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“All this has happened before. And it will all happen again.”
– Opening lines
No truer words have ever been spoken.
JM Barrie’s Peter Pan is as timeless a fantasy story as you can get. It’s nothing short of pure magic. Who among us hasn’t wished to never grow up and live in a world not run by fun-sucking adults? Who can openly admit that they never dreamed of flying and going on exciting new adventures every day? The tale of Peter Pan appeals to the kid in all of us. It doesn’t surprise me that every couple of years we seem to get some kind of new retelling of it because the lore of the Boy Who Never Grew Up offers so many possibilities. It’s difficult to pin down which version could be considered the most definitive adaptation (though the 2003 film comes the closest to being the most faithful in story and tone) but this is a case where every single one out there has something to offer for each generation. There were stage plays and silent films for those who were children when the book first came out, the 1960’s musical starring Mary Martin (and later Cathy Rigby) was an annual television tradition for decades, Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates is considered one of the most creative animated shows of the late 80’s-early 90’s, Steven Spielburg’s unofficial sequel Hook has gone on to become a cult classic (as well as a kickass video game), and of course we have the film I’ll be looking at today, the Disney animated one from the 50’s.
Walt Disney once played the role of Peter Pan in a school production; as such, the story was very close to him. Peter Pan was planned to be one of the first animated films his studio would release – story ideas were tossed around as early as the mid-30’s – but it fell into development hell thanks to the frenzy of World War 2. Look carefully when watching the 1941 film The Reluctant Dragon and you’ll see early maquette versions of some of the characters in a few places. After the much-needed success of Cinderella in 1950, work resumed on Peter Pan. The results, however, were mixed, with some critics and even Walt himself being disappointed with the final product. Most audiences, on the other hand, gravitated towards it, and today it’s considered a classic of Disney animation as well as one of the most outstanding adaptations of Barrie’s work. Why is that? Let’s find out.
The film opens with one of the loveliest songs in the Disney canon, “The Second Star to the Right”. Coupled with images of Neverland inspired by (if not directly drawn by) one of my heroes, Disney concept and children’s book artist Mary Blair, these opening credits are a dart of childhood warmth and nostalgia shot right at the heart.
After a brief flyover of London we are introduced to the Darling family. The narrator’s elaborations on how they view the character of Peter Pan intertwines with their evening activities. Mr. Darling (Hans Conried) won’t hold with such fantastical nonsense being a practical man and all, but his insistence on form and duty interfere with his preparation for a party he’s attending that night. His loving and more patient wife Mary (Jennifer Angel) sees Peter Pan as the spirit of youth, but still nothing more than a fable. Meanwhile the children, who believe Peter is real, are up in the nursery; brothers John and Michael love acting out Peter’s adventures and causing mischief, while Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont), who tells them his stories every night, corrects them on details such as what hand his nemesis Captain Hook wears his hook on. The children also have a nanny in the form of a huggable yet surprisingly capable St. Bernard named Nana who does a better job cleaning up after the children’s messes than I’ve seen most adults do.
Mr. Darling wanders into the nursery in search of his cuff links, which the boys have borrowed to use as buried treasure in their game, as well as one of his shirts to draw a treasure map on. I don’t know if it’s Hans Conried’s delivery or the animation, but George’s mounting frustration and reactions in this scene get quite a few laughs out of me. Mr. Darling in the original story is someone you can laugh at for being a tightly-wound stick-in-the-mud, but he’s also a source of authority to be reckoned with when it comes to the children. You don’t really see the more intimidating side of him in this adaptation, but they do the buffoonish blowhard aspect of his character very well.
On learning the source of the children’s foolishness are Wendy’s stories, George declares that he’s had enough of this Peter Pan nonsense to last him a lifetime. He announces that it’s time for Wendy to grow up and leave the nursery, which shocks Mary and and terrifies the rest of the family. I guess it speaks to the bond Wendy has between her brothers that she doesn’t want to leave, but when I was even younger than her I was dying to have my own room. It didn’t happen until my family moved and even then my new quarters were only slightly larger than Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs, but at least the walls weren’t covered in Johnathan Taylor Thomas posters.
George’s attempt to make a dramatic exit only results in some comedic mayhem between him and Nana. George winds up with some toys dumped on his head, but the family flocks to Nana to make sure she’s the one who’s not hurt (speaking as someone who had a beloved dog in the family for the better part of a decade, I can confirm that this is a real thing that happens when you have a pet) This proves to be the last straw for George and he makes it Nana’s last night in the nursery also.
Mary puts the worried children to bed and insists that like all good fathers he truly cares for them, and they shouldn’t take what he said too seriously. Wendy stops her from locking the bedroom window because she thinks Peter Pan might come. She tells her he appeared in the room the other night and Nana stole his shadow, which she hid away in case Peter returned for it. Outside Mary voices her concerns to George but he insists that it’s nothing to worry about.
Peter’s introduction is beautifully handled, from the three notes on the flute signaling his appearance, to the fact that he is mostly kept in shadow. It’s enchanting and mysterious, though just a touch sinister as well.
Bobby Driscoll holds an interesting place in the history of actors who’ve played Peter Pan. You see, up to that point most productions of the story, be it on film or stage, would cast a woman to play Peter. It sounds strange, but remember, you need someone with a lighter build to fly around and look more youthful, as well as be able to sound like a boy who hasn’t hit puberty yet. Bobby was actually the first male person to play Peter on film, beating Jeremy Sumpter by exactly 50 years. There’s something about his voice and design that certifies what era this was made in, but I think it works. His look is what usually comes to mind when people think of Peter Pan. I like to think this Peter was right on the cusp of becoming a teenager before deciding to never grow up, hence his build and slightly mature sounding voice. It almost reminds me of Jason Ritter as Dipper, someone who’s clearly older than the role they’re playing but it still fits with the character.
Peter sneaks into the nursery in search of his purloined shadow accompanied by his fairy friend (though here referred to as pixie) Tinker Bell. In another departure from the stage version this is based on, Tinker Bell is given a more definite form – inspired by Margaret Kerry and NOT Marilyn Monroe despite what the fanart would have you believe – instead of being depicted as a ball of light darting all over the place. They do keep the fact that she speaks only in chimes which only Peter can understand though. Hey, it’s better than the alternative.
Disney’s Tink, despite being the company’s second-biggest mascot and the star of a slew of mediocre direct-to-video features, is a wonderful character. She’s feisty, mischievous, resourceful, brave, loyal to a fault, and for all the Peter Pan fans who claim this movie massacres every character, I’d like to point out that they barely change a thing about her here. They don’t sugarcoat the fact that Tink gets ragingly jealous of anyone who comes between her and Peter, enough to try to kill Wendy. It’s Tinker Bell who finds the shadow tucked in a drawer trying to get out. Peter frees it, unintentionally trapping Tink inside, and he chases it around the room. The ensuing ruckus wakes up Wendy and she is flustered by the fact that the subject of her stories is there in her very room. She talks almost nonstop about him and his shadow while Peter has no clue what to make of it, ultimately blurting out “Girls talk too much!” when he can finally get a word in. Wendy volunteers to sew his shadow back on and properly introduces herself.
By the way, I forgot to mention that Kathryn Beaumont is also the same actress who provided the voice for Alice in Alice in Wonderland, and she does as fine a job as Wendy. She brings the same likable innocence and curiosity to the role that she brought to Alice, with a touch of maturity that she doesn’t realize she has until much later.
Wendy asks why Peter has been appearing at her window and he says it’s because of her stories, which he likes since they’re all about him. He relays them back to his loyal followers The Lost Boys and the mermaids who dwell on the shores of Neverland. Wendy sadly informs him that there will be no more stories after tonight since her father is forcing her to grow up. Peter is aghast at the idea and insists she come back to Neverland with him, where she’ll never grow old. Wendy is thrilled, but is held back by the thought of her mother missing her. Peter doesn’t even know what a mother is. Wendy explains that a mother is someone who cares for children and tells stories, but that’s as far as she gets before Peter proclaims she can be their mother.
Overcome with emotion, Wendy tries to give Peter a kiss, but is yanked back by a raging jealous Tinker Bell. John and Michael finally wake up and are amazed to see who their surprise visitors are. Wendy asks Peter if they can come and I like how for a moment Peter seems like he doesn’t want them to, as if he originally wanted it to be just him and Wendy. He only agrees once they promise to follow his orders. It’s a very in-character moment for the selfish Peter. Also, speaking as someone who has a pretty small clique of friends and is more comfortable hanging out with just a few people at a time, I can relate.
Allow me to demonstrate: Guess what Cynicism? Your buddy Self-Loathing is coming over for a play date!
And Paranoia is joining us in about an half-hour.
Oh, but he’s bringing his friends Irrational Fear and Hatred too.
In fact, I invited over as many of my negative emotions so we can all watch the six o’clock news together. How’s that for a party?
Peter tells them the only way to Neverland is to fly, but can’t exactly explain how since he never quite stopped to think about it before. He realizes that happy thoughts combined with a bit of pixie dust are the key. Soon the children are flying around the room and out the window propelled by their dreams of meeting beautiful mermaids and battling fearsome pirates. That’s when the semi-singing/rhyme-speaking of “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!” stops and the chorus REALLY kicks in, which sounds wonderful.
Nana barks at the kids and Michael almost succeeds in getting her off the ground with pixie dust, but she’s held back by her leash. I always felt bad she got left behind; it would have been interesting to see the Darling’s dog be a companion on their adventure not unlike Toto. In fact, one of the original ideas for this movie was actually for Nana to join the Darling children in Neverland and the story would have been told from her point of view. That’s an interesting original concept I don’t believe has been used in any adaptation of Peter Pan before. I hope one day someone decides to take advantage of it.
Peter and the children fly around London, famously enjoying the view from the clock tower of Big Ben before sailing up to the Second Star to the Right and straight on to morning where Neverland awaits. 3D animation has come a long way in showcasing flight, but damn if this traditional animation coupled with the creative angles, soaring orchestration and chorus doesn’t capture the exhilaration and feeling of flying.
Meanwhile in Neverland, the pirates on board Captain Hook’s ship The Jolly Roger are growing restless. They’re sick of being stuck in one place doing nothing while their captain obsesses over their annoying neighbor kid. The only one not malcontent is Hook’s first mate, Mr. Smee. Smee is voiced by veteran voice actor Bill Thompson. It took me a bit of time to make the obvious connection when I was a kid but Thompson has also played the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and one of my favorite cartoon characters Droopy Dog using the exact same voice as Smee. Sounds lazy? Heck no! Bill Thompson was one of the best voice actors of his day, and I’m always surprised when I discover or re-discover works he’s lent his talents to. In addition to Droopy he’s also played his nemesis Spike, King Hubert in Sleeping Beauty, and I could keep listing but I have a review to do. What I’m saying is Thompson’s performance is what helps makes this Smee the definitive interpretation for many. He wants to be evil but he’s just too bumbling and nice. The most he can manage when the other pirates threaten him is a quick raspberry. He does make a great foil for his boss though.
Hook, meanwhile, is trying to find the possible location of Peter Pan’s hideaway. He’s stumped until he realizes there are others who might divulge it, like the Indian Chief’s daughter Tiger Lily.
We’re not up to that part yet, piss off!
Speaking of, in another carryover from the stage version, Hook is also played Hans Conried, Mr. Darling’s voice. Remember how I said Mr. Darling is a figure of adult jurisdiction in the nursery? Having the same actor who plays Mr. Darling also be Hook reinforces the theme of the children’s fear of grown-up authority. This Hook carries some of the same blustering pomposity as his real-world counterpart but keeps his menace, as is evidenced during his introduction when his plotting is interrupted by a pirate’s poor singing and he shoots him in cold blood. Granted the way he just rolls his eyes, pulls out the pistol then returns to his map like it was a minor inconvenience is just a taste of how humorous he can be as the film progresses, but damn if it isn’t a little messed up when you pause to analyze it.
Hook lambasts Smee after he suggests killing one of his own crew is a show of bad form, stating that Peter certainly didn’t show good form by cutting off his hand and throwing it to a hungry Crocodile. That’s another aspect of this story people often forget; Peter essentially made his own worst enemy with a very child-unfriendly act of violence. To be fair, no one really knows the circumstances surrounding this infamous dismemberment, so for all we know Peter was defending himself in a duel and accidentally lopped his hand off. I mean, no kid in a story as innocent as this would ever be so demented as to chop off a person’s hand as a prank…
Smee tries to reassure Hook that at least the Crocodile gives him a few seconds of fair warning when he’s nearby since he happened to swallow a constantly ticking alarm clock. And speak of the devil, the Crocodile pops up for more handouts. Hook flies into a panic, and I can’t lie, seeing him cower as he does is die-hard hilarious after seeing how callous he can be about taking a life. The song that would have played at this part, “Never Smile at a Crocodile” was cut from the film but stayed on in instrumental form as the Crocodile’s theme music, and it found a second life on home video when it was featured on one of the Disney Sing-Along tapes. How much of an impact has it had on the Disney community through that inclusion? To quote my beau (and I am not making this up), “John Williams could do an orchestral arrangement of this song and it would still not be as good as this one.”
Smee tries to calm Hook down with a nice shave and uses it as an opportunity to voice the crew’s gripes, but there’s some shenanigans involving him unwittingly shaving a seagull’s butt (there’s something I didn’t think I’d be typing today) and it ends with Smee thinking he accidentally pulled a Sweeney Todd on his captain.
Hook restrains himself from throttling Smee when one of the pirates spots Peter flying towards the island with Wendy, Michael and John in tow. He summons all hands on deck and prepares to finally take his vengeance. All the pirates rushing around looks very menacing, but we also get some more funny examples of Smee “helping” Hook. Their banter is just gold. A favorite of mine is easy to miss as it happens over the pirates preparing the cannons but you’ll be rewarded with a laugh if you catch it.
Hook: Double the powder and shorten the fuse!
Smee: Shorten the powder and double the fuse!
The children’s admiration of Neverland from above the clouds is cut short as the pirates open fire on them. Peter, in a surprisingly unselfish move, volunteers to distract them and orders Tink to lead them to the Lost Boys. Tink, unfortunately, takes the opportunity to ditch the children for plans of her own. Once she reaches the hideout at Hangman’s Tree her attempt to wake up the Lost Boys results in them getting in a brawl with one another which she has to break up. The Lost Boys do have names but they’re not mentioned here, and truth be told there’s not much in the way of personality to differentiate them; just their different animal-themed onesies. When Tink manages to grab their attention she has to pantomime “Peter’s” orders to them with mixed results.
Finally she gets across that Peter wants them to hunt down and shoot a big “Wendy bird” flying nearby. The Boys fall for it and literally throw everything they’ve got at Wendy. They succeed in knocking her out of the sky and she nearly crashes on to some rocks, though Peter rescues her in time. Peter scolds the boys for nearly killing their new mother, then turns on Tinker Bell when they say she was the one who told them to do it. Tink won’t deny it, and Peter banishes her from Neverland permanently. It’s only after she flies off in a huff that Wendy convinces him to commute the sentence to only a week.
Since there’s no hard feelings between the Darlings and the Lost Boys, Peter escorts Wendy to Mermaid Lagoon while Michael and John join the boys on an Indian hunt. “Following the Leader” is another catchy playful tune the boys sing while making their merry way through Neverland. You also get an idea of just how vast this world is from all the places they trek through. They go from a jungle, to a savanna, to a forest (which features a cute visual gag where a real bear gets very confused on seeing Michael’s stuffed bear) and it’s nicely illustrated in a colorful children’s book style.
John brings the search to a halt when he finds some footprints on the ground. He deduces they belong to their quarry and begins teaching the Lost Boys about the art of strategy. Michael tries to warn them that it’s the Indians who have them surrounded rather than vice-versa, but they won’t listen and they’re captured.
Well, there’s no point in delaying this aspect of the movie that everyone loves to rant over. Let’s talk about…the Indians.
No, this is serious. I need to be completely thorough and honest. No jokes this time.
There’s no denying you have to jump through a lot of hoops to justify the racism of cartoons in the past. Saying it was fine for its day simply doesn’t cut it. For some reason, Disney seems to get more than its fair share of flak for featuring unflattering caricatures and stereotypes in some of its earliest works. I think it’s because Disney markets itself as such a family-friendly enterprise that seeing something like the crows from Dumbo comes as a big shock to people. But it’s not like Disney was the only studio at the time who engaged in such practices for the sake of humor. Some, like Warner Brothers, made shorts that are arguably even more offensive to modern sensibilities (Hey, anyone here ever watch “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”? No? Good, then your Looney Tunes-loving childhood won’t be shattered).
Then again, some of the accusations of racism lobbed at Disney are a bit blown out of proportion. It’s true there are moments that don’t hold up by today’s standards, but scrutinize a few and you’d be surprised how harmless, dare I say positive they might be. The crows in Dumbo are the only characters apart from Timothy Mouse who are nice to the little elephant and even help him learn to fly. People who think The Lion King is racist for casting a black woman and a Latino comedian as two of the comic relief hyenas that are segregated from the Pride Lands tend to forget that the third one among them is voiced by a white guy, and the Pride Lands are ruled by a black king and queen. If you go into Song of the South knowing a bit more about the time period the movie actually takes place in (AFTER the Civil War, during the Reformation period when African-Americans were free but had little rights in the South which often forced them to keep living and working on plantations with only slightly better living conditions than under slavery) then it becomes more tolerable. And I’m sorry, but I don’t get why everyone is up in arms over thinking King Louie in The Jungle Book sounds black when there is a snake fixated on wrapping himself around a half-naked ten year-old boy for half the film’s runtime! I’m not the only one who sees that, right?!
…I was trying to make a point about something, wasn’t I?
Regardless, though there will always be standards to maintain, stereotypes will be around even in the most innocent of media. Some are negative, some are good. Some people can laugh at them for the right reasons, others for the wrong ones, some will shrug it off and others will get upset, whether or not they’re the intended target. It’s how we go about portraying them and how some people internalize them differently from others that’s the trick. It’s true that long before Pocahontas came on to the scene, this was how I and a good many other kids thought “Indians” were like. And it’s not right.
Disney’s not entirely at fault here, though; the original source material paints them in a worse light, riffing on how Native Americans were viewed at the time not just by the world, but specifically from England, arguably the source of all racism. I will give credit to how most future adaptations of Peter Pan have tried to rectify this issue. The 2003 film cast genuine Native Americans who spoke real Iroquois, and their presence was kept to a minimum just to be on the safe side. 1990’s Hook just left them out altogether. The Peter and the Starcatchers book series and the 2015 prequel Pan made them into an entirely new race of island natives with little to no allusion to the “Indians” they were once inspired by (not that the latter still didn’t invite controversy over the casting of a very white Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. Oy.) Even with the Mary Martin Peter Pan you could make the slim argument that they’re a separate faction of Lost Boys that welcome girls into their group and pattern themselves after what kids’ ideas of Indians are. In an interview years after the animated Peter Pan’s release, Disney animator Marc Davis stated that though he wouldn’t know how they’d handle the Indians if they made the movie in this day and age, “we wouldn’t do them the way we did back then”. It’s not much, but at least someone acknowledged they could have approached it in a less heavy-handed way.
As for the Disney company itself, well, nowadays they prefer to pretend that the Indians don’t exist. They haven’t gone so far as to edit out their scenes on home video releases or remove them from TV airings, but any time the film is brought back from the Disney Vault you’ll never see an ad for it featuring the Indians. Heck, the closest thing they get to a mention in the sequel “Return to Neverland” is a quick flyover of the village, but not a single one appears in the background. I get that we live in a more PC-culture and we don’t want kids growing up thinking that all Native Americans are monosyllabic “redskins”, that’s good, but look at this:
This is a screenshot from a DVD of Tom & Jerry cartoons that Warner Bros. decided to release uncensored. If you ever grew up watching Tom & Jerry on TV, you might recall Tom occasionally being nagged by a sassy black lady that sounded like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. Warner Bros. took the time to acknowledge that yes, this kind of depiction was common in the day it was made, but it was wrong then and wrong now. Most importantly, they tell us that sweeping it under the rug and pretending it never happened is just as bad if not worse than accepting racist behavior as a social norm. If Disney can do quick anti-smoking PSAs before animated films that feature smoking, like Pinocchio, is it really that much trouble to include a similar disclaimer for their other works that people lambast for having racial stereotypes?
While we’re on the subject, I can’t help but compare these “Indians” but Disney’s other notable attempt at bringing animated Native Americans to life.
Now I’m in the minority of Disney fans who actually likes Pocahontas. Not loves, simply likes. I more than understand their need to portray a more accurate take on Native American culture, not just for the story but to make up for the sins of the past as it were. There’s only one problem: they were so afraid of injecting any human qualities that could possibly undermine the dignity in these natives that they kind of come off as lifeless. The story itself is very by-the-numbers Kocoum isn’t the only “serious” one there; they’re ALL stoic or somber, even when they’re trying to act happy or scared. Unshaved Mouse came up with a very good term for these natives – “nobility mannequins”. The only time I could think of that came close to a relatable moment was at the very end of “Steady as the Beating Drum” where one of the wives sees her husband has returned home from war and tackles him in such a big hug that they both end up in the water. There’s almost no other scene of human connection like that in the movie, at least one that doesn’t directly involve Pocahontas herself.
Peter Pan, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. Here the natives are almost every stereotype from the era – red skin, big noses, dark braided hair, playing tom-toms, dressed in moccasins and feathered hats, whooping and hollering when on the attack, you get the idea. And yet, when compared to the natives in Pocahontas, they’re so…alive. Not only do they show more emotion – hell, ANY emotion – but they go all out when they do. The animation isn’t limited to a more realistic style for these characters so animator Ward Kimball was allowed to have fun when creating them and it shows. Tiger Lily has virtually no lines of dialogue, but she shows quite a bit of character through some of her facial expressions. You feel the anger radiating off the Chief when he blames the Lost Boys for kidnapping her. His dancing in a later scene is an absolute highlight. What’s more, when John is showing off his strategy he says Indians are cunning but unintelligent – just as they encircle him and the Lost Boys using the same exact plan he’s been spouting for the past five minutes. And it works. So much for unintelligent crude caricatures. I almost hate to admit it, but given the choice I’d rather hang out with these guys than the more PC mannequins we got in the 90’s. They know how to throw a rocking celebration and can move and hunt like nobody’s business.
A long line of Indians drag away the Lost Boys, Michael, John and his bear to a “wamp-wamp” version of Following the Leader, which is kind of funny, even if –
Wait a second…
The boys are brought to the Indian camp, but despite John’s fears they’re not worried. This kind of thing is actually a game between the two parties, with one turning the other loose after they’re captured. Too bad for them the Chief is serious this time. Tiger Lily has vanished and he demands to know where she is, threatening them with death if she doesn’t return. The Chief’s voice is provided by Candy Candido, a highly talented voice actor whose name you might not recognize but you’ve definitely heard before. He’s played characters in Disney park attractions, Fidget the bat in The Great Mouse Detective, and I didn’t get to mention it in the last review but he was the voice of the angry apple tree who threatened Dorothy and Scarecrow. He also played another angry living tree in the Disney version of Babes in Toyland, which coincidentally also starred Ray Bolger. You can feel the earth move when he speaks in that gravelly base, which only adds to his formidable introduction.
In the meantime Peter and Wendy are enjoying the scenery of Mermaid Lagoon where the mermaids –
– are doing typical mermaid things. Wendy is utterly enchanted and Peter goes to introduce Wendy to them. The mermaids flock to Peter like they’re his fangirls, because in Neverland there are only two rules:
- No one ever grows up.
- Anything with two X chromosomes must always have the hots for Peter.
The mermaids insist on a story of one of his adventures and Peter begins regaling them with how he decapitated Hook when Wendy reminds him that she’s still there (oh come on Wendy, I was about to get some closure!) The mermaids don’t take too kindly to a new girl in the territory and try to pull her in the water and splash her while teasing her about her nightdress. Peter finds the whole thing hilarious until Wendy nearly fights back with a shell and he has to step in.
Actually, the idea of Peter reading and completely misinterpreting Lord of the Flies seems kind of valid here. In the book Peter is an utter sociopath that talks about how great it is to always be a boy while showing the worst of eternal immaturity. Movie Peter tones that down significantly but doesn’t extinguish it altogether. I could see him picking up on sporadic details like living on a paradisaical island with no grownups, being surrounded by smaller weaker boys who share his penchant for fights, not to mention constantly picking on the fat kid.
I found this scene pretty funny when I was a kid, but now I feel kinda sorry for Wendy; though I won’t deny that she gets some really good angry bitch faces in this one scene alone.
Peter shushes everyone when the sun suddenly gets blocked out – not joking, the light dims like someone switched it off. Peter checks it out and finds Hook himself out on the water accompanied by Smee, a captured Tiger Lily, and an ominous fog that blots out the sun.
Following them is the Crocodile, who for a brief second turns to the camera and smiles like he knows we’re watching. It kind of freaked me out when I was little, though ever since I’ve started watching Game Grumps I can’t help but imagine him with the voice of Dan’s father Avi. I don’t know why but his chipper voice and attitude just matches with his big silly grin.
The terrified mermaids swim away while Peter and Wendy trail them to the ominous Skull Rock. Hook delivers his ultimatum to Tiger Lily: either tell him where Peter’s hideout is or he’ll leave her to drown when the tide comes in. In an attempt to rescue Tiger Lily – but most likely show off to Wendy some more – Peter distracts Hook by pretending to be the voice of an evil spirit. While Hook searches for the source, Peter displays some improbable impersonation skills by perfectly mimicking Hook. He uses it to trick Smee into releasing Tiger Lily, leading to the typical confusion where the real Hook keeps shouting to put her back and Peter continuing to troll with poor Smee getting caught between them. Because Smee is so nice he isn’t even upset when Peter is eventually ousted; he just says “Well, it’s Peter Pan!” like he found a dollar he misplaced in his pocket.
Peter has some fun dueling Hook with Smee cheering from the sidelines and Wendy watching in fear. He also trolls Smee further by giving him a pistol, leading him to nearly shooting his captain! This all leads up to –
Oh, and also a Wile E. Coyote moment where Hook edges Peter off a cliff only to realize nearly too late there’s nothing beneath his feet.
The crocodile shows up to enjoy a conveniently trapped dinner of “codfish” right off the hook. And HOO BOY, what follows is one of the funniest scenes in any Disney movie. Hell, in any ANIMATED movie. It’s a sequence of slapstick gags as Hook desperately tries to escape the croc all the while Smee blunders every attempt to save him. The timing, the exaggeration, the screams, it has me howling with laughter every damn time.
Peter gives a victory crow as Hook is chased out to the horizon that Wendy has to snap him out of because didn’t they go there to save somebody in the first place? Peter’s like “Oh yeah, what’s-her-face” and rescues Tiger Lily in the nick of time, though he accidentally leaves Wendy behind to catch up with him.
That evening Hook is nursing a bad cold, not helped by Smee loudly hammering a Do Not Disturb sign to his door. Hook goes to tell him to shut up but Smee winds up bonking him with the hammer when his head’s turned.
Smee takes his boss’ vacant stare as a sign of recovery (that or the extra-strength cough medicine kicked in) and he cheerfully spreads some gossip about how Wendy’s arrival to Neverland got Tinkerbell banished. This gets Hook to thinking and he begins scheming to extract Peter’s location from a certain jealous fairy. Smee, who is perpetually out of the loop, mistakes Hook’s wording as confirmation that they’ll finally be shipping out of Neverland until Hook loudly corrects him and sends him off to find and capture Tinkerbell.
At the Indian camp Peter is made an honorary chief for rescuing Tiger Lily and a joyous celebration ensues.
That celebration also includes a song.
A song sung by the natives.
A song sung by the natives all about their “cultural heritage”.
A song called…”What Made the Red Man Red”.
…There’s no way I’m getting out of this without sounding like JonTron, am I?
All right, I admit it! I don’t hate this song! In fact, I find it catchy! Catchy as hell and I know that’s where I’m going for saying that I like listening to it every now and then but it’s true! In fact, I’m going to try to do the impossible again and see if I can justify this song’s inclusion, because why stop alienating all the sane and decent non-racist human beings who kept reading up to this point?
Like I said earlier, England wasn’t the most PC-country back in the day. Neverland in the book is described as something of a dream world influenced and shaped by the children who dream of it. So it kind of makes sense that this is how English kids from that time period would view Native Americans and imagine how they were…made red. I know it’s almost every Native American stereotype short of scalping and being in tune with nature spirits rolled into two minutes, but you could add a techno beat to it and it would still be fun to dance to! In fact –
This is from Breaks & Beats Disney, an album featuring some great techno and hip-hop remixes of classic Disney songs but was released only in Japan. I’m guessing this song was the reason why.
While Wendy is sent to collect some firewood before joining the fun, Tiger Lily dances for Peter. Wendy catches her sneaking him an eskimo kiss and Peter getting rather excited over it, which makes her nearly as jealous as Tink. That and her brothers shoving her aside while they and the Lost Boys go native (so to speak) impels her to go back to Hangman’s Tree alone. She’s not the only one who’s feeling miserable, though. Tinkerbell sadly watches the festivities from afar until she’s captured by Smee.
Oh my God…a Disney villain’s incompetent sidekick doing something right…I…I don’t know how to feel about this.
Captain Hook welcomes his unwilling guest by serenading her on the harpsichord and tells her he intends to finally leave Neverland for good. He brought her over so she could pass the news on to Peter. The subject turns to Wendy and how Peter has apparently replaced Tink with her. Hook knows exactly how to twist the knife to make Tink feel completely miserable that Peter has abandoned her (“The way of a man with a miad! Taking the best years of her life and casting her aside – LIKE AN OLD GLOVE“). Add a drunken Smee’s reactions to the mix and it milks the comedy. Hook pretends that he wants to do Tink a kindness by taking Wendy to sea with them, but laments that he doesn’t know where Peter is keeping her. Tink promises to show him the way as long as he swears not to lay a finger – or hook – on Peter. He gives his word, but no sooner does she mark the spot than he traps her in a lantern and sneaks off to Hangman’s Tree with the crew.
Peter, Michael, John and the Lost Boys return from the Indians’ shendig as hopped up as kids on a sugar rush. Wendy, however, isn’t in the mood to sing more of Peter’s praises and tells her brothers it’s time to return home. In a bit of irony, she even tries telling Peter that he has to be practical about letting them go back to London, almost parroting word for word what her father said earlier about her growing up. Peter insists that they stay in Neverland and have fun all the time.
And if your sympathies lie more with Wendy than with any other character so far, it’s not a coincidence. Because I’ll let you in on a secret. Even though Peter’s name is in the title, this was never his story. Not in this version, not any. Not even in the original.
This adventure is her journey to accepting that sooner or later the thrills of childhood lose their charm and everyone has to grow up. Not all at once like she feared at home, but in their own way in their own time. It’s ironic that someone who’s brought to Neverland, a place where there are no adults and nobody ever grows up, is only there to be a mother, a grown-up, to a bunch of children. Kind of like in Alice in Wonderland, the charm wears off once she realizes she’s the only rational person there. Her disillusion with Neverland starts with her fantasies of beautiful mermaids being shattered when she learns how bitchy they really are, then getting repeatedly left behind at Skull Rock as Peter carelessly throws himself into danger, then being the only sane one at the Indian party, and now realizing that she and her brothers are forgetting about home the longer they stay in Neverland. Michael even confuses his mother with Nana when she asks if they remember their real mother. Wendy reminds them with the song “Your Mother and Mine”, a sweet heartfelt ode to a mother’s eternal love that causes the Lost Boys to remember their own mothers and anyone else who hears it to pause the movie and call their moms to tell them they love them. Even the pirates waiting outside get a little teary-eyed. Only a sullen Peter is immune.
Michael and John insist on returning home immediately and the Lost Boys ask Wendy if they can go with her as well. Wendy is sure her family will accept them; after all if they can handle three rambunctious kids, what’s another five or six more?
Now many adaptations go through hundreds of story ideas in pre-production, especially in animation, and this Peter Pan is no exception. In addition to the aforementioned inclusion of Nana, in one take John acted like a younger version of his father and was left behind by Peter for being too practical. Wendy brought along a Peter Pan picture book to compare and contrast what the real Neverland was like, leading to some confusion when Hook and Smee get their hands on it. A battle was supposed to take place between the Indians and pirates as they vowed to protect Peter’s hideaway after Tiger Lily’s rescue. At one point Peter and the Lost Boys would partake in an “imaginary” feast (which would eventually be used in a pivotal scene in Hook). Sadly one of these concepts was the inclusion of Peter’s backstory. At this part he would have told Wendy and the boys how when he returned home from Neverland, he found that his mother barred the windows and replaced him with another little boy, and their mothers will have most likely done the same. It gives plenty of insight to Peter and adds this tangible layer of tragedy to what is often perceived as the carefree personification of youth. Instead, we have him yelling that they can go ahead and grow up, but they can never come back to Neverland once they do. Then he flops down on the bed and says “They’ll be back.”
Wendy tries to to say goodbye but can only manage a tearful whisper. Once outside, all the children are captured by the pirates and taken to the ship. After Smee and Hook set his plan to take care of Peter in motion, the pirates entertain their captives with “The Elegant Captain Hook”, a jolly ode to piracy and their beloved captain. It’s a brief villain song that tends to be overlooked in but it manages to be both fun and menacing. Captain Hook offers the children a chance to join his crew, or walk the plank. Wendy is barely able to stop the frightened boys from signing up by reminding them that Peter will save them, which sends Hook and Smee into hysterics. He reveals his dastardly plan – he has left behind a bomb disguised as a present from Wendy with a card telling him not to open it until six o’clock, exactly when it will go off. It’s the perfect dastardly way to destroy Peter while still keeping the gentlemanly promise made to Tinkerbell. As Hook begins counting down the seconds, Tinkerbell manages to escape and tries to warn Peter. She is barely able to get the bomb out of the room before it explodes.
Seriously, that is a freaking huge explosion for such a small bomb! Did Hook know just how powerful it was when he wired it? Did he accidentally create the world’s first atomic bomb? Then again, Hans Conried is no stranger to dealing with atomic weaponry, so I don’t doubt it.
Everyone on board has a moment of silence for Peter, but what they don’t know is that he miraculously survived. He searches through the rubble for Tink, his shouting threatening to collapse the remains of his home on top of him. Peter finds her nearly dead under a pile of stones. As her light threatens to go out, she tells him Hook has Wendy and the boys and urges him to go save them before it’s too late, but he refuses to leave without rescuing her. “Don’t you see? You mean more to me than anything in this whole world!”
Hook makes his offer to Wendy one last time, but she would rather die than become part of his crew. She says a brave goodbye to her brothers, shedding a single tear only when she has her back turned to them as she walks down the plank. Hook listens for the splash that marks Wendy’s fall…but it doesn’t come. The superstitious pirates fear that the ship is cursed until Peter appears with Wendy on the mast and declares Hook is going down. Peter frees the boys and they take on the pirates while he tackles Hook. It’s a riot where everyone gets involved. Even Smee knows he’s in over his head and tries to sneak off the ship when no one is looking. In the midst of the fight we also get –
Soon all the pirates are defeated except for Hook, who calls Peter out for always flying out of danger like a coward. Peter won’t take this lying down and challenges Hook to one final duel where he gives his word not to fly once. This is the scene where the animation becomes the most cinematic. If I may lean on my illustration degree for a bit, the lighting and rule of thirds is better composed than in some live-action movies I could mention. It ups the tension and sets the stage for the last confrontation excellently.
The sword fight is one of the film’s high points; it’s practically tradition by this point that every Peter Pan climax has him dueling Captain Hook, though the animation here has a the advantage I mentioned previously over most live adaptations. Also, it was made even more awesome in the computer game Disney’s Villains Revenge where you got to fight Captain Hook yourself! (I should really do an editorial on that game if I can replay it again…) Despite his best efforts, Hook disarms Peter and he refuses to fly away regardless of Wendy’s pleas.
Luckily Peter is not only a decent fighter in this version, he’s as clever as he proclaims he is. Before Hook can deal the final blow, Peter succeeds in trapping him in the ship’s flag and disarming him. With his life now in Peter’s hands, Hook begs for mercy, promising to do anything if he’s spared. Peter, feeling uncharacteristically honorable, says he can leave Neverland alive, but only if he declares to everyone present that he’s a codfish. It’s one of my favorite parts because it’s so invigorating to see a villain as devious and comical as Hook get taken down a peg in this manner. I used to have fantasies of my bullies being forced to say it over the school intercom. Also this bit where the crocodile dances along to the children’s taunts is both hilarious and kind of adorable.
Once Peter has his back turned, big shock, Hook moves in for the kill. Peter dodges him just in time, sending him careening into the crocodile’s waiting jaws, and another great bit of slapstick similar to the previous one ensues (albeit with more of Hook running on water like a terrified Jesus). The crocodile chases Hook into the sunset with a worried Smee and the pirates rowing after them. It’s a drastic change from the story’s original ending where Hook is finally devoured, but nobody wanted to see such a fun villain like this Captain Hook get killed and I agree. You could argue this was the point where Disney decided to lay off killing their villains for a while because, and this is something most of the animators at the time can verify, the bad guys were the most enjoyable characters to create back then. Think about it. The movie made following this one, Lady and the Tramp, didn’t have any real villains apart from a rat who’s barely in it and the one appearance of the Siamese cats, so that doesn’t count. Neither does The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh since it has no villains at all. Maleficent was a more serious villainess in a straight adaptation of a fairy tale so her death feels only fitting. But as for the other villains’ fates…
- Cruella DeVil doesn’t die in her car crash,
- Madam Mim gets chickenpox,
- Kaa and Shere Kahn’s outcomes are left somewhat ambiguous,
- Edgar gets sent to Timbuktu in a trunk (he probably suffocated offscreen but Disney would never state that hard fact aloud),
- Prince John, Sir Hiss and the Sheriff of Nottingham are sentenced to hard labor in prison,
- We never see Medusa get eaten by her alligators though it’s implied they’ll get her eventually,
- and Amos Slade survives a bear attack with nothing but a broken leg.
Bumping off the bad guys in gruesome manners didn’t take off again until The Black Cauldron in 1985. That’s a 32-year gap between then and Peter Pan’s release, enough time for a total change in staff and mindset regarding villainous characters. The heroes became as interesting and fun as the villains who, in turn, became more dastardly, so there was a real reason to see them meet a karmic fate and I realize this tangent has gone on long enough so moving on.
With Hook gone, Peter makes himself the new captain of the Jolly Roger and immediately orders the Lost Boys to weigh anchor. Wendy asks him where they’ll be sailing and he replies that they’re going to London. I know I said Peter is normally a selfish character and he was ready to cut Wendy and her brothers out of his life for wanting to go home instead of staying with him, but this is a nice understated moment. He’s accepted that Wendy wants to return and doesn’t even hold the fact that he saved her life over her. Tinkerbell coats the entire ship in pixie dust, turning it golden, and it rises out of the water above Neverland and away into the night. It’s a shot so magical that they re-used the idea for the end of the 2003 film.
In a clever transition, the view of the island shifts into the moon, which turns into the face of Big Ben, which changes into the clock in the Darling’s parlor. George and Mary Darling return home from the party. George has changed his mind about moving Wendy out of the nursery and after bringing Nana inside they check on the children. Michael and John are sound asleep in their beds but they find Wendy sleeping by the open window. On waking her Wendy tells them all about her adventures in Neverland and how she’s ready to grow up now, which does a good job confusing an already exhausted George.
Now say what you will about this movie, that it ignores the themes of the original story, made everything overly saccharine, silly, and dated beyond belief, I don’t care. None of that can ruin what is one of the best endings of any Disney movie.
George is ready to give up and go to bed when Wendy sits by the window and remarks what a wonderful job Peter is doing sailing the ship through the sky. Mrs. Darling looks to the window and sees what her daughter does – the silhouette of a pirate ship too elaborate to be a coincidentally-shaped cloud gliding past the moon. Shocked, she calls to George, who in turn is startled by the sight. Rather than being terrified, George stares at the ship in wonder, and something in him begins to stir. “You know, I have the strangest feeling that I’ve seen that ship before…a long time ago…when I was very young.” And we close out on the family gazing in awe together as the chorus of “You Can Fly” swells harmoniously.
Disney’s Peter Pan is an odd duck in the history of adaptations to be sure, one that’s both faithful to the tone of the original story and wildly varying in other places. It’s revered and reviled by fans, its not-quite-direct-to-video-sequel and the Tinkerbell spinoff movies even more so. Me personally, I loved it unquestioningly as a kid, but after rediscovering what could have been for the purpose of research, well, it reminds me a bit of The Emperor’s New Groove and the movie it was originally pitched as, Kingdom of the Sun. See, we all know the story of The Emperor’s New Groove, but for years there were very few details about Kingdom of the Sun readily available. The only things to go by were a footnote about some Prince And The Pauper similarities, a few deleted songs included on the soundtrack and the long-buried documentary The Sweatbox which showcased some of the behind-the-scenes drama. It wasn’t until recently that the details of the film came to light and put everything in context, revealing an original Mayan-inspired fable of epic scale replete with drama and magic; a far cry from the Warner Brothers-esque comedy we love quoting nonstop on Tumblr. Fans and people at Disney alike have called it one of the best animated films never made, and, yeah, maybe it could have been. But for what we ended up with, as different from its first incarnation as it is, it’s still an incredibly fun and entertaining film. Instead of a deep, almost psychological look at the fears of growing up set against the pitfalls of eternal youth, we have an exciting action-filled fantasy adventure, and I’m more than fine with that.
There’s a simplicity to the storytelling here that’s not necessarily bad; I’m normally not a fan of stripping away details that derail character motivations or axe pivotal emotional moments (just wait until I eventually review the later Harry Potter movies) but they manage to get everything across without losing too much of what worked in the book in the first place. Captain Hook has that perfect balance of comedy and menace, Smee is enjoyably silly, the Darlings and Tink are likable protagonists, and as much as he differs from his book counterpart I really like Bobby Driscoll’s Peter. The animation features some of the finest from Disney’s Nine Old Men and all the songs are unforgettable. Also, where nowadays most fairy tale-style adventures are marketed mostly to girls with maybe a few for just boys, this one is actually pretty gender-neutral. I confess that I was a girl who would usually prefer to watch any Disney film that had a princess in it, but I was hooked on the pirates, sword fighting and daring thrills that Peter Pan offered just as much as any boy was. It’s like…it’s like a well-worn beloved bedtime story that you’ve heard countless times and yet you’re still charmed by it with each revisit. That ending especially captures the feeling of sharing a classic Disney movie with the family, with one generation remembering the happiness and adventure from their childhood as the next experiences it for themselves, reliving something they can both share. I’m grateful that I was exposed to other versions of the Peter Pan story at an early age, but this was the first, and a good way to get children interested in Peter’s adventures. I don’t care how much it deviates from the original tale, the Disney one will hold a lasting place in my heart for years to come.
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see and want more reviews, vote for what movie you want me to look at next by leaving it in the comments or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember, you can only vote once a month. The list of movies available to vote for are under “What’s On the Shelf”.
Screencaps courtesy of disneyscreencaps.com