Film Review: Peter Pan (1953)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Heather Angel – Mrs. Darling

Kathryn Beaumont – Wendy Darling

Lucille Bliss – Mermaid

Tony Butala – Lost Boys singing voices

Candy Candido – Indian Chief

Paul Collins – John Darling

Hans Conried – Captain Hook and Mr. Darling

Tom Conway – Narrator

Bobby Driscoll – Peter Pan

Robert Ellis – Cubby

June Foray (RIP) – Mermaid and Squad

Connie Hilton – Mermaid

Margaret Kerry – Mermaid

Tommy Luske – Michael Darling

Johnny McGovern – The twins

Corinne Orr – Tiger Lily (for that brief “Help,” apparently, although not all sources credit her)

Jeffrey Silver – Nibs

Stuffy Singer – Slightly (Stuffy Singer? That name’s almost as odd as Corky Pigeon! Apparently his first name is actually Simon)

Bill Thompson – Mr. Smee

Sources of InspirationPeter Pan, a British play, 1904 and Peter and Wendy, a British novel, 1911, both by J. M. Barrie

Release Dates

February 5th, 1953 in the USA (premiere and general release)

Run-time – 76 minutes

Directors – Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney and Hamilton Luske

Composers – Oliver Wallace and Sammy Fain

Worldwide Gross – $87 million

Accolades – 2 nominations


1953 in History

US President Harry S. Truman announces the creation of the hydrogen bomb; Soviet Prime Minister Georgi Malenkov announces the same of the Soviet Union months later

The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, which began the previous year, intensifies with the Lari Massacre

The Batepá Massacre occurs in São Tomé, another example of the brutalities of colonialism

Early transwoman Christine Jorgensen returns to the US after her sex reassignment surgery in Denmark, to instant fame

James Watson and Francis Crick from Cambridge announce their discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule

Communist dictator Joseph Stalin suffers a stroke and dies four days later

The 25th Academy Awards ceremony is the first one to be televised

Jonas Salk announces his creation of a polio vaccine – in 2016, there were only 37 reported cases worldwide

British author Ian Fleming publishes his first James Bond novel; Casino Royale

Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle begin their famous collaboration at Capitol Records

A Californian named Jackie Cochran becomes the first woman to break the sound barrier (in a F-86 Sabrejet)

New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay become the first men to summit Everest, the world’s highest peak

The new Queen of the UK, Elizabeth II, is officially crowned at Westminster Abbey, after taking to the throne the previous year – in 2017, aged 91, she is celebrating her Sapphire Jubilee (65 years), the first British monarch ever to do so

The US experiences an unusually deadly tornado season, including the famous Waco and Flint-Worcester outbreaks

The first Chevrolet Corvette is created at Flint, Michigan

The Korean War ends (well, sort of) with the Korean Armistice Agreement: the north is communist, the south, capitalist

The Ionian Islands of Greece are devastated by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, the worst Greek natural disaster in centuries

The second Kinsey Report, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female, is published, based on interviews with over 6,000 women

The UNIVAC 1103 becomes the first commercial computer to use random-access memory

Laos and Cambodia gain independence from France

The 1912 skull of “Piltdown Man” is denounced as a hoax by the Natural History Museum in London

Hugh Hefner (still going strong today at 91) publishes the first Playboy magazine, featuring a nude centrefold of Marilyn Monroe

The US is the first country to begin the transition to colour television

Births of Tony Blair, Alex Van Halen, Pierce Brosnan, Danny Elfman, Xi Jinping, Cyndi Lauper, Tito Jackson and Kim Basinger


 

As you can see in the history box above, 1953 was a pretty big year for the world! It was also a good year for the Disney Company, as they released their fourteenth feature, Peter Pan, to general success. This was a story that Walt had wanted to do an adaptation of for a long time, having been inspired by seeing a roadshow version of the story starring Maude Adams in his childhood home of Marceline, Missouri. Shortly after that, he also played the role of Peter himself in a school play (a part he took very seriously, even including a bit of rather dangerous “flying!”).

This film is the second major film adaptation of the Peter Pan story, following a 1924 silent version from Paramount (which Walt quite likely saw). Walt began planning for this one as early as 1935, but it took him until 1939 to secure the rights to the story from Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, to whom they had been bequeathed by J.M. Barrie. Walt’s brother Roy, ever the shrewd businessman of the pair, wasn’t sure that the story had much box office potential, but Walt pushed for work on it to continue and so it did.

The Disney Library copy of the book is heavily annotated in Walt’s signature blue pencil, so he clearly had plenty of ideas regarding this one. The staff used Barrie’s own play annotations and stage directions to gain further insight into the characters, and story treatments began to appear as far back as 1940. Sadly, once again, we have to make mention of the ugly behemoth that was World War II – like practically everything else Disney were working on at the time, Peter Pan had to be put on hold in 1941 until the war ended. Production restarted around 1947, following the mildly successful releases of several package films which had boosted funds enough to resume many stalled projects.

Unlike the previous feature, Alice in Wonderland, which was another literary adaptation, Peter Pan was generally well-received and has maintained a steady reputation as one of the best of Disney’s 1950s films. I have to admit that prior to watching it, I considered it one of my top ten favourites – but after having watched it again from a more critical standpoint, I’m starting to wonder if I was maybe being a bit too generous with it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely a high-quality film with lots of stuff to enjoy, but it’s also not as flawless as some people think.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

The main issue I have with this one after having re-watched it for this review is with the characters. Although there are some great standouts in this cast, there’s some inconsistency with the quality and development of some of the characters which can leave you feeling a bit frustrated at the wasted potential.

Let’s begin with our titular hero, Peter. For this adaptation, the filmmakers abandoned the play tradition of having him be played by a woman, instead casting an actual young boy (Bobby Driscoll) in the role. This does, admittedly, lend him a certain realism: in a word, he’s “boyish,” with his overconfident cocky attitude and his self-absorbed vanity. While this has its charm to a point, the flip side of this character is that he’s also insensitive, rude and arrogant to the point that even Wendy struggles to sympathise with him at times. He’s also a bit of a “Gary Stu,” always there in the nick of time to rescue his friends and never seeming the slightest bit fazed by any obstacle or danger he encounters, performing every deed with a flourish and never making any mistakes. After the film’s release, Walt himself admitted that he didn’t like the way the character had turned out; much like his criticism of Alice in the last film, he found Peter “cold and unlikeable.” (Ironically, some Barrie purists praised the interpretation as faithful to the source material, where they believed Peter was written to be a heartless sociopath). What Peter needed to round him out was a scene where he showed some sort of vulnerability, which would have allowed the audience to connect and sympathise with him – he needed a flaw of some sort, even just one. As it is, he reminds me a lot of Lampwick from Pinocchio, which is certainly not a flattering comparison. (For a better interpretation of his character, I’d point to the excellent 2003 Universal version of the story). The best thing about this version of Peter is probably his design, which has become the most recognisable representation of him – his green suit and tights and red hair are very distinctive, and he has some great eyebrows!

Peter trying to stick his shadow back on
Peter with his mischievous shadow
Peter's derp face
Peter’s “derp” face

So, how does Wendy come across? Thankfully, she is a warmer and more likeable personality, which helps to offset the harshness of Peter’s character. Played once again by Kathryn Beaumont, she does put you in mind of Alice, but in this story the ordinary-little-girl character is given more to do and consequently, she shines. Her design is sweet and deliberately plain, with a modest head of fussy mouse-brown sausage curls replacing Alice’s luxurious blonde tresses, and her reaction to Peter’s arrival – with no surprise at all and a barrage of non-stop questions – is very indicative of her intelligent and practical character. She is imaginative and a bit of a dreamer (rather like Belle would be almost forty years later), but she’s also given more of an arc than Peter has, as she grows into a more mature young woman by the film’s end. In fact, this adaptation focuses more on Wendy’s story than Peter’s; it is the threat of her move from the nursery to her own room which kicks off the plot, as Peter tries to stop it by whisking her (and the boys) off to Never Land. You could even interpret his reaction here as a brief spot of depth in his character; he likes Wendy enough to want to keep her around, but is too childish to accept change and tries to force everything to stay the same, while she tries to encourage him to embrace it. She effectively outgrows the childish fantasy that is Never Land and is the one to convince the others that it’s time to return to reality, which is, in the end, the better life. One other thing that I like about Wendy is that she sticks up for herself on multiple occasions, holding her own against the mermaids, the Indian Squaw and even the pirates! As far as an Edwardian schoolgirl can be, she’s really quite a strong character.

Peter Pan Wendy

Her brothers are fun too, in their own ways, but they suffer a bit from being underdeveloped; for much of their screen time they’re mixed into the jumble of Lost Boys, with their strongest scenes being the ones in London. We’ve all met a kid like John; he’s a charming little gentleman who’s trying his hardest to appear older than he is, speaking in a loquacious imitation of an adult’s speech and adding a top hat and umbrella to his nightwear before leaving for Never Land. His best moments, though, come when he forgets himself and slips into his natural youth – like during the Indian scenes, for instance (“WAH-HOO!” “John!”).

Michael, the younger brother, is at that age where he’s looking up to the older kids as an example and is consequently very sweet, yet not all that memorable. He’s given a wide-eyed, round-faced design and tufty, strawberry blonde hair for maximum cuteness, even bringing his teddy bear along with him into Never Land (one of my favourite gags in the film is when a real bear spots it on Michael’s shoulders and stares in bewilderment). Michael’s most notable characteristic is a certain ingenuity, which he demonstrates in moments like the one where he loads a cannonball into his bear and uses it to give one of the pirates a terrific thwack.

John and Michael Darling
John is in glasses, Michael has the sword

The Darling parents, Mary and George, are surprisingly enjoyable – more so than you might remember, if you haven’t seen the film in a while. Mary is a classic Disney mother figure in the form of a Gibson Girl, patient and loving, and thankfully she survives to see the end of the film! Her husband George is given fantastic life by the voice of Hans Conried (who also portrays Captain Hook, in keeping with the play tradition). He’s hammy and blustery, struggling to maintain his position as dominant patriarch of his Edwardian family, but the real reason his family (and the audience) love him is because we get to see his softer side occasionally; he’s actually a devoted husband and father, even if his children do frustrate him sometimes. His evident regret at the position he’s in when he ties Nana up outside is obvious in his expressions, and he provides the emotional centre of the film’s ending when he finally concedes with wonder that he once saw Peter’s ship himself, a long time ago…

There’s also Nana, a valued canine member of the household who acts as a kind of nursemaid to the children. This poor, long-suffering St. Bernard is given some excellent character in her expressions, particularly in her interactions with Mr. Darling – the frustration when he keeps knocking over her neat block pile is hilariously relatable, and there’s a perfect comedic jump-cut to her sad, resigned face when she offers him the rope to tie her with in the garden. An early story idea had Nana accompanying the children to Never Land, and I sort of wish they’d gone with it; she’s a fun presence and I would have liked to see her reaction to Hook and Smee.

Mary, George and Nana Darling
Wendy with her parents and Nana

Now, let’s have a look at the denizens of Never Land. First and foremost, we have Tinker Bell, Peter’s feisty fairy friend (try saying that five times fast). Although she is described as a “pixie” in the film, she has become the quintessential Disney fairy, even getting her own franchise similar to the Disney Princess line-up in the 2000s. When you compare her to previous Disney fairies, like the willowy Blue Fairy in Pinocchio or the cuddly Godmother in Cinderella, Tink hits you like a slap in the face – dressed in an incredibly racy little green number and with hips that would make Jessica Rabbit jealous, she’s loaded with sass and vinegar and is probably my favourite in the whole cast. Although her rather scandalous appearance raised some controversy at the time, she’s generally well liked by fans today and it’s easy to see why – she’s a real triumph of character animation, never speaking but expressing herself very plainly in body language. From the moment she’s introduced, looking for Peter’s shadow but getting distracted by her own beauty in a mirror, you know you’re going to enjoy watching this character. She demonstrates a wide range of moods and is alternately jealous, resourceful, cunning and fiercely loyal – her emotional complexity even becomes a plot point, with Hook manipulating her by playing on her hatred of Wendy in order to get at Peter, making her pivotal to the plot. She also demonstrates character development later on, when she realises the trap she’s led Peter into and almost ends up sacrificing herself for him – after this, she seems to have a change of heart towards Wendy and her brothers, encouraging Peter to go and rescue them before saving her. Tinker Bell stands as one of the film’s many high points.

Tinker Bell on the mirror
Tinker Bell… she’s sexy and she knows it (couldn’t resist)

Before we get to our villain, I have to spend a moment on the Lost Boys. Now, these are rarely the most interesting characters in any adaptation of this story, serving more as symbols of what Peter represents than actual personalities, but even by usual standards the Disney versions of these boys are bland and forgettable. I don’t blame you if you can’t remember their names because I can’t either: for the record, Slightly is the one in the fox skin, Cubby is in the bear costume, Nibs is the rabbit, Tootles is the skunk and the raccoon ones are literally just “the Twins.” There’s almost nothing to distinguish them from each other beyond their outfits and body shapes, with Cubby being probably the most significant of them due to his horrendously grating voice. I really don’t know what to say about them, other than that they feel like a big bunch of wasted potential.

The Lost Boys intro
L-r: Nibs, the Twins, Cubby, Slightly and Tootles

At least Peter Pan delivers an enjoyable villain. Captain Hook is, in many ways, the male version of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, with his black hair, red clothes, foppish manners and raging temper. Like her, though, he also suffers from the same problem: as engaging as his screen presence is, he’s not particularly threatening as a villain because he’s set up as something of a buffoon, even coming across as rather cowardly at times. What with Peter’s easy perfection and Hook’s general incompetence, it’s difficult to see him as posing a genuine danger to the children. That said, he is a lot of fun with his hammy line deliveries and the slapstick with the crocodile, and one thing he does benefit from (which I mentioned that the Queen of Hearts could have done with) is more screen time. Indeed, he gets so much screen time that he almost eclipses our protagonists during the Never Land portion of the film – you can tell the animators liked working with him. Due to this increased presence in the film, he does manage to get a few genuinely sinister moments in, hinting at a colder and more serious villain (which, I suppose, wouldn’t have fit in well with this film’s tone).

Hook at the harpsichord

His right-hand man, Mr. Smee, is an interesting addition to the cast, as his voice and chubby design strongly suggest a “good” character in the manner of Doc or the White Rabbit (whose voice actor is also voicing Smee). He’s absentminded and clumsy and doesn’t seem particularly evil – what you might call a “punch-clock villain” who’s only in this situation out of circumstance, rather than because of any inherent malice. My favourite moment with him is when he’s in the cavern at Skull Rock, trying to obey instructions from both Hook himself and Peter Pan, who is disguising his voice to sound like Hook. His confused gestures as the real Hook prevents him from cheerfully rowing Tiger Lily back to shore are so funny! Smee is easily the most memorable member of Hook’s crew, as the rest of the pirates are only very minor characters with little distinct personality to speak of, much like the Lost Boys. They’re handled in a weird, inconsistent manner; sometimes they’re campy and silly, like during their dance number on the ship, but other times, like when they grab Wendy outside the tree house or force her away from little Michael to walk the plank, they’re downright sinister. In case you’re interested in titbits like this, the named ones include Turk, Black Murphy, Mullins, Starkey, Skylights and Bill Jukes (according to character critic John Grant).

There’s also the crocodile, sometimes known as Tick-Tock in fan materials, who is the bane of poor Hook’s existence. He is probably the most “Disneyfied” character, which isn’t a bad thing in this case as he really makes the most of his screen time, engaging in some great slapstick with Hook as he tries joyfully to munch him. I especially like his final confrontation with the bumbling buccaneer, where Hook ends up running right into his jaws and down his whole body before crashing into what sounds like a piano near his tail end. Hook then charges back out with the alarm clock in his hands, but he promptly chucks it back into the crocodile’s gob, making his head ring. It can be assumed that Tick-Tock is ultimately successful in his mission to get Hook, as he is last seen chasing him off screen with Hook treading water to escape (exit, pursued by a bear, indeed!).

Now, to close this section, I’ve saved the most controversial for last: the “Indians.” Hm… what to say here? The portrayal of Native Americans here is undeniably, unequivocally and completely and utterly racist, that much is certain. It’s so cringe-worthy that it’s almost impressive; this is easily the most overt racism we’ve seen since Sunflower in Fantasia (and she was cut out, so this is the worst to actually be kept in the film). The animator Marc Davis even admitted years later that, if they were to make the film again, they would likely leave the Indians out, or at least make them less stereotypical. Usually, for characters like this, we can make the excuse that there was (regrettably) a certain level of ingrained racism in the social consciousness in those earlier days, but this depiction was considered offensive even at the time. I doubt the Disney animators ever intended to offend anyone with these characters; they simply weren’t used to considering minorities as part of their audience, which represents the wider social problems being endured by Native Americans at the time. The film was made just a few years before the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which attempted to force many of them to leave their reservations and “integrate” into cities – yikes. I get the idea behind it, but there’s more than a whiff of the Trail of Tears in this idea of forced assimilation, not to mention the very imperialist idea of trying to include Native Americans in society by making them adapt to “white” ways of living. In 1953, the Indian Civil Rights Act was still more than a decade away (1968), so unfortunately real Native Americans would have had little opportunity to influence their depiction in this film, even if Disney had consulted with any. We’ll have to come back to these themes in the 1990s, when Pocahontas arrives.

Aside from the designs, how are the Indians as characters? Well, not great. Tiger Lily is courageous and stoic, but seriously underdeveloped – she’s more of a symbol, a bargaining chip, a pawn in the schemes of Hook, with so little character that she barely even speaks, simply emitting a stifled cry for help as she’s on the point of drowning. She also forms one corner of a sort of juvenile love square with Peter, Wendy and Tinker Bell (literally every girl in this film has some sort of interest in Peter, even Wendy), underlining the rather limited role of women here. Her father, the Chief, is little more than an offensive caricature, although once his beloved daughter is safely back home with him, he warms up a bit and is shown to be a positive character, if not a very strong one. His wife, simply known as the Squaw, serves only to try and impose some sexism on Wendy – who, I was pleased to see, wouldn’t stand for it!

 

Animation

There are two rather sad milestones to note with Peter Pan. First of all, this was the last film to feature all Nine Old Men working as lead animators, due to the departure of Ward Kimball (he would do further work for Disney, but only on live-action films like Mary Poppins). Second, it also marked the departure of Mary Blair, after about a decade of her colourful and distinctive work. Still, despite these endings, it was also a time of new beginnings for Disney, what with their ventures into live-action films, theme parks and television, so don’t be too disheartened. Let’s make the most of the animation in Peter Pan, because it really is exquisite.

By this point, the artists had perfected human animation to the point that they didn’t even need to use a rotoscope – as with previous films, they simple filmed some live-action reference footage and then used that as a guide and study for their animation later. This footage once again starred many of the actual actors from the film, including Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, and Hans Conried in his dual role as Mr. Darling and Hook. Hook’s animation was handled brilliantly by Frank Thomas, while his close friend and colleague Ollie Johnstone did Mr. Smee.

Peter and Wendy were the responsibility of Milt Kahl, who was once again frustrated by being assigned the more “realistic” characters. He preferred bouncier, goofier personalities like the Fairy Godmother and Cinderella’s King, but he was likely chosen for this role because of the good job he did with Alice in the last film. He recalled that the hardest challenge of the animation in this film was animating the weightlessness experienced by the characters while they were flying, particularly Peter, who spends much of his time floating about even when everyone else is on the ground. He used the live-action footage to help him (Beaumont and Peter’s flying model, Roland Dupree, both had to spend ages dangling from harnesses with their arms outstretched in a flying pose), and eventually achieved the right effect by having the top half of Peter’s body “arrive” at any given point before the lower half.

Peter and Tink flying

Tinker Bell is once again a highlight when it comes to the animation; she is surrounded by a sprinkling of “pixie dust” wherever she goes, lending her and the objects she uses it on a distinct Disney “magic” and greatly enhancing the effect she has in her scenes. Margaret Kerry was the model for Tink (with an hourglass figure measuring 35-25-36) and she too had to spend hours in a harness simulating flight for the aid of the animators.

All of this work on depicting accurate flying really paid off, as the flight scenes – especially the early ones of the children soaring over the rooftops of London – are phenomenal, very smooth and clean, making for some of the most memorable scenes not just in the film but the entire Disney canon. These scenes were also some of the most difficult to shoot, involving more of that expensive multiplane camerawork which buried the Golden Age films in debt; one sequence involved twenty levels of paintings! The fights between Hook and Peter are also fun to watch, well-choreographed and can be both funny and dramatic.

There’s not too much to say here that I haven’t said before – by this point, Disney were making expert animation look seamless and easy. There’s plenty to enjoy here, that’s for sure.

 

Plot

The story of Peter Pan proved much easier to adapt to film than Alice’s wandering non-linear narrative did. Disney experimented with a variety of different story treatments throughout the production, with a lot of material ending up on the cutting room floor. An early version included Peter’s backstory, but this was dropped by 1940 for pacing reasons – it seems a shame, as it might have fleshed him out a bit and shown us another side to his character. In other versions, Mrs. Darling would be the one to find Peter’s shadow, rather than Wendy, Mr. Darling was at one point dropped entirely as he was seen as too boring (how dare you!), and as I mentioned earlier, Nana was even going to join the children in Never Land, but all of these ideas were eventually scrapped, with the story coming to revolve more around Wendy and her struggle to come to terms with her burgeoning adolescence. The film was also going to be much darker at one point, with scenes involving Captain Hook’s death at the hands of the crocodile, the Darling parents mourning their lost children, and Peter and the others discovering Hook’s secret treasure, which was filled with dangerous booby traps!

Tinker Bell on the map

Tinker Bell in particular seems to have gone through a number of changes during development. Originally, there was a scene planned in which she would be humiliated at a party in the Lost Boys’ hideout, which would lead her to go to Hook of her own accord and brazenly reveal Peter’s whereabouts to him. This was considered to be too out of character – she was crossing a line, acting too “evil” – so it was reworked to have Hook kidnapping and manipulating her, to prevent her from becoming too unsympathetic. Notably, the famous scene from the original in which Peter asks the audience to “clap their hands if they believe” in order to revive her is missing here; Walt apparently didn’t believe this could be translated well on film so the whole sequence is compressed and glossed over rather quickly, but the 2003 live-action version begs to differ, which includes a compelling version of the scene to that film’s benefit.

Peter Pan bomb aftermath

The rest of the plot is well-handled, though, with the usually incidental “bookend” scenes in London proving to be just as enjoyable (if not more so) than the Never Land ones. There are some interesting details included which you wouldn’t notice upon first viewing, like the “tonic” which Nana gives to the children before bed. You’ll notice that the kids become very sleepy after taking it, but this might be less to do with it being their bedtime, and more to do with their tonic containing morphine! In the early twentieth century it was surprisingly common to give children “syrups” and “tonics” containing different narcotics to calm them and control their behaviour – oh those kooky 1900s! We also see children under thirteen being left home alone, with their only protection from potential threats a dog who is tied up outside, and later we even see them try smoking (much like Pinocchio, they don’t take to it very well). Times have certainly changed!

Some of the plot points seem rather arbitrary, such as Peter “choosing” to visit the Darling household simply because there are people there who believe in him – is Wendy the only kid in London who knows his stories? Some characters, like Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys, are also underused, serving more as symbols with no real personality, but we’ve covered that already. There’s also little of the original Barrie dialogue used here, which is unusual as most other film adaptations have stuck pretty closely to the original in that sense. Still, one important thing the film does well is the ending – it’s perfect, pure warm-‘n’-fuzzy Disney magic and caps the whole thing off nicely.

 

Cinematography

The cinematography of this one, much like Alice, was greatly influenced by the artwork of Mary Blair, whose influence is most apparent in the Never Land sections. The famous fantasy world is presented here as an ultra-tropical island, a sort of idealised child’s vision of paradise, and this childlike interpretation extended to the designs of characters like the Indians and the mermaids. The pirates and their ship are presented in the kind of way that a young boy in the 1900s might have pictured them; as lavishly dressed buccaneers of the seventeenth century, about two hundred years out of date, sailing a galleon straight out of the Golden Age of Piracy. The exaggerated caricatures of the Indians could also be explained in this way, although it’s not much of an excuse; there was a boom in the popularity of TV westerns during the 1950s, so Indian stereotypes like these (well, not quite this bad) were rather common. Even so, the design of the Chief in particular is horrifically offensive and I suspect that if his character hadn’t had such a significant role in the film’s midsection, he likely would have been cut out in the same manner as Sunflower.

Never Land imagery #1Never Land imagery #2Never Land imagery #3Never Land imagery #4Never Land imagery #5Never Land imagery #6Never Land imagery #7

While preparing for this review, I read another one by the authors of The Disney Odyssey, who brought an interesting point to light: for some reason, the artwork of the London scenes actually outshines that of the Never Land parts. You would expect the reverse to be true, if anything (trust me, I’ve been visiting London all my life and much as I love it, it’s not the prettiest city), but the animators seemed enamoured with their depiction of the Edwardian Era and the scenes end up dazzling in a way that most of the Never Land ones just don’t. From the magnificent multiplane panning shot at the opening of the first scene to the gorgeous scenery of the flight a bit further on, the images of night-time London are truly exceptional.

Peter London imagery #1Peter London imagery #2Peter London imagery #3Peter London imagery #4Peter London imagery #5Peter London imagery #6

Within Never Land itself, the best set pieces are probably the Lost Boys’ hideout in Hangman’s Tree, which is quite creatively designed with lots of twists and turns in its tunnels, and Skull Rock, which serves as a suitably bleak and creepy locale for one of Peter and Hook’s better fight scenes. The interiors of the island look their best during the Following the Leader number, but otherwise there’s comparatively little attention paid to the island – most of the climax takes place aboard the Jolly Roger. I can’t help wondering why the animators seemed not to enjoy the potentially limitless opportunities offered by Never Land, as they certainly had a good time with Wonderland in the last film. Perhaps that’s just it; they may have been growing bored of these wild fantasy settings after so many years and longing to return to the more architectural, “structured” style of films like Cinderella, which takes place almost entirely indoors.

From a cinematic standpoint, there are several moments where the cinematography really shines. The introduction of Peter himself is well staged and lit, with the camera panning up from the street, where Mr. Darling is ranting about Peter, to the pinnacle of the roof where we see the boy himself smirking mischievously as he listens in. His form is shrouded in darkness, but when Tinker Bell flies near his face in a close-up, we get some creepy lighting reminiscent of the kind you get when you hold a torch under your chin to tell a scary story.

Peter's introduction

The villains also get some interesting lighting at times, often depicted lurking in shadow “behind” the characters in the foreground, which helps to provide an illusion of depth. Naturally, this being Peter Pan, shadows play a pretty big part in the narrative already, and Peter’s recalcitrant shadow proves especially enjoyable as it darts about and physically interacts with the rest of the world, but it’s not all fun and games. Hook’s shadow, at times, is used in a way which reminds me of that German expressionist influence which we saw so much of in the Golden Age films, looming up the walls behind Peter as he sneaks up on him at Skull Rock. The illusion of depth is also achieved in an inventive piece of camerawork during the climactic battle, when we see Hook climbing the rigging towards Peter from Peter’s perspective – the background remains static while Hook appears to be coming “closer,” with the animation interacting with the scenery in such a way as to almost appear 3D.

Hook shadow Peter

Two of the standout scenes visually are the explosion of the bomb, which is expertly paced and dramatically depicted with some of the film’s best animation, and of course, the famous image of the golden pirate ship sailing away from Never Land to return to London.

 

Soundtrack

After the confusing jumble of half-baked songs in Alice in Wonderland, it was nice to return to a simpler selection in this film, but it has to be said that Peter Pan’s songs are not its strong point, either. There aren’t really any stand-out character numbers – no “I Want” ballads or villain songs, just a mixture of songs done by backing singers and a handful of simple tunes from the characters themselves.

The Second Star to the Right is probably the film’s most famous song. As you may remember from my last review, this song was originally written for Alice, where it was going to be called Beyond the Laughing Sky and would have been the heroine’s big number. However, it turned out that Kathryn Beaumont couldn’t sing that well (at least not at that time, as we shall see), so the song was repurposed into the form we know it in now and saved for Peter Pan. It’s performed nicely enough by the Jud Conlon Chorus and the Mellomen, but it’s not nearly as memorable as the music of the princess films. (My first experience of this song, long before I saw the film, was with the Jesse McCartney pop version of 2004, which manages to be much more fun).

You Can Fly! is a livelier number in the same style, featuring the same singers but with a few half-spoken, half-sung lines by the voice actors of the children added in. It has more charm to it than the previous piece (if only because of the rather dated accents) and is arguably the film’s best song, but honestly, that’s not saying much.

We also have Following the Leader, which is jaunty and catchy and manages to capture the essence of carefree boys at play, but it’s very repetitive and is only really notable for the Never Land scenery which it accompanies.

What Made the Red Man Red? is basically pure, undiluted racial stereotyping mixed with a healthy dollop of sexism, but all you can do is laugh about it at this point. I have to admit, it does have a good beat to it!

Peter and Tiger Lily dance

Among the less interesting songs are A Pirate’s Life and The Elegant Captain Hook, both featuring the pirate crew. They feature some campy dancing, but are otherwise pretty generic. There’s also Never Smile at a Crocodile, which was ultimately dropped from the film but has since become a well-known song in its own right. The tune of it has remained in the score, however, and can be heard as a sort of motif whenever Tick-Tock appears to menace Hook.

I have to make special mention of Your Mother and Mine, because it came as such a surprise. After her struggles with the music in Alice, Kathryn Beaumont’s voice seems to have matured a lot in the two years since – perhaps she had some lessons? Whatever changed, her singing has improved dramatically here and she delivers a lovely, on-pitch rendition of this ballad to the Lost Boys and her brothers to convince them that they need to return home. She deserves some serious credit for this performance; it’s great to hear how much more confidence she has this time around.

The rest of the score is very nice and is often used for comical emphasis, especially in moments featuring Hook, Mr. Darling or the crocodile. One other moment I liked was during Hook’s conversation with Tinker Bell on his ship, where he plays the harpsichord in a comically menacing way while they talk. Peter himself is also given a fitting little melody which he plays on his flute, most notably when everyone has left him alone at the hideout as they prepare to leave for home.

The line deliveries in this film are a real highlight – almost everyone is clearly having the time of their lives in these roles and it really makes the characters so much more engaging. Hans Conried is superb in both of his roles – the way he says lines like “Come down boy, if you’ve a taste for cold steel!” and “Now George! Nooow George!” is so funny and filled with a manic energy. John Darling also has a wonderfully stuffy and pompous voice most of the time, which makes it all the more hilarious when he breaks out into semi-adult, semi-childish joy at the Indian settlement with gleeful cries of “WAH-HOO!” Michael’s voice is much younger and more babyish, but apparently Tommy Luske’s voice broke during production, so some of Michael’s remaining lines had to be dubbed by an actress (it’s not clear if this is true, but it seems unlikely as Luske was only about six in 1953).

There are only two voices I have an issue with. First of all, I feel like Bobby Driscoll was slightly miscast as Peter, because he sounds a few years older than the character looks – Driscoll was around fifteen when he did the part, with a deeper voice than you would expect for a character who is supposedly eternally youthful. Perhaps the intent here was to make him appear rather wiser, or to better distinguish him from his Lost Boys as their leader, but it’s still a rather jarring voice; he sounds like a Bobby-Soxer who’s going to ask Wendy to a nifty sock-hop. Far more distracting, however, is Robert Ellis’s voice as Cubby, who is essentially the Boys’ second-in-command. He has the most irritating half-broken voice which drives me mad every time he speaks… a situation not helped by the fact that he gets more lines than most of the other Boys. Ellis turned twenty in 1953, so he must have been in his late teens when he recorded the part – why on earth did they cast someone so old for this part? I doubt his voice was even really breaking at that age; more likely the effect was done deliberately for comedy, but it really doesn’t work at all.

 

Final Verdict

This was the final Disney film released through the RKO Distribution company, as Walt founded his own later that same year, called Buena Vista. Peter Pan was promoted with a short film called The Peter Pan Story, adapted into a sixty-minute radio adaptation featuring Driscoll in his role as Peter, and was even entered into the Cannes Film Festival that year; clearly, the studio had a lot more faith in this than some of their earlier projects. Apart from the expected criticism from some hard-core Barrie purists, the majority of audiences loved the film, a great relief for Disney after the disappointing returns of Alice.

The film’s popularity led to a number of rereleases, in 1958, 1969, 1976, 1982 and 1989, with further limited releases on its fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries in 2003 and 2013. It got its first VHS release in 1990 and then debuted on DVD in late 1999, with many collectors’ editions released in the years since. It was apparently Michael Jackson’s favourite film, as evidenced by his naming of his home Neverland Ranch, and there is even a psychological phenomenon sometimes known as “Peter Pan Syndrome” which Jackson was said to have embodied, which refers to adults who demonstrate a reluctance to engage with typical adult roles and responsibilities. Ronald D. Moore of the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica also cited the film as a source of inspiration for the show’s use of cyclical time.

Peter Pan’s Flight is a popular ride in Disney parks around the world, and Peter himself (along with several other characters from the film) has become a favourite meet-and-greet persona (judging from the many YouTube videos of fans following “Peter” about and peppering him with questions). Like Alice, it also got a child-themed stage adaptation called Disney’s Peter Pan Jr in 2013, and there was a theatrical sequel called Return to Neverland released in 2002 (it’s basically a direct-to-video quality film but with a slightly higher budget).  The film also spawned a TV show in 2011 called Jake and the Never Land Pirates, which ran until 2016 – as far as I can tell, this makes Peter Pan the oldest Disney film to have a show based on its characters; the trend would become much more popular later on with the Renaissance films. In 2008, DisneyToon Studios released their first direct-to-video film of the Disney Fairies franchise, called simply Tinker Bell, which has been followed by five more and a TV special.  The famous fairy herself had already long been a mascot of the Disney Company, a role she took on as far back as the 1950s when she would introduce Disney TV shows.

The legacy of this film has been lasting and influential. Steven Spielberg explored the characters in a new way in 1991 with his film Hook, but the results were decidedly mixed (ironically, the film was trounced at the box office by Disney’s own Beauty and the Beast). In 2003, as I mentioned above, there was a really excellent live-action adaptation from Universal done by P.J. Hogan, which fixed a lot of the issues with this version by fleshing out some of the supporting characters and reinstating the “I do believe in fairies” scene, although I much prefer the Disney version of Tinker Bell to Hogan’s. And I’m sure you remember the disastrous 2015 prequel, rather appropriately named Pan – that’s exactly what happened to this film, as it turned out, as critics and audiences alike rejected it, resulting in a loss for Warner Bros. Word is that there’s another live-action remake being prepared now with David Lowery at the helm, to cash in on the current trend of making them no doubt, but I couldn’t find much information on this. I highly doubt it will top the 2003 version, personally.

As for me, while I do still really enjoy this film, I’m starting to question whether this is truly one of my top ten favourites. It has held up well on the whole, but it does suffer from a few trifling problems which detract somewhat from what was almost one of Disney’s best features. Still, I would definitely recommend it for its artistry and effects, as it still stands as one of the best film adaptations of this story ever made and is well worth a look if you’re in need of some classic Disney magic.

 

My Rating – 4/5

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney (2007) edited by Bruno Girveau

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4032804 – credit for poster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Pan_(1953_film) – wiki page

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046183/ – IMDB profile

https://thedisneyodyssey.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/classic-no-14-peter-pan-1953/ – another interesting WordPress review of the film

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