The Persistence of Disney, Part 14: Peter Pan (1953)

| October 9, 2016

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 does battle with the hook-handed pirate Captain Hook seems right up the animator’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.  Yet, adaptation was a tricky venture.  At the time (and, in fact, even today) he earned scowls from the literary community over his perceived mishandling of Alice in Wonderland.  However, in adapting Barrie’s classic stage production, he wisely reorganized the story so that it could be properly transferred to the screen.  Of this, literary critics were far less harsh.

As with Snow White, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland adapting Peter Pan to the animated form was in Disney’s plans from the start.  In fact, he had intended it to be his second feature (it would eventually be his fourteenth), but his plans were put on hold due to the an establishment in Barrie’s will that bequeathed the rights to the play to The Great Ormand Street Hospital, a children’s hospital in the Bloomsbury section of London.  Disney spent four years negotiating a deal to be able to adapt it for the screen.  In that time, his feature plans were put on hold due to World War II.

Perhaps it was for the best because the story needed a proper adaptation.  Disney’s reorganizing of the stage play works to the film’s great advantage.  The most noticeable difference is the fate of Tinkerbell.  In the stage play, Tink is wounded and clings to life which inspires Peter to famously break the fourth-wall and plead with the audience to clap their hands in order to bring her around.  For a live audience, this may work but in a movie theater it might feel awkward especially today with the film screened on home video.  So he made the wise decision to remove that element.

On the stage, Tinkerbell was never seen save for a small bit of light.  Here, for the first time, we actually get to see her and in giving her a form, she is also given a personality.  She’s a full-blooded character with a bold personality despite the fact that she never speaks a word.  Her eyes, her body language and her movements speak volumes.  She’s temperamental and often her actions reflect this as when she becomes angry and burns a hole in a leaf by flying through it.  This is something that only animation could capture.  We get close in so that we become part of her wordless experience.  Her facial expressions speak volumes.  Compare this with the awkward live-action performance of Julia Roberts in Hook and you’ll see what I mean.

Peter himself is given an upgrade too, as this was the first time that he was actually played by a male actor.  On stage Peter has always been played such varied actresses as Jean Arthur, Veronica Lake, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby and more recently by Allison Williams.  So, in casting Bobby Driscoll as the voice, we get our first male representation of the character and what we get is rather interesting.  The voice is not a child per se; it is not girlish but that of a boy whose voice has most recently moved into adolescence.  It’s deep but still squeaky; you can sense that it has a long way to go.  Attitude wise, the boy who never grew up seems to have stopped growing deep into the stage of prepubescent cynicism.  He’s immature particularly in his regards to Wendy and to woman-kind in general.

This is a very male-centric picture.  Watching the film again I realize that its aim seems 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 (both for play and to the death) 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 my evaluation of Disney’s animated features up to this point, I’ve noted how female-centric Disney’s stories tend to be, and yet they are always movies of their time in which the aim of all female characters is to find their prince and get married.  Here 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 mermaid’s 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’s 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 kind of surprised me.  He’s dismissive.  He 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 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 forever after become of glorious and fascinating mystery.

As a romance the movie founders but as an adventure story the movie rises to the top.  Disney’s version of Peter Pan is a red-blooded adventure teeming with atmosphere, fun and excitement; filled with dread and wonderment, action and suspense, wondrous and fearsome creatures, magic and mayhem.  If Cinderella and Snow White were (for better or worse) fantasies for girls, then Peter Pan contains the kinds of adventures that boys devoured in books like “Treasure Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  Revisiting the film I was kind of stunned at just how full this movie is.  It has pirates and fairies and mermaids and battleships and flying and swordfights and slapstick and drama.  As I said it’s light on the romance but who needs mushy stuff in a movie with pirates?

The geography of Neverland itself is made up and of counties and states the seem like broken off pieces of a boy’s imagination; Cannibal Cove, Mermaid Lagoon, Blindman’s Bluff, Peg Leg Point.  There’s even a place called Hangman’s Tree.  It’s all so neatly laid out.  It’s one of those great spaces in the movies that you’d like to visit.  That’s rare.

Just as much as the adventure story works so too are the songs.  Critic Roger Ebert dismissed the music as forgettable, especially the song “We’re following the leader.”  I would disagree on this count due to the fact that I think the song sounds very much like the kind of thing that young boys would invent while playing in the back yard.  No, it’s not “Someday My Prince Will Come,” but it isn’t meant to be.   Neither is “You Can Fly,” the film’s signature song.  That song, for me, is kind of magical.  It swirls and flies with the lyrics so you feel the weightlessness of Peter and Wendy and John and Michael as they fly over London.  I was taken aback by this especially in an era when most songs in animated features are just grafted onto the film without any kind of integration.

Peter Pan also continues to a new trend for Disney that was introduced in Alice in Wonderland.  This is the fourteenth of Disney animated theatrical features and up until Alice in Wonderland, the previous endeavor, the villains were all fearsome creatures like the evil queen in Snow White, the Coachman in Pinocchio and the headless horseman in Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  Beginning with Alice in Wonderland, the villains would be comic foils.  Alice had the Queen of Hearts, a screaming brat who enjoyed dolling out beheadings.  Here the villain is the foppish Captain Hook, a vengeful pirate desperate to find Peter’s hideout but always foiled, not just by the pixie hero, but by his deathly fear of the crocodile that once consumed his hand and is always lurking around hoping to claim the rest.

Voiced by the great Hans Conried, Hook is not a terror of the seas but more of a buffoon hell-bent on revenge.  He’s just right for this story as the villain in a boy’s adventure story.  Yes, he does evil things like shooting a crew member for playing a jaunty tune, but his vile machinations are easily beaten back.  He advances on Peter at one point when the boy’s back is turned but suddenly the crocodile makes an entrance and Hook is sent running for the hills and always screaming for his first mate.  My favorite character in the movie is Hook’s roly poly first mate Mr. Smee whose demeanor is so passive and good–natured that it is to wonder if he knows who is working for.  Voiced by the invaluable Bill Thompson, most famous as the voice of Droopy, there’s something wonderfully naïve in the voice, something pathetically sagging.

And speaking of pathetic, let us now deal with the film’s nadir.  I mentioned earlier that the film’s view of women is sorely lacking but it is not quite as appalling as the film’s view of Native Americans.  Decades before the bullet train of political correctness the images of other cultures in the movies were brought to life by stereotypes, often to an appalling effect.  The Native American characters here are more or less a compendium of all of the worst elements of the culture given to us by Hollywood.  Their song “What Made the Red Man Red?” is more or less a collection of this.  The characters aren’t really seen as people but a stand-in for what we thought of Native Americans at the time.  They are stereo-types, there’s no doubt about that, but one doesn’t feel any measure of the people.  In my review of Dumbo I spoke about how the crows, while branded as black stereotypes, were at least emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance through their song and their use of language.  There’s no such valid argument here.  There’s no sense of the culture or the people beyond the stereotypes.  The best you can say about the Native Americans in Peter Pan is that at least they are not blood thirsty savages, nor are they portrayed as villains.  They play with The Lost Boys in a game of who can capture who so there’s a bit of friendly fun in their approach to the white man.  Still, however, modern audiences (myself included) cringe at the war paint and the pidgin English.  The liberal in me is bound to be appalled by this misrepresentation, yet the pacifist in me is bound to suggest that the only way to deal with this when showing the film to a child is to open a dialogue about the fact that this is a stereotype of what we thought of Native Americans at the time – that these attitudes are no longer valid.

If the stereotypes represent the worst and most dated element of Peter Pan, the theme of maturity is probably its best asset.  This is very much a story about growing up.  We spend a great deal of time in Neverland, a place where growing up is nearly non-existent.  The story sees the patterns of growing up from three different viewpoints.  Peter will never grow up.  Wendy is melancholy about the prospect of growing up.  And her father George begins the film by being frustrated that his children aren’t trying to grow up but in the end comes to understand the importance of having an inner child.  That’s a pretty complex approach.  Most Disney films explore a theme from one point of view but this film sees it from several points of view and that gives the film a complexity that you don’t expect.  What does it mean to grow up?  Does it mean that we throw away all manner of childhood?

In studying these questions I thought of the verse from 1 Corinthians that tells us that “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  This is a cold-water treatment to the ideas that Peter Pan is trying to formulate.  If we think hard abou the character, none will ever completely grow up.  Peter is the boy who never grew up.  Wendy will grow up and have her own children as well as nieces, nephews and eventually grandchildren and likely relive her childhood through them.  George will likely be a grandfather and will experience a bit of childhood through them as well.  In that way, none will ever truly be without the gift of an inner childhood.  It will be experience in one way or another.  That’s a tender thought and a lovely message.  When you become a man, do you really ever put away childish things?  If you do, then it’s a sad lot in life.  I find a lot of greatness in being an adult and one of those things is having the wisdom to cull such a message from Disney’s work, but still being tender-hearted enough to enjoy them as much as I did when I was a kid.

While the film was a box office success and is today hailed as a Disney classic (are there any that aren’t?), many critics have dismissed it as not really following the same great tradition as Pinocchio or Snow White.  Ebert made this abundantly clear in his review on “Siskel and Ebert” in which he admitted that it was a lot of fun but not exactly in the tradition of the great Disney classics.  True, it is a straight-forward retelling of Barrie’s classic and not exactly experimental.  But I stand with Leonard Maltin who said in his book “The Disney Films” that “It seems unfair to criticize the film for what it isn’t when it is such an unpretentious, delightful endeavor.”  I agree with Maltin’s assessment.  No, it isn’t Pinocchio but the movie is so much fun that it hardly even matters.  I myself have criticized the film on many counts (many in the paragraphs above) but I have to admit that I found the film a lot more fun than I remember it.  It’s a full-blooded adventure story packed to the gills with giddy charm.  Despite my problems with the film as a whole, I can watch it and get caught up in its spell, the childishly delightful spell.  It makes me feel like a kid all over again, and gives me the comfort that even though I’ve become a man; I don’t always have to put away childish things.

About the Author:

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