A Disney Classic, Young At Heart And Of Its Time

Jun 8, 2018

“A lot of these things were right for their time…I think most of the things were pretty much right. I think there were some things we might have done differently…” muses animator Marc Davis on the commentary track for Walt Disney’s new anniversary edition of the classic “Peter Pan” on Blu-ray. The movie represents both the height of the animators’ powers at the Disney studio in the 1950s, so full of life are its characters. Kids of all ages love Peter’s adventures battling Captain Hook, Smee, and his rowdy gang of pirates in Neverland. But “Peter Pan” also represents the worst of the studio’s tendencies from the era, to engage in what were then thought to be playful stereotypes. Today, those characterizations are difficult to watch.

But they were also there from the beginning. Pirates, Indians, and Never-Growing-Up are baked into the history of “Peter Pan.” Author J.M. Barrie famously named his character in part after Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of the boys in the Davies family, whom Barrie had befriended in 1898. Barrie would entertain the boys with stories about Pan, and eventually those stories became the basis for the stage play “Peter Pan: or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” written in 1904. When one thinks of what might seem exciting and exotic to young British ears in the late 1800s, pirates and Native Americans aren’t a far stretch. Nor is the idea of not having to grow up, especially to the five Davies children, who lost their father when the eldest son was only 14, and their mother a few years later. Barrie, who had become something of a father figure himself to the boys, would unofficially adopt the clan.

Walt Disney, always on the lookout for a great story, was keen to adapt “Peter Pan” for the screen, and considered mounting it as his second feature after “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Ultimately, production delays compounded by the outbreak of World War II led to the project being shelved until it finally saw completion and release in 1953. By that time, Walt’s “Nine Old Men,” a team of longtime animators who had been honing their skills since the 1930s, were experts at taking life-models and original ideas and translating them into animated form. Watch “Peter Pan” and see the way each character uses body language and subtle facial movements to express mood and inner thought, the way any trained actor would. I’m particularly fond of Frank Thomas’ work on Captain Hook, who is playfully sinister as he tricks Tinker Bell into giving away the secret location of Peter’s lair, and broadly comic as he skips over the water to escape a ticking crocodile.

The Elegant Captain Hook.
Credit Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Hook, Tinker Bell, the croc and all the others are part of Neverland, the fantastic world beyond the “second star to the right” that may or may not be real, as evidenced by the bookend segments of the film set in London. Opening in the Darling family nursery, Wendy, just on the cusp of growing into a young woman, is entertaining her younger brothers John and Michael with stories of Peter Pan when father interrupts their rowdy play. In the tradition of the stage, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are both performed by the same person, here the voice of Hans Conried. He angrily tells Wendy it’s time to grow up before leaving with his wife for a dinner engagement.

That night, Peter Pan arrives and takes the three children with him to Neverland, where they go on a grand adventure, dodging Hook, meeting Indians, mermaids, and the Lost Boys, kind of a gang of Pan hangers-on. These scenes add color and atmosphere to the pirate story, but they’re depicted poorly by our contemporary standards.

Peter Pan seems oblivious to all this, having not a care in the world other than fun, but Wendy is almost drowned by the spiteful inhabitants of the Mermaid Lagoon, and Tinker Bell almost gets Pan killed over her jealousy. If there’s a woman onscreen in Neverland, chances are she’s fighting for Pan’s attention, not that he cares much, seeming to take his Neverland friends for granted. He does dote on Wendy, not in any sort of romantic leading man way, but as a co-conspirator in the name of games and fun. Meanwhile, John, Michael, and the Lost Boys get tied up by a group of Indians who sing one of the most embarrassingly racist songs in the Disney canon, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” If it wasn’t bad enough that we have to hear constant references to “red man,” “paleface,” “savages,” and greetings like “how” and “ugh,” then the song takes it to another level, explaining through legend that the Native Americans’ skin color comes from a permanent blush after an Indian prince kissed a young maid long ago. “Ugh,” indeed. Come on, even the John Ford movie I showed my kids last month treated its Native Americans better than this! On the Peter Pan commentary track, animator Marc Davis acknowledges this, saying, “I'm not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this movie now. And if we had, we wouldn't do them the way we did back then."

As I mentioned at the outset, the stereotypes are baked into the source material, and it’s no surprise that in mid-century America, the Disney storytellers decided to go in the direction they did. Still, with a new Blu-ray release in 2018, I would have expected a “proper context” setup video or explainer on the disc before the movie starts, similar to Leonard Maltin’s short words of caution on the “Walt Disney Treasures” DVD series that included older cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s featuring stereotypically racist imagery. So while I still love "Peter Pan," let's say this movie provides an opportunity for parents to have a teachable moment with their children.

Wendy does get a beautiful moment in the film that I appreciated, and I think gently speaks to the hidden heart of the film, that is the real-world knowledge that one can’t remain a child forever. Just after the “red man” sequence, she sits down with her brothers and the Lost Boys:

Wendy: Oh for goodness sake. Please, boys. Do you want to stay here and grow up like-like savages?

Michael: Of course!

Wendy: But you can’t. You need a mother. We all do.

Michael: Aren’t you our mother, Wendy?

Wendy: Why, Michael, of course, not! Surely you haven’t forgotten our real mother.

Michael: Did she have silky ears and wear a fur coat?

Wendy: Oh no, Michael. That was Nana.

Lost Boys: I think I had a mother once. What was she like? What was she like? I forget. I had a white rat. That’s no mother!

Wendy: No, no, boys. Please! I’ll tell you what a mother is.

Lost Boys: Yeah tell us. Tell us. Please, Wendy.

Wendy: Well, a mother, a real mother is the most wonderful person in the world. She's the angel voice... that bids you good night, kisses your cheek, whispers "sleep tight."

She sings a song, and with her brothers, decides it’s time for them to return home. Peter Pan, on the other hand, warns: “Once you’re grown up, you can never come back. Never!”

Still, Pan agrees to fly the Darling children home to London, and the story ends happily. After the kids are deposited safely back in the nursery at home, the children’s father recognizes Pan’s flying sea-ship in the sky, from when he was a boy long ago. It’s an element of the film that’s often forgotten, and a small moment that’s really the key to the story, and to all of our continual enjoyment of Disney features, even into our old age. Growing up is natural. It’s all right to do so, and growing up also means that you’ll discover a wonderful gift, that there are few things in life better than becoming a parent or mentor to young children. One of the Disney company’s great talents remains helping adults and children come together in play, whether at the movies, through their television programs, games, or at the Disney parks. Peter Pan was wrong about never being able to go back, and the old adage is right—you’re always as young as your heart allows.

“Peter Pan” on Blu-ray

This new "Signature Collection" edition of “Peter Pan” is the second, or maybe third, time it has been released in high-definition. Bonus features on the disc include an audio commentary track featuring archive interviews with animators and historians like John Canemaker and Leonard Maltin. There are two really neat karaoke videos on the disc, featuring original character animation from the 1953 film laid over a modern computer-aided design. It really works, and looks jazzy! There’s a short feature on the disc about Walt Disney’s fascination with flight, but the real highlight on this set is a documentary about the sons and daughters of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” and what it was like to grow up with a Disney artist as a father. For some, there was nary a mention of Disney at home; others found themselves tied into the company culture in unexpected ways. “Didn’t everyone have a miniature train in their backyard?” muses one of the animators’ sons at one point. It’s a delightful family portrait.

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