PETER PAN (1953)
Nearly thirty years after the first film version of Peter Pan, we get the animated version of the story of 'the boy who never grew up'. One would think it would be the perfect marriage: the childhood fantasy created by Sir James M. Barrie with the wonderment that Walt Disney and his namesake studio can create. Peter Pan is a nice, entertaining film, yet it has a few issues which give one pause to adopt it as an undisputed classic.
In London town, the Darling family lives an upper-middle class life. Mr. Darling (Hans Conried) agitatedly is getting ready for a party, while his wife (Heather Angel) is calm and ready. Their children: John (Paul Collins), Michael (Tommy Luske), are playing with pirates while their oldest child, daughter Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) fills in information about Peter Pan.
George Darling, already flustered by not finding his cuff links, has had enough: both of Nana (the dog who serves as their nursemaid) and of Peter Pan stories. He decrees that Wendy is to get her own room and move out of the nursery. Everyone is devastated, but nothing can be done about it as Mr. and Mrs. Darling leave for the night.
As it happens, Nana had before the film started captured Peter Pan's shadow, and Wendy hopes he will come to get it. Peter Pan (Bobby Driscoll) does come back, accompanied by his pixie, Tinker Bell (whose dialogue is all bells). Wendy sews his shadow back on, and Peter now invites Wendy to go with him to Never Land where she can act as mother to the Lost Boys. Tink makes it clear she is jealous of Wendy, but she can't do anything about it. Wendy gets John, with his top hat and umbrella, and Michael with his teddy, and they're off.
Meanwhile, Captain Hook (Conried again, maintain a tradition of having the same actor play Hook and Mr. Darling) and his first mate Snee (Bill Thompson) is obsessed with capturing Peter. Peter never takes Hook seriously, so he takes little note of Hook's machinations. When Tinker Bell does trick the Lost Boys into nearly killing Wendy, he banishes her forever, then changing it to a week.
The Darling and Lost Boys go to capture the Indians and Peter takes Wendy to visit the mermaids. Hook, believing the Indians are hiding Peter, kidnaps Princess Tiger Lilly. Peter rescues her, which is good since the Indians have captured the Lost Boys. Normally, they would have let them go to play at war again but not while Tiger Lilly is held prisoner.
Eventually, Wendy talks her brothers and the Lost Boys to go back to London. Tink is hoodwinked by Hook to reveal Peter's secret lair. Hook, having given his word not to lay a finger, or hook, on Peter, nonetheless plants a bomb. The bad Captain takes the children prisoner and threatens them with the plank, but we get one last confrontation between Hook and Peter. With Peter triumphant, they sail the ship back to London, where the Darling family is reunited.
Most of the comedy comes from Conried's interpretation of Captain Hook. This Hook goes from one of two emotions: bellowing out his orders or whimpering like a baby whenever he's cornered. The curious thing is that Mr. Darling is pretty much the same loud character as Hook is. Perhaps this decision to direct Conried to be so over-the-top was made in order to remind people the same actor was playing both characters.
However, to my mind it made Captain Hook less of an adversary and more a foil, a mere annoyance to Peter. This has the effect of making Peter Pan less a struggle between Peter and Hook and more a series of adventures tied together by the thinnest of threads. I figure that the imagery of Hook and the pirates was intentionally suppose to be comic in order to fit into the idea that Peter Pan is a children's story. Pirates are always figures children will gravitate to in fantasy, and thus seeing the pirates be so comic would appeal to them.
I think this is why we have to look at the portrayal of the Native American in Peter Pan with a large grain of salt. They are appropriately cartoonish and given how children also play at cowboys and Indians we can't be called to take it seriously. Pirates and Indians play a major role in children's games, and since Peter Pan is suppose to be a place where children, in particular boys, are in suspended play I argue that they are suppose to be highly exaggerated.
However, I do wonder why Tiger Lilly is the only Native to be drawn in a respectful manner, looking no different than any other character save for the color of her skin. All the other Indians, especially the Chief, are drawn to look like caricatures of stereotypical Indians. The fact that they speak in pidgin only makes matters worse.
I digress slightly to wonder how Disney can justify withholding Song of the South from official release because of the perceived racism in the film and specifically the character of Uncle Remus, but heavily promote Peter Pan with the imagery of Native Americans or Dumbo with the highly suspicious characters of the crows as perfectly acceptable to children.
The Native American imagery is a bit cringe-inducing now, but one has to always keep in mind that the film was made in the early 1950s and the source material came from a British author, so while it does not hold up now I think there was no real plan to demean Native Americans. That does not make it right, but this needs a little background.
Another curious thing in Peter Pan is that Peter and Wendy do not appear to be children. As drawn, Peter looks like a teenager. I would guess his age between fifteen and seventeen, which makes sense given that Driscoll was sixteen when the film was released. We know that Wendy was thirteen, so the romantic undertones between Peter and Wendy appear closer to Splendor in the Grass territory.
This is heightened both by Tinker Bell's instant jealousy over Wendy offering Peter a kiss (which he never gets) and how Tiger Lilly also appears to flirt with Peter. He is always oblivious to most of the female attention, but while watching I was a bit puzzled by how adult the relationship entre Peter et Wendy came close to being.
Also, when the children return to London, while it's never stated we get strong indications that the whole adventure took place in one night. I did wonder about that. Finally, we never found out anything about the Lost Boys, in particular why they all dressed up like forest animals.
This is not to dismiss the positive aspects of Peter Pan. In particular, we have a good number of songs, a subject where Disney almost always excels. The opening song The Second Star to the Right is a light, positive number, while You Can Fly oddly is more talked than sung.
The best song to my mind is Your Mother and Mine, a lovely, soft number about the importance of mothers to their children. The number Following the Leader, while a cute number that appears targeted to children, just came off as a bit of a time filler.
The What Makes the Red Man Red? number today would probably never get off the ground: political correctness would never permit the imagery and broken English of the Native Americans be targeted to children though again, I strongly advise people to remember that pirates and Indians, being part of childhood imagination, are not intended to be primers of ethnic studies and should not be taken on face value.
Added to the music choices, the idea of having a pan flute serve as the introduction music to Peter's appearances is a bright idea. The animation is top-notch minus the Indians, especially the portrayal of Tinker Bell. Even though she has no audible dialogue in keeping with tradition, her expressions whether admiring herself or showing her rising jealousy over Wendy showed the character to be a great pantomime performance. She was fully expressive without saying a word.
Finally, animation allows for a greater and oddly more believable use for Nana than when an actor dressed as a dog would appear to us. It's as close to making Nana a realistic character as we'll ever have.
Overall, Peter Pan is a light and generally charming affair. People may correctly criticize the Native American imagery in the film, and while I was surprised at how Indians were still seen in the 1950s I look on it as less offensive and more silly.
I learned to count and remember lining up for lunch in elementary school singing "One little/two little/three little Indians" and did not grow up prejudiced against the Native American population, so we have to not throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak. It serves as a good, but not great, introduction to J. M. Barrie's story and at a mere 77 minutes long enough to keep children's attention.
Next Peter Pan Film: Hook
PETER PAN RETROSPECTIVE:
Peter Pan Retrospective: An Introduction
Peter Pan (1924)
Peter Pan (1953)
Peter Pan (2003)