Should I Watch..? Peter Pan (1953)
What's the big deal?
Peter Pan is an animated family fantasy film released in 1953 and is the fourteenth feature-length animation produced by Walt Disney. Based on the J.M. Barrie play Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, the film was the last to be distributed by RKO Radio Pictures (Disney's distribution company Buena Vista started up shortly after the film's release) and the last to feature the famous Nine Old Men as animating directors - Disney's core group of animators who worked from Snow White And The Seven Dwarves to 1977's The Rescuers. In recent years, the film has come to be regarded as a classic Disney production despite perceived racism in the treatment of native American Indian characters. It was also the favourite film of Michael Jackson who named his ranch in Santa Barbara Neverland in tribute.
What's it about?
As George and Mary Darling prepare to go out for the evening in London, their daughter Wendy is once again telling the story of Peter Pan to the youngest of the Darling children John and Michael. With the boys acting out the tale of the boy who never grew up fighting the villainous Captain Hook, George flies off into a rage at Wendy insisting that she is too old for such tomfoolery and that she must grow up and move into her own room. Later that night, Peter Pan himself visits the Darling children in the nursery and after using some of his fairy-dust supplied by his companion Tinker Bell, they all fly off into the sky towards Peter's homeland, the faraway island of Never Land.
Waiting for them, however, is a pirate ship led by Captain Hook and his bumbling first-mate Mr Smee. Determined to get revenge on Pan for feeding his hand to a crocodile, Hook begins formulating a cunning plan to defeat Pan once and for all and with the Darlings in the way, Hook feels that he might have a bit more luck this time. Pan's adventures with the Darlings will take in mermaids, the Lost Boys tribe as well as a group of American Indians but when the time comes, will the Darlings choose to go back?
Captain Hook / George Darling
Mr Smee / additional pirates
Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Ted Sears, Erdman Penner, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright & William Cottrell *
Release Date (UK)
27th July, 1953
Animation, Adventure, Family
What's to like?
Given the proliferation of CG animated movies today, it's easy to forget that films like Peter Pan would have been entirely hand-drawn, painted and animated. And the effect is stunning - this is a truly beautiful film to look at with glorious views of a sleepy London, sweeping colourful vistas of a tropical island and characters that resonate life in every scene. If anything, the characters are even better than the background with little sight gags for the keen-eyed. Take Tinker Bell - yes, she is shamelessly and needlessly sexualised but her mannerisms and personality shine through despite the absence of dialogue.
Throw in some impressive action sequences like the fight between Hook and Pan in the rigging and sails of the ship and Peter Pan is starting to look more and more like an iconic film. The same characterisation also helps Hook and Smee to be a genuinely funny partnership, especially with Thompson's marvellous performance. Even some of the musical numbers will stay in your head for years afterwards - "Following The Leader" is the particular ear-worm I suffer from. The film is bright, fun and wonderfully animated and still provides much for today's younger viewers to enjoy.
- Despite rumours Marilyn Monroe was the physical inspiration for Tinker Bell, it was actually 22-year-old voice artist Margaret Kerry. She also voiced the red-headed mermaid in the film.
- Despite the film's success, Disney himself disliked the film as he thought Peter was too unlikeable. Ironically, Barrie experts believe that this is an ideal characterisation as they believe he was originally written to be a heartless sociopath.
- Conried voices both Hook and George Darling, in accordance with the original instructions with the play which states both roles must be played by the same actor. Nana the dog and the crocodile also have a dual role on stage - the animators therefore gave the crocodile certain canine qualities.
What's not to like?
Time, it seems, might not dent the quality of the animation in Peter Pan but certainly the content. The scenes featuring the American Indians feels horribly out-dated with songs, characters and dialogue all feeling as out of place as One Direction fans at a death metal festival. I understand that it's a product of its time but these days, it does look and feel somewhat insensitive especially given the controversy in the US about the Washington Redskins football team. People upset about that will have a field day with Peter Pan.
Pan himself is actually a bit of a jerk, throwing a strop whenever he doesn't get his way and coming across as a bit of a egomaniac. Coupled with the outrageously sexualised Tinker Bell, you begin to wonder how much of a liberty Disney was prepared to take with the source material which was famously bequeathed by Barrie himself to London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for sick and ill children. And on a personal level, I'd have liked to have seen more of Nana the dog who provides the early comedy before the story begins and is never seen again.
Should I watch it?
Despite some casual racism, Peter Pan is an enjoyable watch for those viewers prepared to overlook such outdated views. It might be a fairly loose adaptation of the play but Disney has crafted a film of such beauty, magic and flights of fancy that it's difficult not to fall in love with it. Today's kids might complain that there's no Buzz Lightyear in it but frankly, they're missing the point.
Great For: animation junkies, the young and the young at heart, pirates
Not So Great For: native Americans, people afraid of crocodiles
What else should I watch?
It's almost impossible to pick a favourite Disney film because it feels unfair to exclude so many other timeless pictures. But if I had to pick, then I'd start with Dumbo which made me cry as a kid and I suspect might still do now I'm older. And although it's a bit different to a lot of his early output, I do have a soft spot for Disney's Fantasia which combines his classic animation which some amazing pieces of classical music. It also has Mickey in his famous Sorcerer's Apprentice scene which is one of the best pieces of animation ever committed to film.
These days, Disney have slightly fallen off the pace before Frozen brought them right back into the game. Pixar now rule the roost with iconic movies like Toy Story, WALL·E and the under-rated Inside Out which is also a masterpiece. Failing that, try stuff like How To Train Your Dragon or Despicable Me if anything from the House of Mouse turns you off.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox