One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney By The Numbers.
It’s a bonafide Disney Classic. It has some of the most iconic animation and music in the entire Disney Canon. It’s inspired park rides, shows, spin-off movies, prequels, and cartoons.
And yet, if you want to pick a movie to showcase how the older Disney movies are backwards, morally questionable, and cringeworthy… well there probably isn’t a better place to look than Peter Pan.
Now this isn’t entirely Disney’s fault, as much of what’s bad in this film is baked into the source material, but there’s plenty that they’re responsible for and… well it’s best to describe it to you numerically.
- Theme 1.5
- Tightness of Script 2
- Dialogue 2
- Use of Comedy 2
- Use of Drama 1
I remember as a kid always wanting to like Peter Pan but never quite being able to. It was one of the few Disney fairy tale movies (at that time) to feature a male protagonist. It featured pirates, swordplay, and a kid with the power of flight. So it should have been a slam dunk.
But even as a kid little things that kept happening in the movie didn’t sit right. It was never really something I could easily put into words as a kid. But because of the problems I saw in the movie, I never really cared about Peter Pan until a distinctly non-Disney version came along.
But given the fact that this is a Disney Blog and this By The Numbers review is about the 1953 Disney film, I’ve chose to limit my references to Hook to a maximum of 3, not counting the one above.
Structurally speaking, Peter Pan works quite well as a film. The script is coherent, the dialogue is often clever, and much of the comedy lands. Unlike a lot of films, Disney doesn’t actually take a ton of liberties with Peter Pan, the story is mostly streamlined for the run time. And as far as adaptations of the Peter Pan, it probably remains one of the best. Unfortunately this also kind of taints the film with a lot of stuff that hasn’t aged well from when it was written, to when it was adapted by Disney, to the modern day.
Normally I’m prepared to defend what are often seen as things “wrong” with older Disney movies as I feel like most criticisms are either due to reading too much into the text, bad faith arguments, or a lack of historical perspective.
With Peter Pan though… oh look! Music!
- Lyrics 3
- Score 4
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 4
This may not be my favorite Disney movie, and it may have some extremely problematic stuff about it… but the music in the film isn’t one of them. In fact, from the score, to the songs, to the lyrics, it’s one of the best in the entire Disney Canon. And that’s saying a lot because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not… but Disney has quite the extensive catalogue of classic tunes…
Peter Pan has some of the best contributions to that library.
Even the opening credits song, ‘The Second Star To The Right’ is good… and I usually don’t care for those in these early Disney films. Yet somehow, this one manages to be wistful and playful and melodic at the same time. It also contains solid, fun songs like ‘A Pirates Life’, ‘Following The Leader’, and ‘The Elegant Captain Hook’. Each varies from cheery (but maybe not quite amazing) to flirting with being classics.
It isn’t just the songs, either. The score has some amazing pieces of music. The crocodile’s song is peppy and fun and Peter Pan himself has a wonderful little leitmotif that not only captures the spirit of the character, but also has the versatility to be appealing when played on a small flute or fully orchestrated.
But without question, the star of this film’s songs is ‘You Can Fly’. This is one of those songs that transcends the movie it’s in to be a pure moment of movie magic. For lack of a better word… it soars and takes you with it, capturing childlike innocence and the wish fulfillment of flight.
And now we also have to talk about “What Makes The Red Man Red.” It’s almost ground zero for all the problems this film has because of how over the top racist it is. Which is really unfortunate because the song is catchy as all get out and if the lyrics weren’t so awful it would be a contender for one of the best songs.
And if only that could be the last word we had on the Indians in this film but… oh hey! Animation!
- Quality of Animation 3
- Use Of Color 3
- House Style 3
- Character Design 2
- Breaks New Ground 1
Of the first three films of Disney’s Silver Age, I think it’s safe to say that Peter Pan has the best animation. This isn’t in any way to slam on Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. They also have fantastic animation, but Peter Pan takes what those two films did and builds on it. It has the same refined Disney House Style, the same eye popping, rich color, and the same attention to detail.
What Peter Pan adds is a sense of movement that the other two just don’t quite have. Peter Pan flits across the screen with the grace of an Olympic gymnast that has trained so hard, he doesn’t have to pay attention to petty things like gravity.
In fact almost all the flying scenes are nothing short of a visual feast.
The ‘You Can Fly’ sequence alone is so cinematically breathtaking that it almost makes you forget that the character designs in this movie, in some cases… aren’t doing it any favors. In particular, while Disney’s Peter Pan is an iconic look for the character, he also looks about five years too old to be the boy who wouldn’t grow up. But that’s something to discuss later because it’s a problem. And a big one.
But not as big a problem as the Indians.
Everything involving the Indians is a blemish on this film. And, as I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty much baked in to the story. J.M. Barrie wrote the Indians from the perspective of an Englishman in 1904 when Indians would have seemed exotic and dangerous. Disney produced their version in the 1950’s when Indians were seen as the bad guys in westerns. And even I didn’t think much of how badly they were portrayed as a child watching this in the 1980s.
There’s no way around this one. The character designs for these guys is pretty awful and would have been considered harmless back in the 50’s, but there’s pretty much no way to look at them now and not cringe a little at the thought of this having been acceptable.
Sorry to end this on something of a sour note… but we’re about to tackle the love story and… things aren’t going to get better from here.
- Character Interaction 1.5
- Importance To Overall Plot 1.5
- Complexity 1
- Pulls At Heartstrings 1
- Overcomes Obstacles 0
So here is where we get away from the very outdated, racial, aspect of this Peter Pan adaptation… and run smack dab into the outdated misogynistic aspects of this Peter Pan adaptation. See, I told you this wasn’t getting any better.
Peter and Wendy are our romantic leads here and… oh boy does it not work. Wendy practically worships Peter and he can barely give her the time of day, then acts like she’s stupid because she’s a girl.
While I wasn’t able to pick up on racist caricatures when I was a kid, the way Peter treated Wendy was always something that bothered me. She seemed really cool and put up with so much, and here he was making time with mermaids and Tiger Lily.
This isn’t a case like The Three Caballeros where there were no attempts at doing a love story so there were no points to be gained. They clearly were trying to portray such a story in Peter Pan. Thus all the points it gained were paltry at best. In fact the ‘Pulls At Heartstrings” only gains a point because we feel bad for Wendy because of how terribly she’s treated.
Look, all I’m trying to say here about the love story in Peter Pan is
- Sidekick 1
- Charm 0.5
- Goodness 0
- Emotional Transformation 0
- Comedy 0.5
Okay, and here we are, the movie’s central problem. Don’t get me wrong, the racist Indians are horrible but they’re not the focal point of the film. The movie’s title is Peter Pan and he’s… I mean there’s really only one way to describe him.
Peter Pan is an obnoxious, thoughtless, egomaniacal, violent, sexist kid who’s lack of maturity isn’t enchanting, it’s aggravating. And yes, I’m painfully aware that this makes me sound exactly like Captain Hook, but hear me out.
Part of the problem here is Peter’s character design and voice. See, Peter Pan is the boy who wouldn’t grow up. But when crafting his look, the Disney animators made him look much more like a teenager… and an old teenager at that. He was also voice by Bobby Driscoll, who was 16 at the time… and sounded like it. (and no disrespect to him, he actually delivers a fine performance).
But that’s the thing, Peter Pan’s antics would come off as understandable, possibly even precocious, if he looked and sounded like he was 8-10. But you make him look and sound like a teenager and he comes across as someone old enough to know better.
Not only is he awful toward Wendy, laughing about how the mermaids want to drown her, completely forgetting about her when he’s around Tiger Lily and the there’s the fact that the only reason he brings her to Neverland is so she can tell people more stories about how great he is. It’s kind of hard to root for a guy like that. In fact, when a hero is so unlikable, it kind of makes you want to root for the villain.
- Evilness 2
- Comedy 1.5
- Sophistication 2
- Henchmen 1
- Poses A Threat 2
And Captain James Hook is the type of villain that you almost can root for. He’s devious, he’s cunning, he’s formidable with a blade, he ‘Darth Vaders’ any member of his crew that gets on his nerves, has a memorable, iconic look and he even knows how to accessorize.
Now, does that make him a top tier Disney Villain? Probably not. He is made a fool of a little too often in his film. The joke is on him more than it should to take him completely seriously as a villain. He wouldn’t be able to stand with the likes of Maleficent, Ursula, and Scar. But he certainly has what it takes to stand with the ‘B’ level villains like Cruella De Ville, Lady Tremaine, and Prince John.
They say that a hero is only a good as his villain, and the Captain Hook/Peter Pan rivalry is the exception that proves the rule because Hook is ridiculously better than Peter Pan.
- Comedy 1.5
- Inventiveness 1.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 2.5
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2
So our main character is lousy, our villain is a champ… what about the rest?
I’ve got nothing against them.
They run the typical gamut from interesting to only there to fill the screen. Disney pulls a nice nod to the Peter Pan stage play in having the Darling’s father look similar to Captain Hook and have the same voice actor, which is nice. But the Lost Boys are pretty forgettable.
A little more care was put into the Darling Children with Wendy being incredibly endearing and sympathetic, John being something of a scholar, and Micheal being… four. In fact, a case could be made for Wendy to be the story’s main character as she, in theory, is the only one with something resembling story arc.
She starts the movie being mortified at the very thought of having her own room. Because children famously don’t like having their own space and there wasn’t an entire episode of the Brady Bunch where the family came to ‘Lord of the Flies’ levels of fighting just to see who got to live in the attic.
By the end of the film, after all the horrible things that happen to her in Neverland, where nobody will grow up, she announces that she’s ready to and wants to leave the nursery. Which is immediately negated by her father telling her all in good time. She doesn’t even learn her lesson about Peter Pan, the guy that almost let her be drowned, abandoned her, and got her kidnapped by Pirates while he made time with an Indian Princess.
Nope, after all of that, her reaction is to moon over him as he sails away to never see her again. So she learned nothing from her experience, which is sad, because her story would have been much more interesting if she’d concluded it with the moral of “Peter Pan is a real douchenozzle.”
Finally we have probably the most important character of the film. No, it’s not Peter Pan, or even Mr. Smee, although Smee is all sorts of awesome. No the most important character from Peter Pan is, in fact, a Pixie.
Now, I’m not saying Tinkerbell is the best character in the film. Just the most important, as she’s one of the few that manages to transcend the film. Also she saves Peter from the booby trap, nearly at the cost of her own life.
She’s not for everyone. I have it on good authority that she can be seen as an absolute psychopath, willing to do insane and horrible things to keep Wendy from Peter, including trying to get Wendy murdered. But honestly I don’t know how anyone could get the impression that she’s an imbalanced lunatic.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 0.5
- Impact On Culture 2
- Scope of Audience 2
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 1
So I’ve spent a lot of time here dressing this movie down. And, yeah, it has a lot of problems that affect my ability to really care for it. But there’s no denying this is one of Disney’s most important films. Tinkerbell alone is an iconic part of Disney Branding. She’s been a mascot for the company along with Mickey and Jiminiy Cricket for almost as long as she’s been around. With her appearance being synonymous with Disney Magic.
Not only that, but she’s further spun out to her own series of direct to video movies and features where her proclivity for murder is very much toned down. She even has her own section at Disneyland, Pixie Hollow, where children can meet her.
You can also meet Peter Pan in the parks but I mean… I kind of question why you would want to.
Its theme park presence is further bolstered by Peter Pan’s Flight, which remains one of the most iconic attractions. Disney has clones of it existing in almost every Disney Resort around the world.
Pretty much the only thing that keeps this movie from having full marks in this category is the fact that it has completely backwards attitudes towards girls and minorities.
Grand Total 63
Peter Pan is possibly the most complicated of these Disney movies. It’s at once iconic as it is infuriating, beautiful as it is repulsive. Captain Hook, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell are still mainstays for the company, even if Disney works hard to separate them from their less than admirable appearances, namely this very specific film.
And don’t misunderstand, for a much as I have huge problems with this movie, it still has parts that really work. As mentioned, the ‘You Can Fly’ sequence is one of the most triumphant, fantastic sequences ever animated. Captain Hook is undeniably entertaining and the movie as a whole continues to be a touchstone for generations to identify the Peter Pan story. It unfortunately is one of those movies where the bad really sours the good. But that’s what happens when you watch a movie that’s as old as this one that’s adapting a source material as old as it is. Some things simply aren’t going to age well. The best thing to do is actually what the Walt Disney Company has done: take what’s good about it and enjoy that and let the bad fade into history. That’s all part of growing up.
Which is what Peter Pan is actually about.
And that’s it. That’s the review… oh wait… I’m here at the end and didn’t use my last Hook reference… better throw one up. But um… which one… um…