A Study in Disney: ‘Peter Pan’ (1953)

| December 9, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Peter Pan (1953) Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conried, Bill  Thompson Movie Review

If James Barrie hadn’t invented Peter Pan then his adventures might just as well have come from the mind of Walt Disney.  The story of the adventures in the far away Neverland with the pixie boy who never grew up and who does battle with the infamous Captain Hook seems right up Disney’s alley.  Stories like this seem to have been the tapestry of the books that Disney devoured as a child; he spent much of his career adapting those books into the visual animated medium.  But his films were so lush and so full that the succeeding generations have made a game of finding every sociological and analytical point in his work.

Peter Pan is fairly easy to pull apart.  It is a very male-centric picture.  It aims squarely at young boys, which is a switch from previous pictures like Snow White and Cinderella which seemed to be aimed at girls.  There’s rough-housing and swordfights but any romantic notions are chucked right out the door.  Romantic notions seem to be in the Disney pantheon, already this decade there’s been Cinderella and it is the call of the next two pictures Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty.  In Peter Pan, the love angle is treated more as a problem as the affliction that is cause for jealousy on the part of the women-folk.  Captain Hook even says “A jealous female can be tricked into anything.”

In Peter Pan the female characters don’t come off very well.  Wendy is tasked with looking over the lost boys and becoming the mother figure they apparently never had.  Tinkerbell meanwhile spends much of the film in a jealous snit over Peter’s association with Wendy; and the mermaids come into the picture with the function of fawning over Peter and making fun of Wendy.  She seems the straight-man, for lack of a better word.  She isn’t much removed from the Alice character and, in fact, is voice by Katherine Beaumont, who voiced both characters.  She is there to be the sensible fulcrum to the story, she’s fascinated by the magical landscape that she finds herself in, but she finds herself the whipping post for most of the inhabitance there.

Peter’s reaction to Wendy is kind of surprising.  He is dismissive and regards her more as a bothersome older sister than a potential lover.  When they meet, she kindly offers to sew his shadow onto his feet but when she tries to make small talk that he disregards it with, “Girls talk too much.”  When she formally introduces herself as Wendy Moira Angela Darling he interrupts her with “Wendy’s enough.”  That’s an interesting approach because it would have been obvious to make him interested in the girl, but since he is the product of stunted maturity, he remains in a space that boys experience just before hormones kick in and girls become a glorious and fascinating mystery.

Disney, more than any other filmmaker, understood the value of seeing things from a child’s point of view.  All children’s media is created by adults, but very few find a key element in their experience.  It was the key value of Pinocchio and Dumbo and Bambi and, I’d wager, Peter Pan.  If the hero of the film is stuck in a holding pattern of maturity, perhaps it is saying something about not losing the innocence as we grow older.  Yes, there is a value in putting away childish things, but that doesn’t mean that you have to abandon them all together.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.