Why, you blithering blockhead!

Peter Pan (1953)

James: We actually watched this before Christmas, but the manic period has held us both up in our deliberations. Apologies, oh few but valued readers.

So, Peter Pan is another of Disney’s adaptations (and the last in a run of Disney features to be based on an existing text; the next is an entirely original piece), and the first thing we notice is the title song. It’s actually GOOD!

Well, not exactly good, but it’s a) relevant to the story and b) not just ‘Peter Paaaaaaaaan’ over and over again (Looking at you, Ichabod and Mister Toad). I’ll let Anne talk more about the music (as she’s eminently more suited to do so) but suffice to say it got us off to a good start.

I’m going to talk about the characters, because they are pretty great here. There’s a lot of characters in this piece, and most of them are very, very strong. Every named character is distinct and memorable, and it’s surprising  how even those with minimal screentime make a good impression.  This starts with George Darling (well meaning but delightfully pompous) and extends to minimal characters like the Crocodile (who, despite less than three minutes of screentime – THREE MINUTES – elicited the biggest laughs of the picture from both of us).

More importantly, the central characters are incredibly strong, particularly the women. Wendy and Tinkerbell are both fully developed characters, very different and very relatable. These are Disney’s strongest female characters up to this point, and are the first female protagonists to undergo natural and enjoyable character arcs. Both are selfish in their own way at the start, and both grow through their interactions with Peter and Hook. Tinkerbell is perhaps the best character in the film, allowed to be selfish and mean yet caring, and ultimately redeem herself. She’s allowed slapstick comedy (usually reserved for male characters) and her reactions to Wendy and Peter’s interactions are mined for both drama and comedy. She becomes the most developed, the most sympathetic and the most interesting character in the film without every saying a word.

It also surprised me how affected I was by Peter and Tink’s relationship; although they may inadvertently hurt each other, they also risk their lives to save each other, and when Peter says ‘You mean more to me than anything in this whole world’ you believe it. They love each other, and while there may be a suggestion of romantic feelings it’s actually a pure and platonic love. The heart of this film is a friendship between a boy and a girl, and that is rare to see in film, and it’s beautiful.

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Anne: Oh, the dreaded STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS!

(Courtesy of Kate Beaton at Hark, a vagrant, though I found the picture on Google Images.)

Tinkerbell is brilliant, really–she has wit, spirit, sparkle, sex appeal, anger, jealousy, fear, and loyalty, and she does it all without saying a single word. Spectacular animating job, just going to show that a picture (especially a moving picture) is indeed worth a thousand words.

But for me, this movie is about Wendy. Wendy Moira Angela Darling.

So, a little background about me. I’m 26 years old, and I have two younger brothers who are now 23 and 21 (plus three stepbrothers). And there’s Wendy, stuck in Never Land with that horde of rambunctious boys, going on adventure after adventure…and finally getting sick of it after being told for the second time that “squaw no dance.” (Which is a whole other problem, but never mind for now…) She’s the only girl, she’s the oldest, and Peter Pan was her fantasy to start with—but then the boys hijack it and she realizes that actually, she wants to grow up. Peter Pan is a real jerk for most of the movie, and Wendy doesn’t get to see his redeeming qualities. She just sees a self-indulgent man-child who puts everybody else’s lives in danger in the pursuit of fun and adventure. Of course, he does come through for her a few times, but always at the absolute last second. By the end of the movie, Wendy is ready to move into her own room instead of staying in the nursery with her brothers. It’s like finally getting to sit at the grown-ups’ table at Rosh Hashanah instead of being relegated to the kids’ table with your brothers.

The focus on Wendy is strengthened by the fact that Kathryn Beaumont is a much more engaging voice actor than Bobby Driscoll is as Peter Pan. She sounds like an adult and a child simultaneously; her line readings are often quite sophisticated, but her voice is youthful and high. I like hearing how the actress matures between Alice and Wendy—and Wendy is really an older version of Alice. I remarked in our Alice post that I didn’t think Alice’s misadventures in Wonderland would prevent her from daydreaming in the future, whereas Wendy’s experiences in Neverland change her and allow her to take the next step towards becoming a woman.

I also think the reason I never realized before that Peter Pan was really Wendy’s story was because I was really only familiar with the 1960 television special, and when Peter Pan is played by no less a legend than Mary Martin, it’s hard to see any other sides of the story. And the musical version of the story presents a much warmer, less selfish Peter, who styles himself as Father to Wendy’s Mother. He takes care of the Lost Boys, looks after them, and teaches them (after a fashion–“I Won’t Grow Up”). The Disney Peter Pan has one or two beautifully human moments, but in the musical, the character is allowed to show his vulnerable side more frequently. Not to mention that he’s actually played by a middle-aged woman, which is traditional dating back to the original stage production of Barrie’s play, as I understand it…but there’s a big difference between a mature woman playing Peter Pan and an actual BOY playing him. Bobby Driscoll gives Peter Pan a very real boy quality, complete with total jerkiness.

As long as we are talking “strong female characters,” it’s really too bad that Tiger Lily doesn’t get any kind of character development whatsoever.

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I like her–she’s a pillar of quiet strength and resolve–but she’s pretty much an object. She exists to get saved by Peter Pan and then later in the pivotal “squaw no dance” scene, she exists to make Wendy jealous. It’s not really any better in the stage version (nor is the song any less offensive), but at least Tiger Lily has lines and music of her own and she seems to be the leader of the Neverland Indians.

James: Eesh. And I thought ‘What Made The Red Man Red?’ was bad.

Actually, it still is. The Red Indians are slightly defensible as they are a) taken straight from the Barrie original (as the Mary Martin version affirms), and b) not actually Native Americans, but heightened thematic characters playing a role in the narrative of Never Land alongside (also highly fictionalised) pirates, and mermaids and fairies. However, neither of these are particularly good defences. It’s pretty embarrassing to watch.  Whereas Song of the South, despite its already noted issues, attempted to present a non-white society in a positive and multi-dimensional way, the main take-away here is that Red Indians are a misogynistic, brutish people. Heightened fiction they may be, but their image is inextricably linked with Native Americans.

Oof. That was a heavy paragraph. Let’s have a picture of a mermaid to calm things down. How do those clamshells stay on?

I was going to say how much I envy those clams, but I could never be that shellfish.

Now, let’s talk about the animation. Although this movie was their most expensive animated feature to date, I can’t say it shows in the art. Particularly in the opening few scenes I felt a lot of the movement was quite rough, and when George is tying up Nana outside even the colour is a bit off. It all settled down when it got to Never Land, although certain movements, such as the Red Indians’ dances, still struck me as coarsely animated (but maybe that was the point there?)

However, the individual designs are fascinating. Vibrant and distinct, they show a tremendous amount of character, as evidenced by the mute Tinkerbell stealing every scene. I particularly liked how Peter Pan isn’t actually good looking; he’s got a kind of squished up face that put me more in mind of Cyril Proudbottom than a Disney protagonist. But then, that balances well with Peter as a character and as a character device for Wendy; charming and rogueish in the shadows, but less attractive as you actually spend time with him.

'That's good, Peter. We don't want any more light on you than that.'

If only he’d stayed in the shadows, maybe Wendy would have stayed in Never Land.

Anne: I thought Peter Pan looked like Lampwick from Pinocchio. Given the choice I’d rather be Cyril Proudbottom, who at least has the advantage of being English. And really, why shouldn’t Cyril Proudbottom be a Disney protagonist? I’d watch that movie.

I was maybe supposed to say something about the music, wasn’t I? To be totally honest, it takes a bit of effort for me to remember the music from the Disney movie because I’ve got the Broadway score running through my head. It’s got music by Jule Styne and Comden and Green, and with the possible exception of “Ugg-a-Wugg” (see above), I think it’s vastly superior to the songs in the Disney version, which was clearly conceived as a movie with music as opposed to a musical movie like some of its predecessors. Peter Pan himself doesn’t sing in the movie, and the most famous songs–“The Second Star to the Right” and “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!”–are sung by a disembodied offstage chorus. (I think I like “The Second Star to the Right” more than James does, but to me it pales in comparison to “Never Never Land”–I know a place where dreams are born / and time is never planned…) “Following the Leader” is entertaining enough (and I think I had a Disneyworld VHS growing up that used it as background music, which would explain why I know every word).

Speaking of “Following the Leader,” I found Peter Pan to be more laugh-out-loud funny than most of the films we’ve watched so far. One of my favorite gags in the whole thing was when Michael and John were following the Lost Boys all over Neverland in search of Indians, and as Michael was climbing over a rock to cross the river, it turned out to be a hippopotamus.

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And then you know what happened? Ten seconds later, as James put it, they got me again!

Not a great picture of it, but you get the idea.

He never even saw that rhino coming…oh wait, wrong movie.

I feel like this movie was full of all kinds of delightful little surprises like that one, and it all goes towards making Neverland a complete world visually. Of course the rocks turn out to be animals–of course there are hippos and rhinos and monkeys in Neverland, and within the space of ten seconds you can cross from rainforest into savannah. Why on earth not?

We haven’t talked about Captain Hook yet, have we? Hook is an interesting one, because while he is functionally speaking the villain of the story (complete with bumbling sidekick, Mr. Smee), he’s spectacularly non-threatening. He spends all of his time plotting revenge on a Peter Pan, his crew have no respect for him at all, and on top of that, he’s terrified of that pesky crocodile who is always on his scent.

Seriously, never smile at a crocodile. You’ll regret it.

I think Hook is one of the most well-rounded villains we’ve seen so far, in that he’s the victim in one story and the predator in another. In fact, Neverland as a setting is complex in that way–the Lost Boys go hunting for Indians, but actually the Indians have it in for the Lost Boys, and the pirates have it in for everybody, and the crocodile has it in for Captain Hook.

James: I think you’re right. Certainly he’s the most sympathetic of the Disney villains to this point. As I’ve said before, when a character suffers you can’t help but engage with them, and Hook suffers a lot in this film, not just at the Crocodile’s hands (hands? paws? feet?) but at Peter’s too. He’s lumped with a completely incompetent crew and he’s up against a nimble, two-handed urchin who can FLY. He never really stood a chance.

By the way, this is an opportunity for me to show my favourite bit of animation in the entire thing:

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It’s beautiful, no? The close up on his face, the perfect perspective of his movements and of the ground falling away beneath him, the steadily rippling sea, all of which make this the most grounded and realistic moment in the film. And for the first time in the film Hook seems like a credible villain, not because of his competency but because of his anger, because of his sheer determination. He really does provide the audience with a full range of emotions in this film, what more could you want from a Disney villain?

(Besides a song. All good villains should get a song.)

Incidentally, the 1992 film Hook is a good flick, and does a similarly great job with Hook as funny, almost sympathetic and very, very occasionally threatening. We should watch that.

Well, I don’t think I’ve got any more to say about this film. It’s pretty great. The characters and their relationships are generally strong, about the strongest we’ve seen from Disney to this point. The music is more than adequate, the performances are excellent, and the direction is fabulous. The animation itself isn’t the strongest we’ve seen, and Peter is a comparatively weak lead who has no character arc (I could have done with another 5-10 minutes towards the end to give Peter some character growth). But then, he’s meant to be the boy who doesn’t grow up. The real protagonist is Wendy, who does learn and does change and does grow up. And Tinkerbell’s awesome. This gets an easy 8/10 from me.

Anne: I think I mentioned this when we were watching the movie that in the stage version of Peter Pan, the Lost Boys follow the Darling children back to London so they can be adopted by loving parents. And as in Hook, Peter returns years later only to be disappointed by the fact that Wendy is now a grown woman with children of her own; then the cycle of enchantment starts all over again with Wendy’s young daughter. It’s a little sad, really, because once all of the Lost Boys have gone, Peter is alone in Neverland (okay, with Tinkerbell, not totally alone), and he comes back in what always felt to me to be a desperate plea for attention and love. Everybody is growing up and leaving him behind.

In the Disney version, I’m not sure that this ending is really necessary given how Wendy-centric the plot is. I like the way this film ends, with Mr. and Mrs. Darling remembering that they had once believed in Peter Pan, or something similar. Once again, the clever people at Disney have given adult viewers an inroad to the world of the film, via nostalgia for childhood.

I’m giving Peter Pan a 7/10. Thoroughly enjoyable and genuinely funny, but I thought the pace dragged a little after the fantastic opening sequence, which may actually be my favorite part: the boys swordfighting all over the nursery, Mr. Darling looking for his cufflinks and discovering a treasure map drawn on his dickie (that’s part of his shirt, get your minds out of the gutter!), and poor Nana trying to keep order and getting banished to the doghouse. (In the musical, Mr. Darling crawls into Nana’s doghouse in contrition at the end, once the children come home safely from Neverland.)

Poor old Nana!

Next up, one of the few Disney films that I didn’t like the first time around: Lady and the Tramp!

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One thought on “Why, you blithering blockhead!

  1. Anne, I adore you, and I’m sure I’d like you too, James, but this retrospective is fascinating to me in terms of how different our tastes are. For two people who met over their mutual love of great art (Sondheim), it turns out that outside of that sphere we have vastly different ideas of what good art is.

    That’s preamble to say, basically, that I don’t particularly care for this movie. I like it well enough, but to me, this is the epitome of a 6/10 – some nice animation and songs, and Tinkerbell is indelible, but it’s a kids’ movie. I find very little of the Disney spirit that made Bambi a work of art for all audiences in Peter Pan. Even a movie like Alice in Wonderland, which I fully admit is not a great film, just by sheer experimentation and ambition is more enjoyable to me. Also, I like those songs better. I liked this movie a lot as a kid and yet, as I get older, I find less and less to enjoy in it (other than Tinkerbell and to a lesser extent Hook.)

    Anne, I agree with you that this should be and kind of is Wendy’s story, but I find this treatment of her to be muddled at best and kind of offensive at worst – I love that she sees through Peter and realizes that he’s a big jerk, but that makes her attachment to him (even after he treats her pretty poorly) seem pretty pathetic.

    Also, it’s REALLY hard for me to get past “What Makes the Red Man Red?” which strikes me as the most overtly racist item in the Disney canon as well as one of the least contested.

    If you guys don’t know the story of poor Bobby Driscoll, it’s worth reading his Wikipedia page. Very sad.

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