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“The rock was very small now; soon it would be submerged. Pale rays of light tiptoed across the waters; and by and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
I don’t know what it says about me that, on the cusp of my thirties, most of my favorite books are still children’s books. Watership Down, The Mouse and His Child and the inspiration for this week’s movie Peter Pan, by JM Barrie. Peter Pan is at once a rip-roaring children’s adventure, a great work of literature and a haunting meditation on the nature of childhood and innocence. It is a work of breathtaking, melancholy beauty. And yet, unlike many great works of literature, it seems perfectly suited for adaptation to screen (probably something to do with the fact that the story began life as a play). This is a story replete with sumptuous visuals and thrilling action, in the right hands you could make an absolutely fantastic Peter Pan movie. And they did.
But that’s not the movie we’re looking at today. This is Disney’s 1953 adaptation. Well, I love Disney. And I love Peter Pan. This can’t go wrong, surely?
Like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan was an early candidate for the second, post-Snow White Disney movie that eventually became Pinocchio. Disney only managed to get the rights to the story by 1939 by which point you know damn well what happened on 1939 and there’s no need to go into all that again. This was a passion project for Disney, who loved the book growing up as a child.
The movie begins with the opening credits…
So as the movie begins, Mr and Mrs Darling are getting ready to go out and are leaving their three children, Wendy, John and Michael, in the care of their nanny. Nana. Who is a dog. This may seem strange to American readers, but in the Old World it is not uncommon to hire animals to look after your children. In fact, my brothers and I were practically raised by an oryx.
Michael and John are having a mock sword fight, with John playing Hook. Wendy, who is kind of the dungeon master for their games, tells John that Hook was missing his left hand, not his right.
“In the midst of them, the blackest and largest jewel in that dark setting, reclined James Hook…of whom it was said only the Sea-Cook feared. He lay at his ease in a rough chariot drawn and propelled by his men, and instead of a right hand he had the iron hook with which ever and anon he encouraged them to increase their pace.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
Okay, Disney, so you changed which hand the hook is on. Fine. It’s a small detail. But why would you go out of your way to point it out? Well, the hook is often reversed in movie adaptations to make it easier for right-handed actors. But in an animation? I honestly have no idea why they did that. Regardless, this scene does condense the first few chapters of the book efficiently and effectively. Mr Darling is angry that Wendy’s stories have led to his shirt being turned into a treasure map and says that she is to leave the nursery and have her own room.
Mr and Mrs Darling go off to their soirée, leaving Wendy, John and Michael to their last night in the nursery. And there on the roof, we see our first glimpse of the title character.
And it is glorious. Seriously, the animation of Peter Pan is a wonder to behold. He flits around the nursery like a living shadow, mysterious, elfin and a little sinister. Just how Peter Pan should be. And then he has to open his big stupid mouth.
Yup. Peter is voiced by Bobby Driscoll, the original Nice Young Gentleman Who’s Trying His Best. Worse, Bobby was sixteen by the time this movie was made and his goose-like, broken-voiced honking does not make a good fit with the eternally young personification of childhood innocence and cruelty.
We are also introduced to this movie’s version of Tinkerbell. I went into this review expecting to hate Disney’s Tinkerbell what with her being co-opted as the corporation’s second most visible mascot after Mickey. And yes, when the revolution comes, Tinkerbell will have to answer for her crimes.
But…no, I’m sorry. This is a great Tinkerbell; fiercely loyal, courageous, passionate and homicidally jealous. Only real criticism that I can make is that the movie does sexualise her quite shamelessly. Because I’m reasonably sure this is the only Disney movie with fucking panty shots. I’m serious.
Needless to say, JM Barrie would not have approved.
“It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
Call me out, Barrie. Call me out and embarrass me in front of all my friends.
Anyway, Peter wakes up Wendy, John and Michael and offers to take them off to Neverland where they will never grown old. He tells them that all they need to fly there is happy thoughts and a little bit of pixie dust. And…dude, just say “Pixie Dust”. Just say “You need pixie dust to fly.” Because let’s be honest, it’s the pixie dust that’s doing most of the heavy lifting. You’re really overemphasizing the role that happy thoughts play in this to a disingenuous degree. They fly out the window and are on their way to Neverland as the song You Can Fly plays.
Okay. In the book…
No, no, no hear me out. In the book, Mr and Mrs Darling realise that something is wrong and race back to the house only to arrive too late and find the nursery window open and their children gone. It’s a devastating scene, and a major part of the book’s central theme that children are kind of sociopathic dicks.
But in the movie Mr and Mrs Darling come back to find them already returned from Neverland, no harm done. Yeah, maybe it would have been too dark for a Disney movie, but that’s what really kills me. It’s too dark for a Disney movie now. And by “now” I mean the nineteen fifties. Obviously.
When I think about what this movie could have been if it had been made back in the forties. When I imagine a Tar and Sugar Peter Pan, as scary and shadowy as Pinocchio, as lush and beautiful as Bambi. Oh God, this could have been something incredible. But, they waited too long. Damn shame.
Anyway, we see Neverland…
…and meet our villain Captain James Hook.
And first impressions are good. Hook is drawn pretty much like he’s supposed to look, essentially Charles II as a pirate, and in keeping with tradition he’s voiced by the same actor who plays Mr Darling (representing the forces of adult control and authority perpetually pitted against the lawless youth of Pan, dontcherknow). Hook is poring over his map of the island trying to find Peter Pan’s lair and is interrupted by one of his men singing overhead, who he casually shoots. Again, not a problem. In the book, Hook actually disembowels one of his men for wrinkling his collar, so it’s in keeping with his character to murder his own men for tiny offences. But then Hook’s bo’sun Smee (who’s Irish in the book and isn’t in the movie and…that’s…fine) remarks that killing one of his pirates for singing isn’t Good Form, to which Hook roars “BLAST GOOD FORM!
What? What did he just…did Captain Hook just say…did he just…
That is just. Wow. Okay, if you haven’t read the book let me try and give you some kind of idea of just what a clangingly, hideously out-of-character statement that is for Captain Hook to make.
I mean…I mean…that’s the point of the character! That is the entire concept! A ruthless, bloodthirsty pirate who nonetheless adheres religiously to the Etonian concept of Good Form. That’s. Captain. Hook.
And I know that Captain Hook is a very popular Disney villain but…I’m sorry I can’t go along with this. This is a terrible adaptation of the character. And it’s not just for that one, horribly out of character moment. There’s no menace. Really. The Queen of Hearts is more sinister than this guy. The fucking Ringmaster from Dumbo was more threatening, at least he knew how to use a whip! But this Hook is a joke, foppish to an absurd degree. Even his own men don’t seem to fear him and he’s murdering them on a regular basis! In the quote above it mentions that Hook is feared by “the Sea-Cook”. As in, Long John Freakin’ Silver was afraid of this guy. The Disney version wouldn’t scare Captain Crunch.
Alright, let’s have it. “Mouse, stop comparing it to the book. Just appreciate it on its own merits. You shouldn’t constantly compare adaptations to the source material, they’re supposed to stand alone.”
See, here’s the thing. You’re wrong.
This movie is not supposed to stand alone. This movie is called Peter Pan. It was made with the specific purpose that people like me, who know and love the book, would come and see it. It is counting on me assuming that it is going to at least try to be faithful to a work that I love and am therefore willing to part with my money to see. And that’s fine. But since it’s getting my money because I associate it with a book I love, it doesn’t get to disavow that association if I don’t like what I see. You gotta meet me halfway way here, Walt.
Okay, rant over.
So Hook decides to kidnap Tiger Lily, princess of the local tribe of
Indians, American Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians, Native Peoples…
…to force them to give up Peter Pan’s location.
Meanwhile Peter, Wendy, John and Michael arrive at Neverland and Peter send Tink ahead to let the Lost Boys know that they’re coming. Instead, Tink tells the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy down. The Lost Boys are Slightly, Nibs, Tootles, the Twins and Cubby who for some ungodly reason sounds like Bobcat Goldthwaite. Anyway, they shoot her down but Peter rescues her and when he finds out what Tink has done he banishes her forever (commuted to one week at Wendy’s urging). Her attempt to have Wendy killed having failed, Tink leaves to plot her revenge.
Peter then takes off to show Wendy the mermaids. He leaves John in charge of the Lost Boys and they decide to go and capture some of Those Guys just for shits and giggles. They sing the song Following the Leader which I have to say I find kind of shrill and repetitive until finally they come across some tracks supposedly left by Those Guys.
They make a plan of attack, with John offering such sage wisdom as “Now remember, the Indian is cunning, but not intelligent.” before they get their honky asses captured and tied to a totem pole. John is frightfully embarrassed by this but Bobcat tells him not to sweat it because it’s all in the game, yo. Whenever the Lost Boys capture Those Guys, they let them go and vice versa. But then the Chief appears…
…and tells them they ain’t goin’ nowhere. The Chief thinks that the Lost Boys have kidnapped Tiger Lily and says that unless she’s returned before sunset they’ll be burned at the stake. How he expects anything to happen is a bit of a mystery since the only people who know about this ultimatum are tied up and can’t do anything about it. Cunning but not intelligent indeed.
Meanwhile at the Mermaid’s Lagoon…
…Peter introduces Wendy to the mermaids who immediately try to drown her because women amirite? But they’re interrupted by Hook and Smee with Tiger Lily as hostage, followed by the Crocodile. Okay, I’m going to ease off the bile a little to admit that I love the movie’s version of the Crocodile. He’s hilarious, endearing and he mugs to the camera like he gives minus three fucks.
Peter and Wendy follow the boat which leads them to Skull Island.
Pan flies in to rescue Tiger Lily and battles Hook, easily beating him and reducing him to tears.
“…undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw…the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside and the pirates pass on. [Hook] has not even taken the cigar from his mouth.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
Sorry, just needed to remind myself. Oh James, what have they done to you?
Anyway, Pan throws Hook to the crocodile and we get an admittedly very funny scene of the crocodile trying to eat him while he and Smee row desperately back to the ship.
Hook comes down with a cold (ugh…) and Smee has to look after him. While loudly hammering a “QUIET, DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door, Smee accidentally knocks Hook unconscious.
But Hook wakes up pretty quickly when Smee dishes that Pan has exiled Tinkerbell. Sensing an oppurtunity for actual villainy, Hook dispatches Smee to capture Tink and bring her to the ship.
Meanwhile at the camp of Those Guys, Those Guys have decided to make Peter a chief as thanks for his rescuing Tiger Lily. And that makes sense, right? It’s like after the mission to kill Bin Laden when Obama made all the members of Seal Team 6 president. We then get…What Makes the Red Man Red.
This is without a doubt the most racist thing I have ever seen and I’ve read the comics of Frank Millar.
The song basically proposes to answer the following questions:
- Q. Why does he ask you “How?”
- A. It comes from the Lakota Sioux word háu, a greeting that has since come to be transposed into media portrayals of Native American speech regardless of the tribal culture of the speaker.
- Q. When did he first say “Ug”?
- A. There is no reliable historical record of this word in any Native American dialect.
- Q. What makes the Red Man red?
- A. The “red”, in actuality a coppery brown, pigmentation of Native American people is the result of a darker skinned people passing through the Arctic on a generational migration to the lower Americas, resulting in a lighter skin tone in order to optimise Vitamin D production in a low-sunlight enviroment.
Believe it or not, those are not the answers that the song provides. It also continues the theme of everyone with two X chromosomes on this damn island being obsessed with Peter as Tiger Lily puts the moves on him, making Wendy jealous. Next thing you know her and Tinkerbell will be getting drunk in some bar and telling each other “You know what? Fuck him. Because you, sssh, sssh, sssh, let me finish, no, let me finish, you are…I love you. And if he doesn’t…see…If he doesn’t see how special you…what a wonderful person…sssh, no, no let me finish, I love you so much…”
Hook convinces Tinkerbell to show him where Peter’s hideout is after he offers to Shanghai Wendy for her. She makes him promise not to lay a finger on him and he agrees.
Back at the hideout the Lost Boys come home and they are still singing that damn song. Wendy convinces John and Michael that they have to go home, and sings Your Mother and Mine. The Lost Boys decide that having two adults looking after your every waking need and not living in a tree fighting for your life against pirates and Those Guys actually sounds pretty sweet. Peter is upset, but lets them leave before going to sleep. Wendy and the Lost Boys exit the hideout and are promptly snatched up by Hook’s pirates who were lying in wait for them. Hook, mindful of his vow to not lay a finger on Pan’s head, leaves a bomb in a gift box for Peter to open when he wakes up, and the pirates depart.
Back on the ship Hook offers the Lost Boys a choice, join his crew or walk the plank. Wendy tells the boys not to listen to him because Peter will save them and Hook and Smee have a good laugh at this.
Hook explains to Wendy that he left the box with the bomb in it and a note supposedly from her telling Peter not to open it until six o’clock. We then cut to Peter reading this note aloud.
“He was the only boy on the island who could neither write nor spell; not the smallest word. He was above all that sort of thing.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
I just…why do I bother?
Tinkerbell escapes and races to rescue Peter. She reaches him before he opens the parcel. She pulls it off him, manages to fly it, ohhhh a good five feet before it explodes. And they are now both dead. They are. They have to be, because the other characters see the explosion on the pirate ship and it is the size of the frickin’ Tsar Bomba.
Peter picks himself out of the wreckage and exclaims “It WAS a bomb!”…
This is absurd. There is no way he could have survived that explosion, its complete bullshit.
“For as well as being the bravest of the Lost Boys, and the youngest, and the greatest fighter, Peter also had the power to generate forcefields.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
Disney got to you too, huh Barrie?
“You can’t fight them Mouse. They’re bigger than all of us.”
JM Barrie, Peter Pan
Well anyway. Peter crawls through the wreckage and finds Tinkerbell, who has the good decency to at least be dying and not insulting our intelligence.
Okay, a bit of explanation. In the book (yes, we’re back to that again) and play it’s not a bomb that Hook leaves behind, it’s poison. Tinkerbell drinks the poison to save Peter and dies. Peter then begs the children in the audience (or reading the book at home) to loudly declare that they believe in fairies and through the power of their faith they restore Tinkerbell to life. Walt decided that this simply wouldn’t work in a movie.
Back at the pirate ship, Wendy still refuses to join Hook’s crew and he sentences her to walk the plank. She does, but there’s no splash. You see Peter arrived just in the nick of time to rescue her and Tinkerbell’s with him and she’s absolutely fine now because WIZARDS!
Peter flies over them and challenges Hook and the Captain remarks incredulously “It can’t be!” and no James, it can’t but FUCKING WIZARDS, WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO!!!?
Peter frees the Lost Boys and they take the fight to the pirates.
Peter and Hook duel and Peter makes Hook look like a chump just like he’s made Hook like a chump throughout this entire thing. Hook calls Pan a coward and dares Peter to fight him without flying. Of course, like an idiot, Peter does. And isn’t that always so satisfying? When the only way the villain can be any threat to the hero is when the hero acts like he slipped on a flight of stairs and banged his head on every step?
Pan beats Hook, who begs tearfully for his life, then attacks Peter when his back is turned, falls into the sea and exits the movie being chased by the crocodile over the horizon, but unburdened by any excess dignity. Tinkerbell douses the ship in pixie dust and they fly back to London. Mr and Mrs Darling come home to find their children safe and sound, and they tell Wendy that she can stay in the nursery for a little while longer and doesn’t have to have a pony. The movie ends with the three of them gazing out the window as Peter’s ship returns to Neverland.
Peter Pan was a critical and box-office success at the time of its release, helping the studio regain its footing after the disappointing reception that Alice in Wonderland received. And it still has its fans today of course. But personally, I just do not like this film. Not for the racism, though that certainly doesn’t help, but because the whole thing just stinks of missed opportunity. I just get the feeling that they didn’t get Hook or Pan. Peter Pan is probably one of the very few stories where I’d recommend another movie version over the Disney version. If you want to see a faithful, beautifully realised adaptation of this book, check out the 2003 version. Better yet, just read the book and let your mind paint the pictures for you.I’m not saying you shouldn’t see this movie. I’m not even saying that it’s a bad movie on its own merits. It’s just I honestly can’t imagine Disney screwing up the character of Captain Hook worse than they did here.
Oh, right. You might be wondering about my take on the whole “Disney purchasing Star Wars” thing. Well, I’m honestly pumped. I think Disney have proven with Marvel that they can be counted on to treat other properties with respect and keep true to their spirit. I welcome anything that pries the franchise from the clumsy hindfeet of anti-artist George Lucas, and Disney have the money and the talent pool to make some really spectacular Star Wars movies. So yeah, I’m on board. After all, I love Star Wars, and I love Disney. What could go wrong?
Better than Cinderella, not as good as Alice. Fair enough?
The Leads: 09/20
Peter is a mere shadow of his literary self, stripped of most of his mystery, innocence and that faint sinister quality that makes him such an unsettling character. Now he’s just a cocky, braying jackass. Kathryn Beaumont essentially reprises her role as Alice for Wendy but this time it doesn’t work. Alice was an active participant in her own story. Wendy mostly just flops around constantly needing Peter to save her.
The Villain: 05/20
Going to catch so much flack for this.
Supporting Characters: 15/20
There are some really good second bananas here. Michael is absolutely adorable, Nana is wonderful, the Croc is hilarious, Tink, Smee…probably the movie’s saving grace overall.
This is the first Disney movie I can remember where so many of the songs actively annoyed me.
FINAL SCORE: 51%
Dogs cannot easily digest carbohydrates. If you fed a dog an entire plate of spaghetti they would suffer severe abdominal pain and would quite possibly die. Now that that scene is ruined forever for you, join me next week as the Unshaved Mouse reviews Lady and the Tramp.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!