Peter Pan, 1953, 76 minutes
“All this has happened before, and it will happen again,” opens the narration of Disney’s 14th picture, Peter Pan. It’s true, Captain Hook will reemerge, and Peter’s story will play out in other kids’ homes. Is it a dream? Is it reality? Was it all a very detailed game of make believe? It does not truly matter. What matters is the journey the three Darlings go on, and who Peter Pan is to them. Peter is the antithesis to their father, George, whose staunch practicality and humorlessness is forcing Wendy to grow up ahead of schedule.
Hans Conried brings such an impressive weight to George Darling, who only appears for the first 15 minutes of the film, as well as the last three. In the interim, however, he appears again. In the tradition of Barrie’s play, the Captain and George Darling are played by the same man. Oddly enough, the casting of Bobby Driscoll as Peter was actually unique for the time, as he was the first male to play the role in any medium, Peter traditionally was played by women.
Disney’s Peter Pan is not exactly a faithful adaptation, but it succeeds in being an entertaining, standalone piece of storytelling, something that Alice failed to do. The story is abridged, songs are added, subplots are dropped, but it still follows the plotline fairly well. It is also, like most Disney films of the era, quick-as-a-bunny due to its short hour and a quarter runtime.
This is certainly a livelier film than Cinderella or Alice was. The camera movement is much more effective, the score is more prominent, and it punctuates every moment of the film perfectly. The variety of songs in the film is also impressive, the intro song of The Second Star to the Right, the act break of You Can Fly, the schoolyard camaraderie of Follow the Leader, the intense racism of What Makes the Red Man Red?, there is a lot of music here that is quite distinct, even if Second Star to the Right stands head-and-shoulders above everything else.
Peter Pan is quick-moving, so when it slows down, you take notice. Disney has hovered in the 70-85 minute range for its whole existence at this point, save for Fantasia, and this length has worked wonders for the company. It allows tight, efficient storytelling, so that when there is a dramatic shift in tone, the film earns its serious scenes. It’s something that was not terribly effective in Cinderella nor Alice but is here, like it was in Pinocchio and Bambi. After a lengthy sequence in which Hook has lured Tinker Bell to the dark side, we cut to the Darling children debating the merits of staying in Neverland or going back to England, culminating in the song Your Mother and Mine. It’s a nice song, and the sequence certainly has more drama in it than Alice’s Very Good Advice. While the song is being sung, the pirates, who were tipped off via their pixie informant, the pirates are circling Peter’s home. The whole family of Darlings and Lost Boys abandon the tree only to be immediately kidnapped by the pirates, and we are given our last major song of the film, The Elegant Captain Hook, which is a fairly short piece of story exposition, simply telling us that if the kids do not sign up to be pirates, they will take the ol’ 7-foot down the 6-foot plank. It’s an ok little number, but honestly, until rewatching the movie, I’m not sure if I could have hummed it. It almost seems like an introduction for a longer, more character-based song that Hook would go on to sing, but instead, it just ends.
The animation throughout the film is more detailed than Alice, with smoother movement and more elegant backdrop paintings, inching back up to the standards of Snow White, though not quite up to where Pinocchio was. The twilight scenes on the ship, the evening in the teepees, the film changes lighting and color temperature constantly, which is quite impressive, especially compared to Alice’s singular, indistinct time of day throughout.
Big set pieces have returned. After the relatively low-key fantasy sequence in Cinderella, and the schizophrenic Alice in Wonderland, it has not been since Bambi that we have seen cohesive, large-scale scenes that excite and add to the story. In the first 20 minutes of the film, we have seen Peter fight his shadow, the Darling children fly, and several funny scenes with Tinker Bell. Tink’s resentment of Wendy helps set up scenes later, as well, such as when she gets coerced into giving out Peter’s locations.
The film’s band of villains is quite charming. The bumbling first mate, Mr. Smee definitely has some dirt on our dear Captain, as he is clearly not as savvy a smuggler as, well, anyone else in the crew, really. The captain himself is a perfect Disney villain, showing the perfect balance of menace and charm to be a believable son-of-a-gun. He has a grudge that he will not let go: Peter, with his little dagger, has rid Hook of his left hand, and naturally, Hook wants Peter Pan dead. He’s an effective leader, and his charm goes a long way: he manages to get some info out of a silent Tinker Bell as to the whereabouts of Peter’s location.
The ways in which Peter moves throughout the film is quite imaginative, he is not flying like Superman with his fists out, nor is he merely floating. He moves like he’s been flying his whole life, it is completely natural for him to fly. It is a unique, yet somehow believable performance throughout the whole film that shows just how in-the-groove the animation department was in 1953. The film is a powerhouse of animation, with almost every scene offering something new, a new flying pose for Peter, or new silly slapstick moves for Captain Hook to do. It is truly remarkable how many visual gags there are in this film.
Peter Pan is the first Disney example of a complete family. We have a mother, a father, two and a half kids, and the dog, Nana. The family is a functional, cohesive unit, even if the father has a bit of a temper. It is significant, as all of our protagonists thus far have been shown in broken homes, save for Bambi, but his father is so absent that he may as well have been gone. Wendy, John, and Michael do not have the abandonment issues that Dumbo has, nor are they lost the way Alice is, they simply are going on an adventure. In the great tradition of Barrie’s play, Captain Hook echoes the father in personality, being played by the same actor, in this case, the excellent Hans Conreid. Losing his temper in hilarious ways, the father is perceived as an angry, emotionally oblivious, but nonetheless caring father who simply cannot understand why his eldest child refuses to grow up. George Darling, the night they get back to London, is a much more sensitive and caring man, allowing Wendy to return to the nursery, despite his earlier reservations. Even still, George has a hard time accepting Wendy’s crazy stories until his own memory is jarred, he sees Pan’s ship in the sky and has a sudden change of heart. Captain Hook represents everything that is wrong with George Darling. He is presumptuous, impatient, cruel, and, most obviously, has a huge distaste for Peter Pan. However, with Hook goes the anger of George, and the return of his hope.
Despite all the wonders that the film brings, it brings some burdens as well. The racism of the Native American portrayal is pretty terrible. Picture the Cleveland Indians logo, Chief Wahoo, only a little more offensive. The chief is played by Candy Candido, a voice actor whose 4-octave range allowed him to be incredibly popular in the 50s, and here his intense bass voice is shown of in full force. Still, instead of downplaying the negative stereotypes of Barrie’s book, Disney sort of doubles down on them. What Makes the Red Man Red? is offensive in just its title, without even getting into the lyrics. Still, for its “credit,” it is the only time they use complete sentences. Much like the crows in Dumbo, the broken dialect highlights just how insensitive white America was back in the 1950s. Again, pre-Civil Rights, things were horrible. It is sometimes mind-blowing to think of how things were a mere 60-some years ago.
The film has some other issues as well, Tiger Lily is basically not a character, with dancing being the only characteristic she really shows. Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily all seem to split Peter’s affection, with Tinker Bell being the most envious of the three of them. The threads of these romantic subplots do not tie into anything meaningful at all, and the relationship between Wendy and Peter is left as this odd hybrid of romance and mother-son relationship, and that is sort of the end of it all.
Peter Pan is Disney finally getting back to what made their first five movies such successes (At least, critically successful). Fantasy, adventure, swashbuckling, the film truly has it all. Despite some issues with its romantic subplots, and its pretty intense racist portrayal of Native Americans, the movie is quite good. It loses points because of the Indians, (Or, as they call themselves, the Injuns,) but it can still be enjoyed with the caveat that this film is outdated, and in terrible taste, and that the portrayal of the Native characters is completely unacceptable.
This is not Disney’s best, but it is notably stronger than the previous two films. Watch it, but keep in mind that its uncouth portrayal of Native Americans is just that, uncouth. No matter how awesome Candy Candido’s voice is.
Up next, one of my favorites: Lady and the Tramp