Plus or Minus #018: Peter Pan

Plus or Minus is a series detailing and analyzing every feature film now streaming on Disney+. It combines the unique history all these films share, their cultural impacts, and their qualities, or lack thereof. From timeless classics, to acquired hits, to DCOMs, no stone will be left unturned.

We return to the animated classics here at Plus or Minus with Peter Pan. By all accounts, the most famous rendition of the J. M. Barrie story. The Darling children are enraptured with the tales of Peter Pan, a young boy from Never Land voiced by Bobby Driscoll. Gifted with the ability to fly and to never grow up, Peter Pan soon visits the Darling children. Consisting of Wendy, John, and Michael, the siblings leave their home and fly off with Peter to Never Land, because then they never have to grow up. The Darlings soon meet mermaids, Native Americans, a group of delinquent lads named The Lost Boys, and a villainous band of pirates. The lead pirate is of course the nefarious Captain Hook, whose goal in life is to get rid of Peter Pan once and for all. 

Another Passion Project

Similar to Alice in Wonderland, the last Disney release, Peter Pan had been in development for a while. Portraying the title role in a school play as a boy, Walt Disney had a Peter Pan movie in the works since 1939. Also inspired by the 1924 silent film adaptation, Peter Pan’s preproduction was halted due to World War II. There were later production problems after the war, which caused the film’s initial director Jack Kinney to leave, finally getting beginning production in May 1949.

After several more alterations, Peter Pan would see release February 5, 1953. Coming after the initial failure of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan was, by all accounts, an improvement. Critical reception on the film was positive, though some detractors had problems, and the film was a box office success. On a $4 million budget, the film earned back $6 million in rentals, making it another profitable hit. Typical with many of Disney’s animated classics, the film would retain high marks from critics and Disney fans alike, though criticisms have been made, all of which we will get to.

There would also be many creative artists who cite the film as an inspiration. Ronald D. Moore, who developed the 2004 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, cited this Disney title as a major inspiration for the show’s themes. Michael Jackson stated this was his favorite film of all time and named his estate Neverland Ranch off of the film. Still, this is a film that has gone under scrutiny by many. And alas, despite my love for the Silver Age era of Disney, I have never cared for this film. Looking back on it decades later, my contempt for this film has sadly not changed.

Positives To Be Had

However, the film isn’t without quality. In fact, there is plenty to admire, especially with the villains. Captain Hook is an absolute delight through and through. Hans Conried voices the pirate with a delightfully foppish edge, while still being very threatening. His cunning wit and intimidation balances perfectly with a silly cowardice that is hilarious and fun. Alongside Hook is the bumbling Mr. Smee. As is typical with the original story, Smee is the foil to Hook. He’s too genial and kindhearted to be a threat, yet tries to help his captain whenever possible, to Hook’s dismay. Their dynamic is a riot. Both are strong characters with strong chemistry and memorable bits of dialogue and slapstick. Add on a crocodile who eagerly wants to feast on Captain Hook, and it’s some of the funniest slapstick you will ever see in animation.

This film also boasts stunning visuals. Typical of Disney, yes. Yet this movie combines some amazing colors, strong and memorable designs, and incredible setpieces. The initial flight to Never Land, as the children fly through London, is stunning. Alongside the bright pastel colors, it only makes the locales all the more stunning and magical. Never Land truly feels like heaven. A place that we all dream of going but sadly never will. And there’s plenty of fun action and memorable tunes that make certain moments worthwhile. Yet as a full package, Peter Pan feels shallow and empty, like a child’s favorite piece of candy. There’s plenty of sweetness and intrigue on the surface, but little once you go deeper.

Image from "Peter Pan". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

The Inherently Toxic Message

Peter Pan is revered for being a story about the values of childhood wonder and excitement. Yet as I get older, the story feels more like an excuse to be childish and immature. Yes, I sound like Mr. Darling in my text. But even so, the film’s insights into childhood vs. adulthood ring shallow and empty.

The film tries to showcase the wonders of childhood imagination. Yet it feels unexplored and tacked on in favor of loud noises and dated humor. It’s a film that demands viewers to embrace childish views, refuse to learn or mature, and revel in obnoxious behavior. There’s no real intrigue to the ideas of growing up and the idea of holding on to the positive aspects of childhood is glanced over at best. Perhaps I am reading too much into the story, but things are so basic and bare-bones that there is nothing else to latch on to.

What’s also here in this flimsy narrative is a lot of mean-spirited moments and characters. There’s of course the infamously racist depictions of Native Americans that are horrific to sit through. Even worse, they have their own musical numbers. Meanwhile, all the women in the story, apart from Wendy, are devious backstabbers, furious that Peter’s spending time with another woman. It’s an absurdly sexist film that makes the skin crawl.

As always, I recognize this film, and others, were from a different era. An era where people were not as sensitive to marginalized groups. Yet other films like Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp, while deserve to be slammed for their caricatures and offensiveness, still have more to offer. There’s charm, depth, or at least a likability to the characters and story. But here, there’s no depth or nuance and the kiddie charms quickly wear off.

Image from "Peter Pan". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

Why is Everybody Terrible?

The offensive sexism and shallow silliness is all most potent in the leading heroes. The Darling children are likable enough, but are pretty basic and one-dimensional, even for Disney. But I will take bland and nice over Peter and Tinker Bell, who are some of the most irritating leads of classic Disney. Peter’s cocky and egocentric personality could have been endearing, especially if there’s a humbleness arc given later on.

Yet for the most part, he’s loud, impulsive, and irritating to deal with. He’s an annoying narcissist with little depth and no real lesson learned with him at the end. There could have been an interesting arc about him maturing just a little bit and learning something from Wendy, who learns a bit that growing up isn’t as scary as she thought. But he learns nothing and continues with his usual annoying performance. A pity to think this is the most iconic performance of the late Bobby Driscoll, though he certainly deserves kudos for his vocals.

While Peter can be annoying, there’s nothing more frustrating than Tinker Bell, one of the most detestable Disney characters ever. Her sociopathic tendencies towards Wendy and her lust to kill this little girl are horrible to see unfold, there’s little likable or charming or endearing about her, and her redemption feels unearned. Her sacrifice is only to save Peter and there’s no remorse over her cruelty towards a twelve-year-old girl. It’s a blatantly sexist and mean-spirited character, yet she has taken a life of her own through the years. Tinker Bell is frequently featured in numerous Disney cross-promotions and even had her own spin-off movie series in the 21st century. I have very little experience with these films, but I can only hope it’s better than this uncomfortable mess of a heroine.

Plus or Minus?

For some, Plus or Minus for Peter Pan is likely different from person to person. Yet this was an easy choice for me. When watched with an uncritical eye, especially as a child, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Peter Pan. There’s bouncy animation, creative ideas and visuals, and a funny villain who ties everything up together. And even as an adult, the artistry and simple “remember to hold on to your innocence” plot can resonate. Still, my experience with the film is not a happy one.

Even as a kid, Peter Pan wasn’t a story I connected to. I grew up with the Silver Age classics, yet despite all it had going for it and its popularity, it wasn’t a film I connected to. I didn’t understand why per se, though as an adult, there’s a lot I dislike. It’s blatantly racist and sexist for one, the film’s themes are half-baked, and despite all the fun moments, it’s led by an ensemble that’s forgettable at best or narcissistic and conniving at worst. It’s a rough one to get through and has frankly aged worse and worse as the years have gone on.

It may be a nostalgic soft spot for some, but for Peter Pan, between Plus or Minus, this is a very easy Minus.

NEXT TIME: We venture into a new realm for Disney with True-Life Adventures, with their first documentary The Living Desert. Is this early nature documentary a Plus or Minus?