Peter Pan (1953)

Rated: G
Length:  76 min.
Age: 4 and up.        commonsense media sez:  5+

Scary Factor: Nothing too bad at all – everything handled with great humour, especially Hook and pursuing crocodile.

Cringe Factor: “What Makes the Red Man Red” song, and stereotypical depiction of ‘redskins’; also not very enlightened re. female role models

Violence: much ‘play’ violence, violent language on part of kids, bloodless swordfights, at some point in past Peter cut off Hook’s hand, but this is not seen

Interests: fairies, pirates, magic, mermaids

Next: see it on the stage! (an excellent first play), read the book, older children (8+) could watch the 2003 live action Peter Pan

Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up, flies in the Darling family’s nursery window one night and entices Wendy, John and Michael to go with him to a magical place called Neverland. With a sprinkling of pixie dust from a fairy named Tinker Bell, the children are able to fly off with him. In Neverland the children are pursued by pirates and the evil Captain Hook, who in turn is terrorized by a hungry crocodile. Jealous of Wendy, Tinker Bell tells Peter’s band of Lost Boys to shoot her down but Peter catches Wendy and banishes Tinker Bell. Peter then rescues the Indian princess Tiger Lily from Hook’s clutches. The Lost Boys, Michael and John are captured by the ‘Redskins’ and threatened with death, but when Peter returns Tiger Lily to her people a peace pipe ceremony with dancing follows. Hook meanwhile has captured and tricked Tinker Bell into revealing the location of Peter’s hideout. The pirates capture all the children but Peter – Hook leaves a bomb behind for him but Tinker Bell rushes back in time to warn him. Peter flies to the pirate ship to save his friends. A battle ensues, the children get the upper hand over the pirates and Peter goes head to head with Hook. Hook’s own duplicity causes him to fall into the water and he is last seen swimming frantically away from the pursuing crocodile. The children fly the ship back home, where we see Wendy wake up as her parents return from a night out.

The basics: This film version is a light, bright version of the famous story – lots of fun for young viewers.

In adapting this story for film Disney played down certain aspects of the original, which disappointed purists, but his changes do make the film more palateable for small children. Gone is Peter’s tragic loneliness over not having his own family, largely gone is the bloodthirsty violence of Never Land, gone is the grief and worry of Mr. and Mrs. Darling when they find their children have flown the coop. And gone too is the famous call to the audience to clap if they believe in fairies – a risky enough gambit in a live theatre setting, after much deliberation the studio decided it would not play with modern movie theatre audiences. The iconic property that is Peter Pan has definitely been a victim of ‘Disneyfication’ here, but the film works so well on its own merits that I don’t really mind. (This movie was an absolute favourite of mine when I was little.) It is noteworthy that, even after all the changes he did make, Walt later said he felt trapped by the literary reputation of both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and so was not able to fully ‘Disnify’ them to the extent he could with fairy tales.¹

My biggest complaint with this movie is that at the end Wendy is shown waking up, suggesting that the whole adventure was just a dream. This cheat may be okay for The Wizard of Oz, but in Peter Pan it undermines the whole premise. In the novel it’s emphasized that until now Neverland existed only in their dreams, but finally the Darling children are faced with it as a fantastic reality, and thus are given the difficult choice of choosing between it and reality. In the Disney film, even though Mr. Darling admits he may have seen the pirate ship before, long ago, the message remains that we visit fantasy lands only in our dreams.

Worst aspects: Racism… The depiction of Native Americans is sadly typical of its time (1950s). They are reduced to stereotypical caricatures and played for laughs, particularly in the awful song “What Makes the Red Man Red”. New York Times critic Peter M. Nichols claims the sequence is “if not blatantly racist then stereotypically insensitive…”² And if that isn’t enough, the song is also sexist as well.

Sexism… On the feminist front, this movie (and indeed the original play) still takes a lot of heat from feminist circles. Wendy, as always, seems too passive – though Disney has given her a little extra spunk and confidence. The sexy little fairy Tinker Bell drew her own criticism. Depicted only as a spot of light in the stage productions, the Disney artists were free to design her any way they wished, and they settled on making her a 1950s-style bathing beauty. And so the switch was made from the long-haired, willowy fairies of tradition to a curvy blonde bombshell in a skimpy dress. (Rumours that Marilyn Monroe inspired her design seem to be foundless.) My least favourite Tinker Bell moment occurs when she stands on a mirror and looks down, admiring her reflection, until she catches sight of the width of her derrière, which fills her with obvious despair.

In an amusing example of Disney Corpspeak, a documentary included on the DVD now claims that “Tinker Bell pioneered the independent spirit and take charge attitude of a whole new generation of Disney’s leading ladies.” ! Presumably ‘independent spirit’ is synonymous with maximum exposed skin.

While the boys get to run amok and have fun, the female characters are all madly in love with Peter and thus reduced to jealously scrapping amongst themselves. (The mermaids, Tinker Bell, Wendy, Tiger Lily.)  Not chock full of role models for girls, but in their absence my daughter for one chose to be Peter Pan whenever she acted out the story…

Violence… In any story involving pirates violence at very least lurks in the background. For the most part it remains firmly in the background for this film. Peter is said to have cut off Hook’s hand long ago, but this is only talked about, never seen. Near the beginning Hook apparently shoots one of his own men in the middle of a song, but it is all rather jokey and offscreen. (Hook calmly points a pistol over his shoulder, shoots, and we simply hear the singing stop and… a splash.) Then Smee berates him for “shooting a man in the middle of his cadenza”. (In Hook’s defence, the man was playing an accordion.) There are many swords and knives in evidence, but no visuals of injury or death.

Other Naughty Behaviour… Hook smokes from a double cigar holder, Peter and the boys smoke a peace pipe – though Wendy turns it down and it makes John turn green. And Smee gets quite sloshed on wine.

The Good Stuff: There are many nice touches in the opening scenes… Nana the canine nursemaid stoically tidies around the playing children, reacting humorously to John’s exclamation “Insolent pup!” And when Mr. Darling banishes her outdoors for the night, muttering “Blast it, where is that rope?”, he turns to see Nana offering the rope to him with the most pathetic-yet-noble expression. Animation also allows for splendid flying scenes, finally freeing Peter from the harnesses and wires of stage flight. The stunning views of London at night include the now-iconic shot of the children visiting Big Ben as it chimes.

Funny business and gags continue throughout. The scenes involving Hook and the crocodile were my daughter’s favourite, and elicited much laughter. Hook is reduced to a whimpering mess whenever the croc is around, which prevents him from being as scary as most other Disney villains. Having Hook twitch in time to the sound of the ticking clock as the crocodile approaches is particularly good. And his many escapes from the beast’s jaws are played for optimum slapstick fun. Hook is rather deliciously animated, a wonderful fop. I liked when he picked out his fanciest hook, a gold one, and adorned it with a ruby ring before meeting with Tinker Bell. And it goes without saying that he plays the harpsichord!

Tinker Bell, her beauty pageant figure notwithstanding, is refreshingly insolent and nasty, which is true to the original play. Wendy at least has something to say, and Peter retains his carefree and selfish nature, but without being totally thoughtless, egotistical or bloodthirsty. It was a major goal of Walt’s to make Peter as likeable a character as possible, to age him up and turn him from a rather heartless, immortal elf into a typically oblivious teenage boy.

The songs are all right too, although for some reason the best known one, Never Smile at a Crocodile was cut from the film. (The melody can still be heard in the score.) Another one that will stick in your head is I’m Following the Leader. (Damn. Now it’s stuck in my head again.)

¹ Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: the Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Revised and Updated) (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1968/1985) p. 295.

² Peter M. Nichols, The New York Times Essential Library: Children’s Movies; A Critic’s Guide to the Best Films Available on Video and DVD (New York: Times Books, 2003)

To read all about the original literary classic Peter Pan, see the shortform Overview.

Or go crazy with the longform Overview.


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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