Peter Pan (1953)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson
Upset when the antics of his children disrupt his party preparations, Mr. Darling orders his oldest daughter Wendy to stop telling her brothers stories about Peter Pan. He also declares that she’s too old to keep living in the nursery, something that upsets her greatly. That night, Peter Pan himself visits the house, and takes all three Darling children on an adventure to Neverland. Tinker Bell, Peter’s fairy companion, is jealous of the attention he’s paying to Wendy and tries to get the Lost Boys to murder her. She’s promptly banished for her behavior.
Meanwhile, Captain Hook attempts his latest revenge scheme by kidnapping Tiger Lily, the daughter of Neverland’s native chieftain, and framing the Lost Boys for it. Peter discovers the plan, and helps to free Tiger Lily. After this, Tinker Bell sells out Peter to Captain Hook by revealing the location of their hidden base. Hook captures the Darlings and nearly blows Peter up with a bomb – he’s saved by Tinker Bell at the last second. Believing Peter to be dead, Hook makes the Darlings walk the plank, but Peter arrives and duels Hook. Hook exits pursued by crocodile, and Peter returns the Darlings to London.
This was another project that was initially in the running to be Disney’s second feature after Snow White. In Peter Pan’s case, rights issues tied up the project for several years, and by the time Disney had secured the permissions necessary the studio was on the brink of its WWII-related downturn.
Peter Pan was finally greenlit again in 1949. It went through multiple script revisions during the production process, as well as quite a bit of reshuffling among who was animating which character. The movie received modestly positive reviews when it came out, and was a success (though not a smash hit) at the box office. Walt Disney himself, however, was reportedly disappointed in the final project, and subsequently made the decision to scale back the studio’s animated output to every other year instead of trying to do one every year like in the past.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this version of Peter Pan. I’ve seen plenty of live-action adaptations: the Mary Martin version of the stage play, Hook, Pan, etc.. But it’s probably been a good quarter-century since the last time I sat down and watched Disney’s Peter Pan. And I do remember enjoying the movie. So it surprised me that I really didn’t like this one much at all.
I think it has to do with the characterization of Peter Pan himself. To put it bluntly, Disney’s Peter is kind of an asshole. He explicitly hangs around the Darling house just so he can hear stories about how awesome he is. He brings Wendy out on an adventure, then promptly ignores her every time a pretty girl (Tiger Lily, the mermaids) passes his way, and actually laughs at her when the mermaids try to drown her. And he treats Tinker Bell like shit all the time. Yes, I know his whole thing is that he’s the boy who didn’t grow up. But you can be immature without being a total jerk. Just look at me in my twenties.
For a good portion of the movie, I found myself actively rooting for the ostensible villains. Of course, that might be because the duo of Captain Hook and Smee are clearly the best thing about the movie. Hook constantly vacillates between ruthlessness and cartoonish ineffectiveness, and at times seems like he would be more at home in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon than in Neverland. The resemblance is actually made explicit during his first fight with Peter. During the battle, he crosses swords with the flying boy right off the edge of a ledge without realizing it, only falling when he finally looks down.
Meanwhile, Smee seems to be the real brains of the operation. Despite his outward bumbling he clearly has more of a handle on what’s going on than his captain does. Notably, he’s the one who immediately attempts to cut and run with the treasure as soon as Peter shows up at the end – something that Hook should have done ages ago.
This movie also has the dubious distinction of being simultaneously the most sexist and most racist Disney movie I’ve watched so far. Peter brings Wendy to Neverland so that she can be a “mother” to him and his Lost Boys. This seems to mostly consist of cooking and cleaning for them without getting to participate in any of the fun adventures. During the victory party with the “red Indians” (ugh – more on that in a moment), she repeatedly tries to join in on the celebrating, only to be rebuffed by a large, unflatteringly-drawn woman and forced to go back to the “women’s work” of fetching firewood. Remember, the whole reason that the Darlings got involved in the first place was that it was Wendy who was telling her brothers stories about Peter. She’s the one who’s the Peter superfan. No wonder that she gets fed up with Peter’s shit soon after the party and wants to go home.
So, I guess I finally have to talk about the big, racist elephant in the room. Yes, I know that it was a different time, when cowboys fought Indians regularly on TV, and that they were in the original source material. But all of the scenes with Neverland’s natives are really, REALLY racist. Hell, there’s actually a song called “What Makes the Red Man Red.” Name a mid-century Native American stereotype, and it’s probably represented somewhere in the 15 minutes or so of screen time that they get here. Even Marc Davis, one of the Nine Old Men, confessed in interviews a couple of decades later that they wouldn’t have put the Indians in at all if the movie had been made more recently (and in fact, they were removed entirely from the direct-to-video sequel Return to Never Land).
There’s a lot of good in this movie. Most of the songs (other than the one just mentioned) are pretty memorable, and everything with Hook and Smee (especially the scene where Hook nonchalantly shoots a crewman who’s singing off-key) is pure gold. However, it also has some of the worst things I’ve seen in any of the 14 movies I’ve watched for this project so far. If I want a nostalgic Peter Pan movie from now on, I think I’ll just stick with Hook.
Animation: B (The animation looks good, but for a movie with a lot of flying sequences there’s not a lot of inventiveness. Still solid work, though)
Main Characters: C (They do a good job of differentiating between the personalities of the three Darling children, but Peter himself is a real douchebag at times)
Supporting Characters: D+ (The only reason this isn’t an F is Tinkerbell. Otherwise, it’s just a bundle of racist and sexist clichés)
Villains: A- (The real strength of this movie is its villains. Captain Hook may be more bumbling than effectual, but he and Smee enliven every scene that they’re in)
Music: C (Some good songs, but I can’t let “What Makes the Red Man Red” slide)