Peter Pan (1953) Review
What do I know about the film?
Cast your mind back to a time where Walt Disney was not simultaneously and confusingly a symbol for childhood joy and cold amoral American business practices. It was a while ago, but once he was a child. As a child, Walt played Peter Pan in a school function. Little did teeny Walt know he was going to one day make the little boy who never grew up famous. Well, even more famous. Well slightly more famous. Because, let’s face it, ‘Peter Pan’ is not one of the more warmly remembered Disney animated classics. The reason? Well, I will get to that but that man we talked about, who was both a beautiful dreamer and all that is wrong with capitalism, accidentally created a marketing scheme that still prevails where the enchanting adventure story gets lost. Of his two sides, ‘Peter Pan’ better represents the more slick, oily, business model.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before we explore the true magic of marketing we must focus on how she (you know who I am talking about) came to be. Walt hounded Barrie’s estate for the rights in his usual OTT way, never taking no for an answer and not giving up even though it took years. It would seem that Tom Hanks film about Disney persuading PL Travers to give him Poppins could have several prequels made. He was always at it. Anyway, Barrie left the rights of ‘Peter Pan’ to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Which was sweet. Except they had to bear the brunt of Walt’s demands. Disney was super keen so after 4 years they gave in. Presumably he kept waking up the sick children with his whining.
Disney’s team worked on ‘Peter Pan’ for many years before it was released and it went through countless rewrites. Still Disney did not like the final product, blaming it on the main character being too cold and unlikeable…Hold on. This is all sounding very familiar….Literary adaptation, British classic, life long love affair with the text but ultimately decided that the main character just wasn’t awesome enough…If you read my Alice in Wonderland review you may be experiencing some de ja vu. Only difference? ‘Peter Pan’ was a hit. Some critics mumbled that it was very different from the book/play but it did well despite Disney’s ultimate dissatisfaction with Peter himself.
As with Alice before him, Wee Pete got adapted a lot, mainly in stage productions, but Disney took rather a lot of liberties with the source material meaning very little of the famous dialogue remains. Perhaps the biggest legacy of ‘Peter Pan’ is what Disney did with the character of Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell was described by her creator as a ‘common fairy’ and was always represented on the stage by music and a mobile light. She was a supporting character in the story and not even one who was seen. Disney…Well… Disney went in a slightly different direction.
Contrary to popular legend The design of Tink was not based on Marilyn Monroe but a young actress named Margaret Kerry who did the live action model work that Disney were so fond of. There are some excellent shots of her getting stuck in the keyhole. So, with just a sprinkling of fairy dust, Tink went from an innocent character in a children’s story to a sex icon.
I’m not complaining…Damn!
Many people, both at the time and in the subsequent years, have expressed confusion at her design in the film, what with her being all curvaceous and image focused. It all seemed a bit…adult. Yet the wonderful irony is she had a broad appeal. Children liked her, adult women like her, men…well you know. So many, many years later you would be forgiven for not being able to remember the look of Peter and the world he inhabited but you would actually have to be registered blind to have missed what became of Tink. There is not an accessory, item of clothing or piece of tat that saucy minx is not on. I have her on a tote bag. Plus, since 2008, she talks. Oh yes. And she has starred in about 8 films. In the original book it is heavily suggested that Tink died and Peter eventually forgot she was ever there. In reality: It was the same trick in reverse. You would be forgiven for thinking there was ever a Pan. There was only ever a fairy.
If you are surprised that Tink was going to be killed off originally: Don’t be. That’s my advice. The tone of Barrie’s work was a lot darker than what Disney went with although they flirted with the grimmer material while the film was stuck in development hell. For example there is no explanation in the Disney version for why Peter’s gang are called The Lost Boys but in the book it says they are children (well boys. Barrie actually has Peter say that girls are too sensible for such nonsense) who fall out of prams when their Mums/Nannies aren’t paying attention and are subsequently whisked off to Neverland if they are not claimed within seven days, never to be reunited with their families who will never know what happened. Jeez, Barrie. What the hell? So yeah, that kind of thing was left out although this is how Peter is introduced for the first time on camera:
And then he climbed into a window and stole some children…
Did I see it as a child?
Yes. I liked it a lot. I liked the colours, the adventures, the characters…the bit with the flying. I especially liked Michael’s Teddy Bear. One element of the narrative that completely baffled me was the way everyone in the story tells Wendy that it is her last night in the nursery and therefore she has to grow up. Tomorrow. Being a young child, I could not get my head around the idea that a child gets to a certain age and then just becomes an adult. Now, obviously, the message of the story is we all have to grow up at some point but we should retain some of the wonderment of our youth while we do it. And also she was just moving rooms. But as a little girl I really took to heart the notion that I would reach a certain age and immediately know how to be an adult.
I am still waiting.
In a couple of these reviews I have mentioned other versions of the stories that have had a particular impact on me or I have been aware of. I will try and be brief because there are quite a few. I know my audience for this blog isn’t massive but I am going to head anyone who is thinking about it off at the pass and say: No. I am not going to talk about Hook. I really didn’t like that film at all. Except for Rufio. Who was great. I had his action figure. But Hook is a mess. Sorry. You know who you are. Sorry. Watch it again. As an adult. It is terrible.
There was an AWESOME animated show that used to come on at about 7am called Peter Pan and the Pirates. It was frickin’ awesome. Properly exciting. And Tink was dressed more conservatively. I might revisit it soon actually, in case it was crap and I have my nostalgia goggles on. But check out the intro and tell me you don’t want to get a big bowl of cereal with a collectable figurine hidden in the box and get stuck into this show:
Back in 2003 a live action version was released starring Jason Isaacs playing, as is tradition, both Mr Darling and Captain Hook. I was especially impressed with the chemistry between Peter and Wendy in this version and was not at all surprised to learn that the young actors were something of an item on set despite the fact they were about 12. I really, really like this version even though it is pretty flawed, especially in how old the special effects are looking already. Still worth checking out though:
And finally it would be remiss of me not to mention the tradition of the stage version. I am not just talking Panto here although you will never have to walk far in the UK at Christmas time before stumbling across a theatrical version of the story. There is the Mary Martin musical which a Saturday drama group I was in did a version of. So I am very fond of it. Even though it is all kinds of cheesy. You can watch this version on youtube in its entirety if you so choose. If you are sad by the lack of curvy fairy, fear not. Martin’s Peter is pretty beautiful. Yes, on the stage, Peter is always played by a girl/woman. In fact Disney’s version was the first adaptation to have Peter portrayed by a boy/man. You are learning things!!! Captain Hook’s first name is James! See how much you are learning??? Love me!
When the Darling parents depart for a night out leaving their three young children unattended (they did have a dog looking after them but then the Dad got angry and tied her up outside) a flying boy and his jealous sexy fairy show up and take them to Neverland (note it is never referred to as Never Never Land in this version) where there are sensitive pirates, bitchy mermaids and…oh yes…Indians. And they will never grow up. Ever. Cool right? Right???
Unlike a lot of Disney films, this one is paced pretty well with very few scenes out staying their welcome. It is appropriate for an adventure story such as this where we get flying, wild children, mermaids and pirates who literally want to kill the aforementioned wild children…why pause? So much to do, so little time. That is not to say the world Wendy and her brothers are escaping isn’t well set up. It is 18 minutes into the film when they leave for Neverland but I was quite happy hanging out in the nursery with the Darling family for that time. Because it is charmingly off kilter but also quite relatable. Any kid that grew up with both parents will recognise the one agitated parents stomping about shouting before a big event while the other one calmly follows them sorting shit out. I loved it when Mr Darling called his daughter’ s name: ‘WEN-DEH!’ just as she comes sauntering in, oblivious to her Father’s increasing irritation. It just screams family.
Equally charming is Nana. Why is a massive dog their nurse maid? I don’t know but she is efficient, competent and misunderstood. If the kookiness of it was referenced it would immediately become off putting (case in point: Juno in ‘Juno’ pointing out she uses a hamburger phone just to draw the viewer’s attention to it just shouldn’t have made the final cut) but because none of them suggest there is anything odd about taking their medicine from a pet wearing a hat it just works.
Speaking of the animals of ‘Peter Pan’ whoever came up with the crocodile theme tune was a genius. He is a silent comedy star in the film and also generally quite an effective stalker, with those massive eyes vibrating in time to his intro. He gets the odd gentle scare and has some great reaction shots, the best being when he dances along to all the children chanting: ‘Hook is a cod fish!’
Going back to the nursery, the moment where they all take off and head into the sky with Peter is genuinely quite thrilling. This scene is hard to make magical in live action and theatre adaptations as those mediums don’t have the freedom of animation. The camera zooms up and down with Peter in a way that still looks good and it is just so cool that they get to leave in the night to go on an adventure. Many years after I first saw this film I still wonder how anyone could say no to Neverland.
I can’t really talk about ‘Peter Pan’ without mentioning one of the more enduring characters. Captain Hook was so popular with Barrie’s readers that he had to bring him back in the sequels AFTER he had been eaten by a crocodile in the original text. The Disney version? He has his moments. The good Captain is not one of the more effective villains as he is so pathetic and insecure and this is played for laughs more than pathos…I am not going to lie, I found his humiliation quite hard to watch at the end. It is quite frustrating because it seems like they are going to push the character to be more of a match for Peter Pan now and then but they never quite commit to it so he always just comes away looking foolish. Especially considering there are hints that he has quite a vicious nature. He really wants Pan dead and you can feel his frustration, which gives suitably high stakes whenever the pair face off in a duel. When Hook is first introduced he shoots a cheery pirate who is happily singing about how awesome being a pirate is. The pirate is not seen dying but his singing stops and you hear his body fall so…yeah. Hook is capable of murder. Even Smee, Hook’s long suffering first mate, is shocked: ‘Shooting a man in his cadenza!’
There are a lot of great lines like that and I did enjoy the humour sprinkled throughout the film. One of my favourites is when Peter tells Tinkerbell she is banished forever and Wendy expresses her surprise at how extreme the punishment is. Peter looks after the retreating fairy and relents: ‘Well…for a week then’ it is such a great example of his grasp on time that he can’t see much distinction between the two.
There is also a great moment during a song where all the boys are marching along and a wild bear is just about to attack when he sees Michael’s teddy bear being carried aloft. The bear is baffled and clearly can’t bring himself to kill one of his own. It made me laugh when I was 9 and it made me laugh now.
During this scene, the boys are singing cheerfully: ‘We’re off to fight the Indians because he told us so!’ And that brings up a cool thing about the story of ‘Peter Pan’ in that there is a strange mix of the pretend and real. There are real fairies and real pirates but it is revealed that the back and forth between the Lost Boys and the Indians is just one long game. Until the Chief believes the Lost Boys are responsible for the disappearance of his daughter. Then he is prepared to let them burn. And just like that they are in danger. It is a cool analogy for how childhood games sometimes get out of control and there is something sad about the idea of them having such a limited amount of activities that they just keep fighting ‘because he told us so.’ How many times have Hook and Pan faced one another? That Pan and Hook are like Coyote and Road Runner, doomed to fight forever but there is no point to one without the other, is quite a grim reading of this slightly off colour fantasy romp and one that is explored in more detail in other adaptations but is touched upon here too.
The final section of the film, where Tinkerbell makes the boat all pretty and sparkly and Peter takes the Darling children home is just really beautiful and really captures the joy of being young and getting to play without feeling self conscious. The parents return home and a tired Wendy tries to explain where they have been. She gestures to the departing ship which is no longer golden but a fading cloud. It is still, indisputably a ship though. And Mr Darling realises he has seen it before when he was young. And I genuinely got a lump in my throat. Even someone as small and silly as Mr Darling can’t fail to recognise when he is the presence of magic. Somewhere in every boring, work obsessed grown up is the dim and distant memory of a longing for something beyond what we can achieve in reality. For all his faults, Walt Disney was a dreamer. And I am so glad he never truly grew up.
What Doesn’t Work:
Where to begin? Some people are cleverer than me. No, don’t deny it. With all of these Disney reviews I have looked up the Rotten Tomato verdict which, for those of you who don’t frequent such sites, is a ‘freshness’ percentage based off of critical reviews. I have not agreed with most of them so far. Peter Pan has a solid 75%. The layout of RT means I got a glimpse at some of the critical findings and one person, James Kendrick from Q Network Film Desk, made a particularly excellent point. It would be wrong of me to claim the point as my own so feel free to look up his review for a better version of what I am about to say.
‘Peter Pan,’ as Kendrick points out, plays like an adolescent male fantasy. Everyone loves Peter. No seriously. EVERYONE loves Peter. Even those who claim to hate him love him. The girls in his life don’t just want to be with him. They will literally KILL any other girl who may have a shot with him. And Peter is not baffled by this. He gets it. He is, after all, Peter Motherfucking Pan. I watched the film patiently, waiting for any evidence whatsoever that Peter was worth fighting over. But no. He is horrible, sexist, ignorant, self involved, arrogant, and not very bright. Yeah, yeah, yeah it is a kid’s film about real kids: I am not expecting him to be humble and kind. That might be dull, who knows? But he isn’t complex either. He is a blank, a bleh, with an awful face and a worse attitude.
The play and the book were written over a hundred years ago. So having the girls fawn over this rat faced little muppet for no obvious reason might be forgiveable, when you place it in that context: He is the hero, they are the women and that is how things were. But was it REALLY necessary to have ALL the women in the story be so fucking petty about it??? Within seconds of Wendy meeting Peter she is asking to kiss him. Maybe Daddy shouldn’t be encouraging his little girl to grow up after all…Tinker Bell does not respond well to this and attacks her. She also gets the Lost Boys to try and murder Wendy when she arrives. Ok, so this is explained in that women, I mean fairies, feel emotions in a really powerful way, but Wendy then gets attacked by all the mermaids who brazenly admit they were trying to drown her just for being so close to Peter while wearing her nightie. The subtext being: ‘Whore!!!’ Peter just finds it funny…I mean women amiright?
And if you think I am reading too much into it Disney hammers it home by having Hook say he will kidnap Tink and get her to betray Pan because: ‘A jealous female can be talked into anything’ Then Wendy gets jealous of Tiger Lily’s native hussy dance and throws a tantrum. A tantrum to which Peter responds ‘Everyone thinks I’m wonderful!’
Should cartoons be trying to create role models for the audience? I don’t know. Maybe not. But these are not people you want your young impressionable children trying to emulate. There are a lot of very loud complaints about the awfulness of modern role models for children and how terrible modern cartoons are but this was made in the 50’s and I am not sure which message is worse: The whole world revolves around boys and they can do no wrong or all women hate each other. One thing is for sure: Neither of them are good.
And even if you don’t buy in to the notion that a cartoon character should be a representation of the kind of individual that kidlings should look up to, you may well find it difficult to root for characters this unlikeale. At one point Tink reveals Peter’s hideout to Hook, sort of by accident but not really, and immediately rushes to his aid. She pulls the bomb Hook has sent disguised as a gift from Wendy away from him just in time and nearly dies. Peter is distraught. As he searches for her in the ruins of his home he calls out: ‘You mean more to me than anything in the whole world!’ Really? Since when? How has this been built up? Have we seen evidence of the close connection between the duo? What is their history? What scrapes did the pair get in before Wendy and co entered the story? When did he grow to view her as the centre of his world? Perhaps we are supposed to believe he is only just realising how he feels about her now she has gone to the effort of saving his life. Why was his life endangered again? Oh yeah. Because she believed that Hook was only going to hurt Wendy not Peter so screwed him over big style. But Peter doesn’t care because Tinker Bell is in trouble! The fairy he had banished forever without so much as a blink the day before…Talk about a dysfunctional relationship. It is hard to give a crap, especially when Tinker Bell is inexplicably healed in the next scene. Hooray! Normality is restored and Peter gets to be the hero and Tink gets back in the gang and there are no consequences for anyone’s appalling behaviour!
In the play, musical, panto and 2003 movie, there is a famous scene where Peter implores the audience to say: ‘I do believe in fairies…I do…I do…I do believe in fairies’ in order to bring Tink back from the brink of doom. I really think, 4th wall smashing or not, that moment would have added something to this sequence. We would have seen that Tink was actually in danger of dying so needed the help of love and Peter would actually have had to show some humility by admitting he needed help saving his friend. It has become a trend in recent re releases to add additional songs to old Disney films and I would love to see this scene altered in a similar way. Despite myself, even though I genuinely can’t stand either character, I loudly announced: ‘I do believe in fairies’ at the crucial moment. Just in case. I am a grown up.
I feel like I have already taken a lot of time to moan about the characterisations of Peter and Tink but one more thing: Tink has a moment where she expresses sadness at the wideness of her hips. I refer you to the model above. Tink has what is known as an exaggerated hourglass figure. She looks almost inappropriately good. But still she hates her body. And we have to see her hating her body. Because having magical powers is not cool enough if your arse is too big, women. Remember that. Pay attention. No matter how beautiful you are you can always look better. Thanks Disney. I owe you one. As do women everywhere.
Hey Wendy? Wendy? Are you listening? Don’t think you are safe just because you are not a total dickwad from beginning to end. Wendy is the other extreme in bad character design in that she is boring. The actress is the same one who played Alice in the last Disney film I reviewed and…I am just not a fan of her voice. She sounds far too old to be playing children despite the fact she was actually the appropriate age at the time and she just doesn’t bring any colour or charm to her line readings. It is all very…wet. A particularly low moment for the character is when she sings an awful song about what a mother is. Apparently ALL mothers are amazing guys. All of them. Special kudos to the ones who leave their young children in the care of a large dog while they attend a business function at night. Each and every woman who has ever spat out a crotch dumpling is a freakin’ God. And don’t you forget it.
I know what you are thinking. I know which Disney film to watch if I want to see women represented poorly but what about racial insensitivity? Why can’t I find it all in one 80 minutes classic? Well good news! Disney really, properly and truly pushed the boat out on this one. Yeah, yeah yeah it was the 50’s. But seriously. The native Americans in this film…Oh god…I can’t even…
‘Accurate and fun!’ ~ Disney artist quote. I assume.
I just…Ok…Let me try and break this down. People are very quick to get defensive about people being overly PC. For the record: I am not saying that if you enjoy this film, this song or these characters you are racist. What I am saying is I found it hard to watch. At the first mention of ‘red skins’ all of the people in the room sucked their teeth in despair. Because it is so badly misjudged on so many levels. The voices, the way they are called Injuns and red skins, the song where the Lost Boys ask why they don’t talk like regular people and how on Earth they came to have such a weird skin colour…I mean…They might as well just say: ‘How come you are not white? WE are.’ And of course rather than do a song about how we are all different due to genetics and shit, I assume I’m not an expert, they explain they turned red due to blushing and say ‘Ugg’ due to an awkward moment with an unexpectedly hideous Mother in Law. And of course they all wear feathers and red paint and run around chanting and the women have to go get firewood rather than have fun and…Oh God. Disney. Seriously. Get your shit together.
So Disney was right. ‘Peter Pan’ may have reshaped marketing forever and made a profit but the mean, petty nature of both the universe and the characters without any dramatic pay off for their behaviour does indeed leave this viewer feeling that the film is just too cold. He probably should have tried to remedy this before releasing the film. Because the boy who never grew up can’t very well change now can he? He is stuck as he is forever.
While it is a quick and fairly satisfying slice of childhood wonder with some good action and a slick pace it is very nearly spoiled by nasty characters and unforgivable stereotypes. It is a hard task to love ‘Peter Pan’ although not according to the various girls in his life. I took umbrage with more than I liked but it isn’t a total bust and I would recommend it to complete a collection at least.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 2
Peter’s face in his introduction. Seriously what were they going for? And the crocodile will freak out some people.
Unusually for me I didn’t have much to say about the music. It does its job but never wows. But I am giving it to ‘You Can Fly’ which gets bonus points for Nana desperately trying to follow her charges by flapping her ears and loses the same number of points for the moment when Peter taps his friend on the ass to release pixie dust. This scene is a brilliant example of the good/the bad/the ugly that is Peter Pan:
Next Time: Yes! YES! The first ever convincing Disney love affair and an Italian man has a nervous breakdown…Lady and the Tramp (1955)