“Peter Pan” is another of Disney’s classic fairy tales, and the property seems like such a good fit for the studio. Ever since “Snow White“, Disney had been all about bringing whimsical fairy tales and children’s stories to life with the untapped potential of animation as a medium, and to further that trend, who better to bring to the big screen than Peter Pan, the flying boy hero? The movie involves a living legend of childhood fantasies and his fairy sidekick whisking three kids off to a land of imagination and whimsy so they can have adventures, fight pirates, and never have to face the reality of growing up. Something I enjoyed about revisiting this film was discovering just how sharp its claws could get.
When you think of dark Disney movies, “Peter Pan” isn’t something that immediately jumps to mind like “Pinocchio“, but despite having such a lighthearted concept, this movie is dark as hell. Captain Hook casually kills one of his own crew members because he didn’t like his singing voice. Tinkerbell tries to straight-up murder Wendy as soon as they get to Neverland because she got jealous of her. The local native tribe accuses the kids of kidnapping the chief’s daughter and promises to burn them all alive (along with their stuffed bear) if they don’t return her. Sometime before this movie, Peter Pan chopped off Captain Hook’s hand and fed it to a crocodile, and that crocodile still follows Hook around everyday, tormenting him, so it can try to eat the rest of him. Captain Hook tries to drown Tiger Lily, blow Peter Pan to smithereens with a bomb, and force the Darling kids to walk the plank to their watery doom. No wonder Wendy was ready to pack it up and head home after only twenty-four hours. She might not like the idea of having her own room, but the chances of her and her brothers getting shanked by something are significantly lower back in London. And the funny thing is, despite all that messed-up stuff I just listed, this movie is still toned down a lot from the original novel, where Peter Pan was a full on sociopath.
There are primarily two flaws in this movie, the first of which is glaringly obvious. I’ve mentioned before that I like how every classic Disney film feels like a product of its time and nicely encapsulates the style and attitudes of that period (like how “Pinocchio” feels exactly like a 40’s movie, and “Lady And The Tramp” feels like a 50’s movie, and “The Jungle Book” feels like a 60’s movie). There is a downside to that though. “Peter Pan’s” portrayal of Native Americans, even childhood fantasy ones, has not aged well. Like, at all. When it comes to potentially racist Disney moments, I went easy on the crows from “Dumbo” because those guys had layers and they didn’t come off as being that offensive to me. These guys though are every 1950’s cliche about ‘injuns’ and ‘redskins’ rolled into one movie, with literal flaming redskin and a whole song devoted to how they’re walking stereotypes. The end results range from cringy to goofy. Thankfully, they’re only given three scenes. The second, and less noticeable, problem “Peter Pan” has is that the movie really doesn’t make it clear if Tinkerbell’s pixie dust wore off over time (which would be sensible), or if all the main characters forgot they had powers during the last act. Like I said, the climax involves Captain Hook trying to force the kids to walk the plank, and at no point do any of them suggest trying to fly out of there. I suppose you could chalk their oversight up to the stress.
Peter Pan is the living legend of children’s fairy tales, a boy hero who never has to grow up, has no responsibilities, and gets to have endless adventures in the fantasy world of Neverland. Peter is the best at what he does and he knows it, many people admire him, so Peter can be quite conceited and aloof to a fault. He’s cocky and reckless, he loves to show-off for his friends and enjoys attention from his fans, as well as riffling up Captain Hook, sometimes to detriment of the task at hand. Peter can be careless and take his friends for granted until he’s reminded how much he depends on them and their companionship. Still, he’s leader of the Lost Boys for a reason. He’s courageous, daring and reliable in a pinch, doggedly loyal and always up for adventure and discovery. He’s an excellent sword-fighter and has an uncanny talent for mimicking people, which allows him to play mind games with Captain Hook’s pirates. Most importantly, Peter has his principles. You can always hold him to his word, to the point where he’ll sometimes put honor before reason and risk his life to remain an honorable boy. Wendy, who’s just old enough to start having romantic feelings, clearly has a crush on him, and Peter, who stopped growing up right on the cusp of adolescence, clearly reciprocates them (he’s immediately annoyed when Wendy’s brothers decide to tag along and cramp his style, and pretty petulant when she decides to head home). But unfortunately, Peter is not mature enough to reciprocate them the way Wendy would like, meaning they wouldn’t ever work out. Eventually, Peter does show signs of growing up a bit by realizing he can’t always have things his way and agreeing to take Wendy home, content with the fact that both of them will always have their memories of Neverland.
The title of the film is ‘Peter Pan’ but it’s Wendy who gets the lion’s share of character development, to the point where I’ve seen people argue Wendy is the true protagonist of this movie. Wendy is a kindly and pragmatic young girl who talks a lot and often speaks matter-of-factly. She’s the cool big sister of the Darling siblings, who looks after her brothers and often dotes on the baby sibling, Michael. She’s a daydreamer who loves to get lost in a good fairy tale, dreaming with the others of having adventures in Neverland, but she’s just as easily thoughtful, responsible and at times stern, which establishes early on that her personality is quite different from Peter’s. She can also be noble with a strong moral character, even in the face of death, as the climax demonstrates. Wendy’s childhood is coming to an end, as signaled by her having to spend less time with her brothers, and she’d like to delay that for a bit by escaping into a world of fantasy. At first, it’s a dream come true, getting to soar over London with her crush, but pretty soon she’s disillusioned. Tinkerbell tries to have her killed, some mermaids bully her, Peter ignores her, the Indians are sexist towards her, pirates try to kill her and her brothers. After a while, she comes to the conclusion that Neverland ain’t all that. She also starts to realize the downsides and potential dangers of never having to grow up. Without any family or responsibilities to ground them, the kids stagnate and become a bit callous, forgetting their parents and their homes and everything but their fun and games in Neverland. That might be the kind of life Peter wants, but it’s not for her. After one last near-death experience with Captain Hook, the pair part amicably with their memories as a keepsake. Wendy doesn’t immediately grow from a girl to a woman at the end of this movie, but she does accept that growing up is alright and its a natural part of life; she’s maturing in more ways than one.
One of the greatest surprises in the movie is Tinkerbell. Overtime, Tinkerbell has become one of Disney’s mascots and a symbol of Disney magic, so it always catches you off guard how bratty and selfish Tink was in her movie. Tinkerbell is Peter Pan’s close friend and fairy sidekick who provides Peter and the Lost Boys will her pixie dust. She carries a torch for him, and as such sees Wendy as an unwanted rival for Peter’s affections. In general, Tink is sassy, stroppy, outspoken (in spite of being mute) and spiteful. Her loyalty ultimately remains true to Peter, but she often has her own agenda in the movie and doesn’t mind going behind everyone’s backs. She sets Wendy up to be ambushed and potentially killed by the Lost Boys as soon as they get to Neverland, and later sells her out to murderous pirates to be shanghaied and marooned somewhere. Needless to say, you won’t feel that bad for her when Captain Hooks betrays her, or when she gets blown up by a bomb in the climax. Tinkerbell noticeably calms herself down in the last act of the movie, so I guess she learned her lesson about being a better friend and not letting her jealousy get the better of her, much like Peter learned not to take her for granted. The appropriately named Lost Boys are other kids like Peter who chose never to grow up, deferring to his wisdom and experience and serving as his loyal ‘soldiers’. They’re a bunch of clueless, hyperactive, mischievous boys who live for Neverland’s infinite adventures, bizarrely dressed in animal pajamas, and often get into some roughhousing from petty bickering. Despite almost killing Wendy in their first scene, they’re fairly harmless. The movie doesn’t linger too long on the implications, but it’s also a bit to sad to think about what they, like Peter, have given up and probably long since lost in favor of endless whimsy – their parents.
John is the middle child of the Darling siblings, and the intellect of the trio. He’s stout, stuffy and stoic, as a proper Brit ought to be, and well-educated, but he’s by no means a killjoy; he loves having fun and adventures as much as the other children. While Wendy is interested in seeing some mermaids and Michael is all about the pirates, John hopes to see Neverland’s Indian tribe and make some discoveries. He gets his wish. Innocent little Michael is the baby of the group, so naturally, he’s the kid who gets the most enchanted by the magic and excitement of Neverland. Michael tends to catch things the other kids don’t, like realizing ahead of time that they’re about to be ambushed by the natives, or taking pity on the family pet, Nana, and trying to give her a chance to follow them to Neverland (imagine how different this movie would have been if the Darlings had brought the dog with them). Michael is just an infant, so he doesn’t understand too much, but he still tries to help out his friends regardless, and humorously enough, he spends much of the movie lugging his stuffed bear around like a security blanket. We only get a few scenes with Mr. and Mrs. Darling, but I quite like the kids’ blustery blowhard of a father, George. He’s surprisingly hilarious and his personality reminds me a lot of Fred Flintstone’s. Despite the possible implication that George is the antagonist of his daughter’s fantasies (more on that later), ironically Wendy is the one who’s the most like their dad in personality. Unlike her brothers, Wendy only has a certain tolerance level for rubbish before she checks out – like how she tells off the natives or how when the mermaids keep picking with her, Wendy picks up a conch shell and is about to start beating some mermaid ass with it before Peter stops her (and I really wish he hadn’t). George is stern but far from unloving, and the last scene humanizes him further by suggesting that he used to be one of Peter’s Lost Boys before he chose to grow up, like Wendy did, and had a family of his own.
I like the kids, but I feel like Captain Hook and his first mate, Smee, are the real stars of this movie. Captain Hook is a pirate who hates Peter Pan for slicing off his hand, and is obsessed with killing the boy and taking his revenge on him. Hook’s own crew resents him for sticking around Neverland and wasting their time trying to take out a child, instead of looting and pillaging the seven seas and spreading chaos like pirates ought to. But still, they follow him out of fear (or in Smee’s case, devotion), and considering Captain Hook’s crew is a group of brawny, burly men that says a lot about Hook. Hook has an explosive temper that often leads to him mistreating or even killing the men under him, and more than earns him his reputation as a cutthroat brigand. He’s a ruthless and violent man with no principles, but he’s also pathetically cowardly at his core. Once he loses his advantage, or well and truly loses control of a situation, Hook’s confidence quickly abandons him and he’s not above begging for his life. When Peter sliced off his hand (and dear god, is that violent or what for a twelve year old?) he fed it to a crocodile, and that same crocodile still stalks Hook everyday, hoping for a chance to eat the rest of him. The crocodile tormenting Hook and playing mind games with him, reducing him to a nervous wreck, is a running gag in the film, and the movie derives a surprisingly large amount of dark humor out of it. It probably shouldn’t be as funny as it is watching the Captain claw for his life and be repeatedly eaten alive by a crocodile, but it totally is. Captain Hook usually has a double act with his first mate, Smee, because they are worlds apart in terms of personality.
Hook is campy, theatrical, boisterous and opportunistic, putting on an oily, false charm when he wants to manipulate someone and stabbing them in the back in an instant when they’ve outlived their purpose. Smee, by comparison, is more than a bit of an idiot. He’s breezy, gossipy, absent-minded, bumbling, and a bit simple-minded. He’s the most genial and outgoing of the pirates, which allows the movie to indulge in some more dark humor at how desensitized Smee is to the crew’s daily murder. One can’t help but wonder why Hook doesn’t get better help, since Smee doting on him and failing to do that properly drives him up the wall. But considering the rest of his crew not-so-secretly hates his guts, Smee’s unwavering loyalty is probably the reason he remains Hook’s second-in-command. Mind you, even Smee has his limits, seeing as how he tries to sneak off at the end to save his own ass when Hook’s last plan to kill Peter goes south. It’s worth noting that Captain Hook shares the exact same voice actor as Wendy’s father, George. It’s sort of a traditional casting choice in “Peter Pan” adaptions, like having a girl portray Peter (a trend this film bucks), and it can lead to some interesting alternate interpretations of this movie. Because there are two ways to view “Peter Pan’s” plot: either it all actually happened, which the ending strongly implies, or it was all a dream – a figment of Wendy’s imagination that she conjured up out of a desire to escape into fantasy and avoid growing up a bit longer. If that’s the case, considering the argument Wendy and George had before she went to sleep, it would make sense for her subconscious to give her father’s voice to Captain Hook, the pirate who wants her childhood hero to die. If it wasn’t a dream, then young George meeting Captain Hook as a Lost Boy must have been really weird.
I’m not quite as fond of the silver era as a whole like I am with the golden era – since I feel like a few of the movies coasted by too much on their looks – but I do think it’s the point when Disney had refined and perfected their animation process during Walt’s time, before the downgrade in the 60’s. Like all the films from this period, “Peter Pan” sports some sparkling, pristine, flawless animation that allows the magic of the fantasy to effortlessly come alive (like Peter and Tinkerbell’s believably light, breezy flights), and invites the audience to get lost in the world of Neverland. While Neverland has a lot of intriguing attractions, particularly Captain Hook’s ship, I’m just as impressed by the backgrounds painted for the first act: Wendy’s home in a stately, warm, romanticized London of old, lit up at night. Peter coaching the Darlings on how to fly and the kids taking to the skies to soar off to Neverland in “You Can Fly” is incredibly enchanting, and ranks up there with “Bella Notte” and “I Bring You A Song” as one of my favorite animated sequences from a Disney classic. To my pleasant surprise, the soundtrack for “Peter Pan” features a lot of group songs, which means we get simple elegant choruses like “Second Star To The Right”, bouncy, spirited numbers like “A Pirate’s Life” and “Following The Leader”, the occasional bombastic song like “What Makes The Red Man Red?”, and the signature theme “You Can Fly”, which starts out with the kids simply speaking in rhyme before it gradually builds into a sublime, streamlined chorus. The rare solo song is Wendy’s lullaby, “Your Mother And Mine”, which has a crooning performance from Kathryn Beaumont that’s so tender it reduces career pirates to tears. Oliver Wallace’s score is great as always, with light strings and a plucky, infectious main theme for Peter Pan that’s never far away throughout the movie.
Some of the characters in this movie feel far more dated now than others, but as a whole, “Peter Pan” rests alongside “Lady And The Tramp” and “Cinderella” as one of the highlights of the silver era. I would describe this film as pure, fun escapism with a simple but profound message. I like it a lot.
* “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again”.
* I mentioned that George’s personality reminds me of Fred Flintstone, and the opening scenes of this movie really do play out like a sitcom, before sitcoms were really a thing. Everyone’s living in their own little world, there’s a perfectionist dog nanny walking around, and when Nana and George take a nasty stumble, everyone rushes to check on Nana – and only Nana.
* I like the over-the-top reactions everyone has to the idea of Wendy having her own room, especially the mom.
* “Mother… buried treasure”.
* Wendy decides to creep her mom out by mentioning there had been a ‘he’ in her room and ‘he’ might come back. You can imagine the places Mrs. Darling’s mind went before Wendy specified she was talking about Peter Pan.
* “What, Peter Pan?! Well goodness gracious, whatever shall we do?!” George, stop being funny.
* “Girls talk too much” “Oh” “Well, get on with it, girl” I feel like this is the point where a 21st century girl would tell Peter to sew his own shadow.
* “We can fly, we can fly, we can- auughhhh!!!” Lucky that bed was there, or this movie would be a fair bit shorter.
* “When there’s a smile in your heart, there’s no better time to start! Think of all the joy you’ll find when you leave the world behind and bid your fears good-bye! You can fly, you can fly, you can fly! You can fly, you can fly! You can fly, fly, fly!”
* “Good form, Mr. Smee? BLAST GOOD FORM! Did Pan show good form, when he did this to me?!” “Why Captain, cutting off your hand was only a childish prank, you might say” It was just a prank, bro.
* “Wait, slow down Tinkerbell, we can’t keep up! Please Tinkerbell!” Now Wendy, be sensible. How is Tinkerbell going to set you up to be ambushed if you won’t give her enough time to prepare?
* Seriously though, the natives were going to burn the stuffed bear along with the children. Those monsters.
* “Let him have it! Well, come on you idiot! Blast him! Wait! No! Hold it you fool! No, NO!!!”
* Peter had tasted blood, and he was already hungry for more of the sport. In all seriousness though, Peter was way into that fight.
* “Squaw fetch ’em firewood!” “Squaw no get firewood, squaw go home!” Wendy, out!
* Smee has zero investment in this Peter Pan business, so he figured he might as well get totally wasted until it all blew over.
* “Big Chief Flying Eagle greets his braves. How!” Peter, let that song go already.
* Peter Pan pouting.
* All the other kids are looking at the pirates with curiosity and astonishment. Wendy looks like she hates every single one of these fools, and I can’t say I blame her.
* Despite the urgency in the climax, it’s worth noting that Tinkerbell actually fails in her task. She only gets the bomb about two feet away from Peter’s face before it goes off. I’ll accept that they both survived that, because we’ve long since established that they’re magic.
* “Captain Hook, we shall never join your crew” “Very well, ladies first my dear”.
* Here we have a grown man fighting a twelve year old kid, and the twelve year old is winning.
* “You wouldn’t do old Hook in, would you?” And he immediately tries to stab him in the back, because of course he does. Villains are so predictable.
* Peter looks cool in that pirate coat. Let’s hope he kept that.
* Wendy decides to freak her parents out one more time by casually mentioning she and her brothers got kidnapped and almost died a few times while they were gone.
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