“Peter Pan” (1953) Film Review
Written by Jambareeqi
Posted 7th September 2017
Based on the play by JM Barrie, “Peter Pan” tells the tale of Wendy Darling, who loves the stories of Peter Pan and Neverland, but her father insists that she grows up. One day, Wendy and little brothers are whisked away to Neverland by the mischievous Peter Pan. While in Neverland, the Darlings meet the orphaned lost boys, the pretty fairy Tinkerbell (who fancies Pan, and tries to kill Wendy in envy), beautiful mermaids who adore Pan, a tribe of Native Americans. Plus, our heroes must also face the dastardly Captain Hook and his bumbling sidekick Smee.
Here’s my problem with Disney’s “Peter Pan”: While I can find a charm to Wendy’s British manners, sweet nature, and story of facing growing up; I honestly either loathe or don’t care for the rest of our heroes! Peter is annoyingly smug and inconsiderate to Wendy, Tinkerbell is a possessive and spiteful little shit with jealousy issues, the lost boys are obnoxiously frantic and aggressive, and the Darling brothers just aren’t that interesting.
What’s worse, is that I found myself feeling more sympathetic and attached to the villains. Yes, the kidnapping violent bad guys are more likeable than our title hero, THAT is shockingly problematic for a kid’s movie. We’re meant to root for Peter, but he’s such a rude arrogant brat, that I failed to see his appeal, and instead found myself feeling sorry for Hook’s grief over Pan. Heck, Pan has a chance to show mercy to Hook at one point, but cruelly lets him suffer.
Hook is adorably campy but also fiendishly clever when making evil plans, and the dynamic he shares with Smee is reminiscent of an old married couple. Any scenes centred on Hook and Smee alone together is hilariously cute! It’s fun watching Hook getting needlessly melodramatic, and there’s something sweet about Smee’s affectionate pampering towards his grumpy captain. Again, look at what I’m saying, I’m praising the despicable antagonists for winning my heart, yet I can’t stand our hero! What is this nonsense?!
I get what they were TRYING to do with Peter, make him naughtily cheeky in a fun way; but the execution falls flat, because his immature arrogance is more irritating than lovably tongue in cheek. The way he treats Wendy is my biggest issue with him! From letting the Mermaids abuse her to abandoning the poor girl at a cave, it’s unforgivably mean spirited behavior.
If the movie embraced it’s dark roots more (the source material is apparently VERY grim), I could see Peter’s character working; but Disney clearly wanted to shy away from the original book or play, and go for a more whimsical take on Pan.
I also get what they were going for with the female characters like Tinkerbell and the mermaids (and to an extent, Wendy), have them fawn over Peter to make him seem magnetically appealing, but A) the film makes the Neverland women so excessively crazy over Peter, that they come across as vindictive manipulative horrors B) Just because lots of characters gush over your hero, doesn’t automatically mean the audience will feel the same.
The jealous Mermaids try to force Wendy into the water, while Peter laughs like an asshole
Now, I get that the movie is about Wendy maturing and realising how childish her fantasies are, this explains why the characters she meets are mean or annoying; but this comes at the cost of the audience’s experience of visiting Neverland’s residents. The movie wants us to realise that Pan is just a brat at heart, and Wendy has exaggerated his charm, but it also wants us to root for him when he’s taking on the pirates. How can I cheer for Pan when the movie has exaggerated his immaturity to unlikeable levels?
Disney clearly wanted to make a mature coming of age story about facing disappointing reality AND a fun fantastical adventure for the audience to get sucked into, resulting in a lot of tonal conflict. A part of me feels that this is a Disney movie that could have benefited from fully embracing it’s dark side, instead of having one foot in comforting whimsy and the other foot in cold apathy; because you can’t expect the audience to be both won over by the Neverland characters AND disappointed by them.
The story itself isn’t all that great too, it feels very short, and there’s not much of a scale to the narrative. Growing up, I remember this film being fun and adventurous, but I didn’t find it as exciting when watching it as an adult. By the time we reach near the hour mark, it feels like much more of Neverland is yet to be explored, but the 74 minute running time cuts the adventure short. Again, this is all to help Wendy’s disappointing realisation work, but the movie also wants us to have fun as an audience, and it can’t do that when it’s also trying to downplay Neverland for Wendy.
It doesn’t help that the movie rushes over all the fantasy elements, like they’re not much of a big deal, which undermines the magical value of what we’re experiencing. What is Neverland? Who is Peter Pan? Who are the lost boys? The Darlings already know, but how? And why can’t we be clued in too? Things feel missing in the movie! It fails to introduce, build or setup any of the concepts.
The film hasn’t aged well either, not only are most of the women written as old fashioned stereotypes (obsessed with a man, and bitterly catty to eachother out of jealousy), but the Native Americans are portrayed in a borderline racist way. The Native Americans are casually given slurs like “Redskins” and “Savages”, they get an awkward (but arguably catchy) musical number called “What makes the red man red?”, plus they also speak in mockingly broken English.
Yes, things were different back when this movie was made, I understand that; but it’s still difficult for me to watch this movie’s take on Native Americans without feeling a little uncomfortable. The movie serves as a haunting reminder that Hollywood once saw Native Americans as animalistic and inarticulate.
You could argue that the Native Americans are meant to be childish exaggerations, in the spirit of the kid’s game “Cowboys & Indians”, but which messed up kids use words like “Redskins” in their games? and make up naively racist songs about minorities? No, when it comes down to it, it’s just an artefact of the times.
To conclude, this has been one of the most disappointing childhood revisits I’ve ever had, because Peter Pan just doesn’t hold up very well in my eyes. It has awkwardly dated stereotypes, tonally conflicting storytelling, a rushed pacing that overlooks important beats, an adventure that lacks fun, and it also fails to make it’s title character likeable or charming.
Yes, Wendy’s maternal sweetness gives some much needed heart to the film, and the antics of Hook & Smee are wonderfully entertaining; but everything else is hollow, offensive, or unpleasant. I honestly never expected myself to dislike “Peter Pan” before re-watching it as an adult, I always assumed it was a well deserved classic, but I’ve changed my mind after this new viewing.
If you enjoyed my review, please consider supporting me with a tip through Ko-fi:
Jesus, the Peter Pan films aren’t doing you too good, are they? The first one’s dull, confused and aggressively mean-spirited, and the sequel is the same but with a poor background for its “having fun” message.
In all honesty, with the exception of 101 Dalmatians, I’ve always thought the films Walt Disney made in the 50s and 60s were a drop in quality from the ones he made in the 30s and early 40s. Do you think the war at the time somehow damaged a bit of Walt’s talent?
Not sure, because I wouldn’t say Walt was that perfect to begin with. FIlms like Dumbo & Bambi were just “okay”, while Snow White has aged as well as expired milk.
Okay, I was exaggerating a bit, what I meant to say more specifically is that I thought 101 Dalmatians was the only post war Walt Disney film to live up to the standards of the likes of Fantasia and Pinocchio. (two of my ten favourite films of all time) with that said, I do love a lot of the post war Walt Disney films, especially when you compare them to the Disney films in the dark age, I enjoyed The Rescuers and Robin hood and I thought The Aristocats was fine, I was even thinking of given The Black Cauldron a try until I read your review and now I’m skeptical if I should give it a watch.
About Snow White aging like milk, honestly, I don’t think Walt Disney’s Snow White is supposed to be viewed as a movie with interesting characters and an endearing an epic narrative, I think it’s supposed to be viewed as a fun and charming fairy tale and I think the film succeeds in that department which is why I love it, even if you wanted more from it, I don’t think it was possible since it was the first animated film to be produced in colour which might explain why you think it’s aged like milk. Don’t get me wrong, I love strong stories and likable characters, but sometimes I just want to relax and enjoy something charmingly basic so I think saying it has aged like milk is stretching it a little, this is all my opinion anyways and I can see where you’re coming from.
It has amazing animation, a fun villain, and great songs, but everything else dates the film drastically. Snow makes a series of constant terrible decisions that teach bad lessons to kids (she decides to take a nap after leaving something to cook!), the dwarves are patronisingly babied like they’re toddlers, and the romance is disturbingly started as a house intrusion. All power to you if you think it’s charming, but I don’t think it holds up that well.
OK, thank you for telling me, like I said, I can see where your coming from and after reading more of your thoughts, I have a stronger knowledge of why you think Snow white has aged like milk, I still snow white is a good Disney film but I would definitely agree it’s not one of the best Disney films, especially when compared to Fantasia and Pinocchio, Honestly, looking back, I do think Cinderella is a better fairy tale film than Snow White. Would you agree?
Yep, Cinderella isn’t perfect, but it’s a stronger film to me
Dumbo and Bambi were deserving of AniMat’s Seal of Approval instead of average. I am proud of my own opinions in a way that I could get picky on one hand.
I guess he could be comparable to other fun loving heroes who love messing with their opponents (like Sonic the Hedgehog or Bugs Bunny); but they were never that cruel with their allies or partners (in the latter’s case Daffy’s misventures were usually his own fault).
Of all the Peter Pan adaptations I’ve seen, the Disney one is pretty disappointing to me as well. I agree that Wendy is a good character, Hook and Smee have great chemistry, and everyone else is bland or unlikable. Though, I will say I do like the music(obviously excluding “What makes the Redman Red”).
If you may, I do have two Peter Pan movie recommendations. The first the 1999 Broadway revival starring Cathy Rigby. The second is the 2003 live action movie version. Both make Peter likable, he and Wendy have good chemistry together, the pirates and the Lost Boys are likable as well, and Indian racism are toned down.