It’s been a few weeks but Journeys in the Disney Vault makes its triumphant 2013 return! There are three more Disney films in the 1950s, and it’s hard for me to decide if this one is my favorite of the decade, or second-favorite (the other contender is up in two weeks). Peter Pan is a fantastical story with laughs, memorable songs, and the strongest voice casting seen in a Disney film, so far. The plot is light, Pan can be downright unlikable, and I’m still left confused on what we’re supposed to say about Wendy, but I hold a soft spot in my heart for Peter Pan and his merry adventures in Never Never Land.
The three Darling children get the opportunity of a lifetime when the lovable rascal Peter Pan (voiced by Bobby Driscoll) comes and takes them away to Never Never Land. Their adventures see them meeting mermaids, Indians, and facing a confrontation with the dastardly Captain Hook (voiced by Hans Conried).
Peter Pan is the last of the films distributed by RKO, and I will be sad to see that distinctive logo disappear from the openings. Speaking of openings, Peter Pan actually has an opening song that makes its presence known, which I complained about in the last two reviews. “Second Star to the Right” sets this up as a magical film that emphasizes key tenets of the Disney philosophy; such as magic, adventure, and family. The song also is a lullaby, foreshadowing the ending when Wendy finds herself asleep at the window. The melody of “Second Star to the Right” was originally intended for a song in Alice in Wonderland that was never used. Suffice it to say, it works better here. Other Alice in Wonderland connections: Voice actress Kathryn Beaumont, who voiced Alice, appears here as Wendy.
Disney’s version of Peter Pan doesn’t conform exactly to either the film versions, before or after, or the stage interpretations; thus why you have the name Never Never Land here, as opposed to Neverland in the other adaptations. The only other version I’ve seen is the 2003 live-action version which is really good (and extremely dark), and I think Disney makes the material their own, while also paying tribute to author J.M. Barrie. As with the other adaptations, both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are animated the same way, and actor Hans Conried voices both characters. Conried prim voice, and ability to yell, works perfectly in both roles. At the same time, young Bobby Driscoll is the best Peter Pan we have. He’s a cocky spitfire that embodies the petulant child who never grew up. This was Driscoll’s last movie success, and after this his life fell apart. He died horribly, and for me, it leaves a harsh pall over the happy events of the movie. There’s also a brief narration in the beginning that I didn’t understand. We’ve had narrators open Disney works before; usually to tell the “Once upon a time.” Here, it just sets up the family, and then never comes back.
The actual opening scene in the nursery sets-up, and foreshadows, the entirety of the plot. You have the Darling children and their story; the father who comes off like a villain, but really has hidden vulnerability; and the physical humor as evidenced by the character that doesn’t talk. The nursery scene is funny, but it’s really busy. That goes for the rest of the scenes in this film; there’s always at least three things happening at once. Thankfully, this deploys a lot of humor that you can connect with on any level. Nana, and the various things that happen to her are great, and personally I’ve had situations where someone human is in pain, but everyone focuses on the pet. Other uses of humor come from seeing characters act out of their prescribed character. Hook and Smee’s interactions are the best examples of this. Hook is continually complaining and whining about the crocodile, while Smee attempts to placate him and fails miserably.
I also find the songs, for the most part, to be consistently memorable; something we haven’t seen in a while. The trio of “Second Star to the Right,” “Following the Leader,” and “You’re Mother and Mine” all exhibit strong range, and feel subdued in a way that doesn’t bring down the entire plot. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the more controversial song of this movie. “What Makes the Red Man Red” has always been a sticking point for this film; apparently not nearly as offensive as the black centaurs in Fantasia (go figure). The song is stereotypical, as are the Indians themselves, but I’m not sure how many people can actually understand the lyrics. I found it to be par for the course, since Peter Pan is a dark film; and Disney doesn’t change that. Take for instance the fact that the characters are all extremely cavalier about murder. Smee talks about Hook slitting throats in one scene while in another Hook shoots a man for singing.
Outside of Captain Hook, the main instigator for violence seems to be Tinkerbelle! Tink is a total bitch in this movie, which is a far cry from the family friendly rebel with a heart of gold that she’s become in the Disney Fairies series. Tinkerbelle torments Wendy throughout the entire movie, and plots premeditated homicide when she tells the Lost Boys to “shoot her down.” Later on, she has no problems admitting to Peter that she wants to kill Wendy! I love Tinkerbelle because she’s so blunt about whom she is, and her personality comes across without having to say anything. But what are we really teaching kids watching this movie? I think the biggest blow to Peter Pan is with regards to women. I know you can make the argument that all Disney works have issues with women, but I kept wondering why certain decisions are made through the female characters.
There’s no denying that Wendy is a bland character. She’s the mother of the children for all intents and purposes. In fact, I didn’t like the real mother of the Darling clan because we never see her actually mothering! Wendy and Nana (who’s a freaking dog) do it all. Hell, towards the end when the boys start to forget their mother I wasn’t surprised. In spite of all that, Wendy is a good character, and yet she’s assaulted by other women the minute she steps into Never Never Land. I mentioned Tinkerbelle trying to shoot her; but further into the plot Wendy and Peter go to visit the mermaids who attack Wendy too! The mermaids are just as frank as Tink in their motives, revealing “we were only trying to drown her.” I think that’s part of the reason why Pan comes off as cold and unlikable, because he lets Wendy take the abuse that he’s created. I find it weird believing a boy of 13 is being chased by women like he’s the last snow cone in Hell! Walt Disney himself said he was dissatisfied by the final product because he found Pan to be cold and unlikable. I have to agree in some regards, because Pan never apologizes for his actions, or the actions of others that he’s created. By that same token, none of the women are written to be anything other than utterly catty, or matronly.
Ultimately, what are young girls meant to take away from Peter Pan? Wendy is told to grow up by her father, so she runs away from the responsibility to be with Peter. Once she runs away, she discovers a cruel world where women compete for a man, and literally try to kill their competition! When Wendy finally escapes that in the Indian village scene, she’s reinforced with the domestic ideals of femininity when the village matron tells her “Squaw no dance. Squaw get ‘em firewood.” I’ll refrain from discussing the stereotypical Native American language, but if anything this shows that even in so-called “primitive” societies the lines between genders are heavily demarcated. At the end, Wendy returns to do what? Her father tells her she doesn’t have to grow up, and I guess that solves all her problems? I was left confused and bewildered by the whole thing.
This review’s turned into a more analytically piece, but I think that’s okay. The movie is only 77 minutes, and I mentioned the plot being light so there are not many places I could have gone in a straight-forward review. I complain about the characterization of Wendy, but I do have a soft spot for this film. I think because Peter Pan symbolizes Disneyland; I feel that by watching it, a bit of the “pixie dust” rubs off on me. The songs are melodic and memorable, and I think the voice acting is the strongest we’ve seen. I own this movie, and I don’t feel bad about that.
NEXT WEEK: I’ve actually never seen Lady and the Tramp which should make for an interesting review; that’s next week!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.