My Disney movie for last weekend was Peter Pan. This is another one I don’t have a lot of memories of. I thought I had the record album, but most of the music wasn’t familiar. I didn’t remember that the “We’re following the leader” song came from this movie, and I didn’t realize that they didn’t use the lyrics for “Never Smile at a Crocodile” in the actual film. That’s just the theme from the score that plays when the crocodile is present. My mom said she didn’t recall taking me to see it as a kid. I tried to watch it when it came on the Disney Channel when I had cable, and I noped out while the mermaids were mean girling Wendy. I think I’ve seen some clips because there were scenes that were somewhat familiar, but I may not have seen it all the way through. I’m a lot more familiar with the Broadway show, which is unrelated to the Disney version.
This is another film in which the title character isn’t really the protagonist. Peter Pan is essentially a secondary character. It’s Wendy who mostly drives the story. She’s the one who has the goal of going to Neverland, and she has the plan to save Peter’s shadow so he’ll have to come back. Then she’s the one who urges the others to action throughout. She’s also the one who has the growth arc of realizing that growing up isn’t entirely a bad thing and that not growing up has had some negative effects on Peter Pan. The movie doesn’t shy away from showing that Peter’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s entirely selfish, has to be constantly reminded of the needs or even peril of others, and the only time he seems to care at all what happens to anyone is when he thinks Tinkerbelle has been killed while saving him from a bomb. He does get a bit better after that, and that’s when he comes to the rescue of Wendy and the others, but he’s still not ready to grow up and return to the real world, while Wendy is.
Though I have to say that in a movie that involves flying with the aid of pixie dust and being able to crawl unscathed out of a crocodile’s stomach, the most unbelievable thing is the idea that a tween girl at an age when she’s crushing on boys would resist moving to her own room instead of sharing a nursery with her younger brothers. But they treat that like it’s a kind of death.
The ending leaves it a bit ambiguous as to whether the whole adventure was just a dream. If it was a dream, then there’s some interesting stuff going on in Wendy’s head that she made her crush object turn out to be a disappointing sociopath. The fact that her father seemed to have some memories of Neverland does hint that it might have been real, though it’s an odd flip on the way the book ends, with Peter Pan coming to find an adult Wendy and taking Wendy’s daughter with him.
The actress who voiced Alice in Alice in Wonderland also voiced Wendy, and it sounds like she did a lot of voice training in between, since she’s a much more polished singer and manages to stay on pitch. My memory of my Alice album is hazy, but I think from hearing her singing in Peter Pan that she might actually have been the vocalist on the Alice album. She did continue voicing Alice in other Disney projects for decades (while working as a school teacher!), so she might have done studio re-recordings of the songs for the album. I think she also narrated the story on the album. Sadly, the kid who voiced Peter Pan got fired by Disney before the movie came out, after having been one of their big child stars (he was Jim in their live-action Treasure Island), and he came to a pretty bad end.
The elephant in the room in discussing this movie is the pretty obnoxious racism. They run a disclaimer about it on Disney+. The thing about the original play/book is that it was basically full of the pop culture references of the day, all the things that would have said “adventure!” to kids of that time. The Robert Louis Stevenson pirate books were popular, and there were pulp novels about the wild west. The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show came to London. The “Indians” in Neverland were essentially the pop culture figures from pulp novels and Wild West shows, not any kind of real representation of real Native Americans, just as Captain Hook and his crew bear little resemblance to real pirates. If you were to write something similar for kids of our time, they’d be traveling to a land full of Marvel villains, Imperial Stormtroopers, and maybe some videogame characters. That makes the depiction of the “Indians” tricky. Even presenting them as more authentic versions is still demeaning because their role in the story is to be pop culture villains who are fun for kids to fight. Various adaptations have tried different things, from getting Native American consultants to make the representation more accurate to just making them some made-up culture with no parallel in the real world, and I don’t think anything’s worked too well. Maybe the best way would be to make it that cast members from a Wild West show got transported to Neverland, so they live authentically on their own, but put on their roles when dealing with Pan and the boys. At any rate, Disney somehow managed to take something that was already pretty racist and make it even more offensive. The “Indians” get the “freaky” character design, aside from Tiger Lily, who gets the more normal human character design, and that song is just plain awful.
Between the sexism of all the female characters other than Wendy and Tiger Lily being mean girls and Tiger Lily not getting to speak at all and the racism, the movie is pretty cringeworthy. But after the scene with the “Indians” the movie gets a bit more fun. I think the best parts are the antics of Hook and the crocodile. Those bits are genuinely funny, and they give the crocodile a lot of personality. I even laughed out loud a few times.
Perhaps because of the problematic elements that are baked into the story, I’ve enjoyed retellings of Peter Pan more than direct adaptations. There was an interesting one on the Sci Fi Channel about a decade ago, in which Neverland was another planet and the various groups got brought there by some kind of wormhole portal. The fairies were the native life form. There have been a number of “Pan is actually the villain” novels, with a subset of those in the “and Hook is hot” category.
Altogether, this isn’t the most successful of the Disney animated films. I may do Pinocchio this weekend. That was a favorite of mine when I was little, and I’m curious what I’d think about it now.