Peter Pan: The Animated Movie

It sounds crazy to say this now, so many decades since Disney’s 1953 animated movie of Peter Pan, especially when the character of TinkerBell has become such a Disney icon, but J. M. Barrie’s book and play don’t lend themselves to a Disney movie that well. Disney animated movies tend to have very clear cut good guys and bad guys, or at least they did in the 50s.[1]Modern Disney animated movies tend to be a bit more morally complex. For example, while repressing emotion is portrayed as unhealthy in Frozen, giving emotions completely free reign is also depicted … Continue reading Barrie, on the other hand, is a fundamentally ambiguous writer in some of his plays anyway and certainly in Peter Pan. Sure, Peter has the official role of hero and Capt. Hook the official role of villain, but both of them are callous and narcissistic in practice. It’s even possible for audience sympathy to lean more towards Hook in some scenes, given that he’s something of an underdog. His sharp awareness of his mortality, as symbolized by the ticking crocodile, makes him something of a tragic figure. What ultimately secures him the boos of audiences is that he and his crew try to kill children-but the children have no problems with killing them. Both Hook and Peter rack up impressive body counts and both of them have a code of honor. I’m not saying all this to argue that Disney equals bad and Barrie equals good. (In fact, if I had to choose between a world of ambiguous art/stories and unambiguous art/stories, I’d go with the latter.) I’m just saying that an adaptation with Disney’s aesthetic is going to be limited in how much it can capture the spirit of Peter Pan. Still, while this one is certainly simplified compared to Barrie, its characters remain complex enough to keep things interesting.

Peter Pan (1953) - IMDb

The Lost Boys and the Indians no longer try to kill each other. (“When we win, we turn them loose. And when they win, they turn us loose.”) And even the violence against the consistently antagonistic pirates is slapstick rather than deadly. The crocodile’s pursuit of Hook (voiced by Hans Conried, who doubles as Mr. Darling) is played more for laughs here than in any other version of the story. We’re never really worried about it killing Hook any more than we’re worried about Elmer Fudd shooting Daffy Duck. Actually, we’re probably more worried about that since it always rearranged Daffy’s facial structure. Hook actually goes into the crocodile’s mouth more than once, but never seems to suffer anything worse than clothing damage. (Then again, for a dandy like Hook, maybe that is a terrible thing to suffer.)

There’s a more significant way in which the movie softens the story though, one that’s harder for me to accept as a fan. While Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) expresses concern over her mother’s feelings when Peter (Bobby Driscoll) asks her to go to Neverland with him, a Narnia-style time difference seems to be in effect, so that the Darling children return to their nursery on the exact same night they left. Mrs. Darling (Heather Angel) never even sees Peter Pan. Thus the movie actually cuts arguably the most dramatic part of the story, Mr. and Mrs. Darlings’ grief over their children’s absence and their joy at their return. Speaking of abandonment, while this movie doesn’t have Peter’s explicit backstory, regarding his mother, it seems to be the subtext of a scene where Wendy sings a lullaby to the boys about mothers and Peter sits apart, angry, the only one-besides Hook, ironically enough-not to be moved by it.

On the other hand, this adaptation makes the story more dramatic in one way at least. It involves expanding on a detail which was in Barrie’s novelization of Peter Pan, but not the stage play: The idea that there are many stories in-universe about Peter Pan and that the Darlings were familiar with them before they ever met the boy himself. Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) is portrayed as “the supreme authority” on Peter and tells stories about him to her brothers. These are stories Peter comes to the Darling house to hear, not Mrs. Darling’s. When these stories threaten Mr. Darling’s appearance at an important party, he declares that Wendy needs to grow up and should have a room of her own instead of sharing a room with the boys. He also chains Nana in the yard in this version on the grounds that the children are getting too old for her. So Wendy’s flight to Neverland becomes a more explicit escape from adult responsibilities and her return becomes a more explicit acceptance of them.

Sanitization probably isn’t this Peter Pan’s biggest drawback as an adaptation. It’s that it has less fidelity to Barrie’s dialogue than any other adaptation, with the possible exception of the 2014 Pan. You may be saying, “Of course, it’s not faithful! It’s a Disney adaptation!” But if you look at Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, which seem like good points of comparison as far as source material goes, you’ll sense a lot more respect for the original authors. I know that’s not an uncontroversial claim. Many fans of Lewis Carroll and A. A. Milne would say the Disney adaptations of their work clutter the material up with cartoony slapstick. But I believe an unbiased examination of both films will reveal that while they don’t capture every nuance of their respective source materials, they do contain much of their witty wordplay, and try to have the same kind of verbal humor in their original dialogue.[2]I’d also argue that slapstick and other kinds of visual humor were never totally absent from the Alice and Pooh books, even if the Disney movies went too far in that direction. There were reasons for all this. According to transcripts of the story meetings, Walt Disney was drawn to the imagery and overarching storyline of Peter Pan but disliked the dialogue. I can’t say I feel his movie improved on it. But it’s not like the film’s writing is bad per se. Sometimes, despite the brighter and softer nature of the adaptation, it’s even morbidly humorous in the same way the book is, most notably in a hilarious line from one of the mermaids. (You’ll know it when you hear it.) This movie has my favorite take on those Peter Pan characters.

Bobby Driscoll isn’t my favorite Peter Pan but he’s very good and it is nice to hear a boy’s voice in the role.[3]I understand the technical reasons behind the stage convention of having an actress play the character and, of course, the vocal part in the musical was written for a woman. But it seldom really … Continue reading Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy is even better. This movie does a better job of developing her character than the other adaptations this blog has covered so far. In the musical, she tends to get upstaged by Peter the Diva. And while she’s better in the 1924 movie, the conventions of silent film acting make her come across as more of a type than an individual. Here we get that Wendy is a fangirl, but not a mindless fangirl. She can never completely get over her crush on Peter but when she’s offended by his behavior, she’s more than willing to call him out on it. It’s a surprisingly nuanced characterization.

My favorite vocal performance in the movie by far though is Hans Conried’s lip-smackingly hammy turn as Hook. My next favorite is Bill Thompson’s (the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland and Jock in Lady and the Tramp) as the Kronk-esque Smee.[4]If you know what “Kronk-esque” means, reward yourself with a spinach puff. Smee suffers more slapstick violence at Hook’s hand than in any other version and Hook himself suffers even more at the Smee’s hands and at Peter’s and at the crocodile’s jaws. The rescue of Tiger Lily is a comedic highlight for all four characters, but the whole film is full of great visual gags.

This movie has my favorite version of TinkerBell and I’m not just saying that because she’s smoking hot.

OK, I’m kind of saying it because she’s smoking hot. But beyond that, this Peter Pan really takes advantage of the animation medium to go beyond previous Tinks. The 1924 one had closeups once in awhile. This TinkerBell gets them throughout. She can convey her personality through facial expressions and body language, and she does so to hilarious effect but in a subtler way than the other supporting characters.[5]Though I should stress that it’s wonderful how much personality stage TinkerBells can have with just a ball of light and a sound effect. The one in the Cathy Rigby production is my second … Continue reading The story team clearly had a lot of fun with her because she ends up playing a larger role in this plot than in the original. She’s not the only character to benefit from the animation medium. Nana and the crocodile are more expressive than any costumed actor could be. The latter in particular becomes a hilarious cartoon character.

Peter’s shadow is now not only detachable but has a personality of its own and Peter has to chase it down.[6]This is an idea the 2003 Peter Pan would borrow and improve upon.

And the characters’ flying is much more persuasive than it could be onstage. I love the way Peter causally hovers in the air, cross legged and the way the characters can go under and around objects. The flight over London is a great example.

And I love how ridiculously diverse the flora and fauna of Neverland are, demonstrating how it’s “nicely crammed” without “tedious distances between one adventure and another,” a place where “every kind of beast, and chiefly all the man eaters, live cheek by jowl.”

I regret to say though that this is the least visually impressive of the Disney animated movies from the 1950s. Fortunately, this says more good about the art of those movies in general than it does bad about this one. But it’s a painful admission for me to make since Mary Blair is one of my all time favorite background artists.[7]In her day, women at Disney animation were relegated to the Ink & Paint department, but she ended up being a major visual influence over several movies, most notably Cinderella and Alice in … Continue reading Peter Pan‘s backgrounds are appealing enough but they lack that extra amount of detail and flourish to make them something you’d want to hang on your wall.

This also has, for my money, the least memorable collection of songs from any 50s-era Disney animated movie. For whatever reasons, Peter Pan musicals seldom have really great songs.[8]This musical by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe is an exception. Stiles and Drewe’s Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure (Original Cast Recording) – YouTube At least these songs are better than the ones in the last one about which I blogged. The most famous one is probably You Can Fly, though I suspect that’s more because of the accompanying visuals. My favorite is actually the opening credits song, The Second Star to the Right.[9]Let me take a moment to say that I love the way the opening credits sequences for Disney animated movies in the 50s showed images of their scenes and characters in a different art style from the … Continue reading Incidentally, the address the original Peter gave Wendy is simply “second to the right and straight on till morning” and Barrie says that this was just random nonsense that came into his head. The Disney movie is the first adaptation to make the phrase “second star to the right” and to have it be genuine directions. Other adaptations would follow suit.

The song, What Made the Red Man Red? is pretty memorable but…not in a good way.

Hoo boy!

When discussing the portrayal of indigenous peoples in any Peter Pan, I think this quote from the book should be kept in mind. “I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose…Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more…When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very real. That is why there are night-lights.”

In other words, Neverland and its inhabitants come from the imaginations of children. While this idea isn’t explicitly stated in the play or any adaptation, it seems to be the subtext in all of them. The Indians are what English and non-Native American children would imagine based on adventure stories they’d read. If they weren’t racist stereotypes to some extent, it wouldn’t make sense. It’s probably wishful thinking to suppose that Barrie would have written them differently if he were trying to portray real people, but if you keep this context in mind, it makes the stereotypes more tolerable.[10]Though some of the descriptions in Chapter 12 are still pretty hard to take. But there’s a line to be crossed and this adaptation races across that line and never glances back.

This is easily the most horrifyingly racist Peter Pan. I’m tempted to defend the cartoony designs of every Indian, save Tiger Lily, on the grounds that supporting characters in animated movies are traditionally cartoonier while the main characters are drawn more realistically. The character designs for the pirates are pretty cartoony too. But there’s no getting around the fact that the Indians are caricatured in a distinctly ethnic way with their leathery, very red skin and their expressions which are either dopey or unpleasant. Then there are their speech patterns with their ughs and their ums and their heap bigs. The dialogue Barrie wrote for them may not have been much better on that score, but at least there was less of it. I don’t blame anyone for finding the movie unwatchable or believing it shouldn’t be shown to kids because of those characters.

I don’t blame anyone for taking that position…but I’d be a hypocrite if I said I did. Because I have enjoyed watching the movie. Several times in fact. I wouldn’t want it to be the only Peter Pan adaptation people see. But as one among many, it’s good.

Bibliography

Barrie, J. M. (1994) Peter and Wendy: The Original Storybook Version of Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc.

Kothenschulte, Daniel. (2016) The Walt Disney Film Archives: The Animated Movies 1921-1968. Taschen Books.

References

References
1 Modern Disney animated movies tend to be a bit more morally complex. For example, while repressing emotion is portrayed as unhealthy in Frozen, giving emotions completely free reign is also depicted as dangerous. In fact, a big part of the problem with restrained emotion is shown to be that when they eventually do break out, it’s with deadlier consequences than otherwise. And while Zootopia has a strong anti-stereotyping message, it goes out of its way to show what an easy trap stereotyping is to fall into, especially when experience seems to be reinforcing stereotypes rather than belying them. I’d still say those movies draw a clearer line between good and evil than Peter Pan does though.
2 I’d also argue that slapstick and other kinds of visual humor were never totally absent from the Alice and Pooh books, even if the Disney movies went too far in that direction.
3 I understand the technical reasons behind the stage convention of having an actress play the character and, of course, the vocal part in the musical was written for a woman. But it seldom really works for me in performance.
4 If you know what “Kronk-esque” means, reward yourself with a spinach puff.
5 Though I should stress that it’s wonderful how much personality stage TinkerBells can have with just a ball of light and a sound effect. The one in the Cathy Rigby production is my second favorite.
6 This is an idea the 2003 Peter Pan would borrow and improve upon.
7 In her day, women at Disney animation were relegated to the Ink & Paint department, but she ended up being a major visual influence over several movies, most notably Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, anyway because her art was just that awesome! I mention this not to pressure people into liking her work because she was a rare woman in a position of authority, but to demonstrate there’s no need to pressure people into liking it.
8 This musical by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe is an exception. Stiles and Drewe’s Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure (Original Cast Recording) – YouTube
9 Let me take a moment to say that I love the way the opening credits sequences for Disney animated movies in the 50s showed images of their scenes and characters in a different art style from the movies proper. It’s a great way to whet the audience’s anticipation without giving too much away.
10 Though some of the descriptions in Chapter 12 are still pretty hard to take.
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