“Peter Pan” is adapted from the famous play by J.M. Barrie, and is a very safe choice to follow up the failure of “Alice in Wonderland”. The story had already proven itself to be a commercially viable pursuit, what with the play having long been a success. With the child fantasy elements already firmly established, Disney got a chance to build up the musical and humorous aspect of the story. Also, this marks a significant alteration in the usual depiction of Peter Pan himself, who was normally played by a woman on the stage. It must have been quite a noticeable difference at the time to see Pan not as an impish grown woman, but as an actual boy (voiced by Bobby Driscoll).
The story is again a classic, one most are probably familiar with. It’s simple and elegant; Wendy (voiced by former Alice, Kathryn Beaumont) is getting slightly too old for telling whimsical stories about Peter Pan to her brothers, and her father in a fit of impotent rage informs her it’s time she got her own room. Time for her to grow up, in other words. I always wondered where they’d put her. Did they have a spare empty room, just ready to be given away? Anyway, Peter Pan hears of this and won’t have it. If she grows up, she won’t tell anymore stories about him, and that’s just wrong. So he whisks her and her brothers away to Neverland where they encounter various life threatening perils, like angry natives, vicious mermaids, murderous pirates, and so on.
This is another good addition to the Disney library, and as I mentioned before, a nice safe choice for the studio. The animation is colorful and consistent, also using a starkly different color palette for London vs Neverland. The island of Neverland is a jungle of lush greens, blues, and yellows, while the city of London is dark, drab, and grey. The flying sequences are fantastic, and Peter Pan flies and darts around as quickly as a sparrow, but the best of these is the “You Can Fly!” musical number. Peter and the children fly from Big Ben over the expanse of the city and off towards the first star on the right. No scene, other than the final scene, perfectly captures the wonder of the story and the characters.
Speaking of, the character animations are also very nicely on display here, and the most perfect example of their use is in the character of Tinkerbell. She cannot speak, but she’s a visual presence and full of enough personality as any speaking character. In most cases, more. She’s vain, insanely jealous, and an antagonist to Wendy for the vast majority of the movie.
Peter Pan is also an interesting character, never truly likeable or relatable, which works for him being the spirit of youth, rather than a real little boy. He’s cocky, self-obsessed, and very likely has ADHD. But he always wins in the end, and to all the little kids he’s the king of the playground. Wendy, who loved his adventures as much as any child, quickly learns that she may be too old for Neverland. With her age comes an instant discomfort, and everything on the island seems to be against her. Tinkerbell wants her dead, the mermaids try to drown her, the natives don’t let her dance, and it’s just not much fun for her to be there. It becomes clear to her that she’s outgrown the magical world. Either that, or it’s just no place for girls.
Narratively speaking, this is fairly straightforward. Rather than dwell on the strange and bizarre aspects of the setting or the romance of Peter and Wendy, “Peter Pan” puts a great deal of emphasis on comedy. Up to this point, this is by far the most overtly funny of all the classic Disney films. In this case, the comedy is almost entirely from the villain, Captain Hook (voiced with amazing zest by Hans Conried). He gets a tremendous amount of screentime and with good reason. His antics with Mr. Smee (Bill Thompson) and the crocodile are of a slapstick variety comparable to “Looney Tunes”. Everything he does is so big and over the top, even his diabolical planning scenes are treated as purely comical.
That said, the humor also keeps this as a lighter fare, perhaps more directed for children than some of the others. The humor is also of its time, and unfortunately that means it gets downright offensive. I’m speaking of course of the depiction of the natives, or the literal Redskins. All the men are portrayed as goofy red caricatures, and this is even the focus of the entire musical number, “What Made the Red Man Red?” Watching it now is cringe inducing. Every line is some kind of gag about how their skin is red and they make weird noises. Compare it even to the Crows from “Dumbo”. They were timely caricatures as well, but their jokes were not aimed at humiliating themselves. There’s a reason when both movies are shown on TV, the scene with the Crows gets aired, but the scene with the natives does not.
Even with the complete lack of cultural sensitivity, “Peter Pan” is still a fun and lighthearted adventure. The comedy (minus the native jokes) holds up really well, the music is strong, and best of all it does a great job capturing the youthful spirit of the story.