. Wow.

Outside of the Fairies franchise, Tinkerbell has become something of a mini-mascot for Disney, often appearing in advertising for Disneyland and, perhaps most noticeably, in the small ident for Disney DVDs (in similar role to Sorcerer Mickey on the early 90s VHS tapes). In short, Tinkerbell has come to represent all things “magical” in Disney media.

It may contain some horrific stereotyping and a rather bland female lead, but Peter Pan still manages to entertain me just as much as it did when I was a young boy. Captain Hook remains the benchmark that all comical villains must measure up to and Neverland still feels as magical and enticing as ever. Throw in some cryptic clues to keep you thinking after the final credits have rolled and you’ve got a magical adventure that still feels fresh almost 60 years down the line.

I award this film 8 out of 10 ticking crocodiles.

Next review: Lady and the Tramp (1955)

So, what do you think ?