The first line of Peter Pan is, “All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” This suggests to me that the reason for Peter’s eternal youth is that he is, in fact, a Cylon. Think about it. His lack of family and need for a mother figure, his immortality, his occasionally jerky behavior. In the book, Peter doesn’t need to eat actual food, because reality and make-believe are the same for him. Powerful imagination? Or Cylon projecting? I bet you Peter has a plan.
I’ve been trying, in more recent years, to be less of a purist when it comes to movie adaptations of books. I let Disney get away with a lot in terms of adaptations, usually because I think fairy tales are meant to be adapted and played with, especially since there are already so many versions out there. But I’m going to be a bit harsh on Peter Pan, because I’ve never loved this movie, though I do like it. I only read the book when I was older, and I thought it was a masterpiece…which made me wonder why I didn’t like the Disney movie quite as much.
The thing is, the movie keeps all the cute/fun/adventurous stuff from the book, adds some stuff of its own, and then takes out anything too melancholy or thought-provoking. Peter Pan is a beautifully sad story, and the movie, though it hints at Peter’s repressed despair, kind of doesn’t want to think too hard about any of that. Kind of like Peter himself.
This really hit me at the end of the movie, when Wendy, Michael, and John come home to find their parents just coming home as well. The Darling parents never knew their children were gone. Contrast this to the book, where the children are gone for more than a night, and Mrs. Darling, especially, feels their absence. The narrator tells us that children are cruel, since they run off without thinking about whom they leave behind. It’s a really sad moment that takes you out of Neverland for a bit, but the movie doesn’t want to be sad. At all. Which is fine, I guess, but it doesn’t leave us with anything as powerful as the original story. Even before I read the book, the movie was never as memorable to me as other Disney movies that aren’t afraid to be more dramatic.
There are plenty of other moments where anything too sad or unnerving from the book is taken out. Peter periodically forgetting who the Darling children are as they’re flying to Neverland, for instance. Peter’s troubled dreams and his resignation about dying (that’s one adventure that’s too awfully big for this movie). Captain Hook also gets watered down from a kind of parody of tortured villains to a blustery, comic villain. He’s not as scary as he might have been, because the movie spends so much time ridiculing him. It’s funny, but it makes him less of a threat. This movie is basically Peter Pan Lite.
I’ll tell you what I do like about this movie, though. I like Tinker Bell. I like that she’s a bitch without being a villain. I like that a female character is allowed to be less than ideal or saintly without being completely villified. I know Tink does get reprimanded for her nastiness in the movie, but ask any little girl if she’d rather be Wendy or Tinker Bell, and I have a feeling the fairy would win. Do not, by the way, confuse this Tinker Bell with the one who is plastered on Disney Fairy merchandise nowadays. She’s an imposter. I love Pixie Hollow with all my heart and soul, but that friendly fairy with a smile is not my jealous, vindictive, fabulous Tinker Bell. Not even close.
Oh, but Disney, I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. There’s something that bugs me about the ladies in this movie. They’re all horrible to each other, usually out of jealousy over Peter. Tink hates Wendy. The mermaids hate Wendy. Wendy isn’t a big fan of Tiger Lily. Some of this is from the book, true, but Tinker Bell doesn’t accidentally betray Peter out of jealousy towards Wendy the way she does in the movie. Maybe it’s too much to ask for 1953 (it’s not much better in 2009), but a little female camaraderie would be greatly appreciated.
And then there’s that other problem. The Unfortunate Racist Moment is back, and it’s terribly embarrassing to watch. There’s a little song called “What Makes the Red Man Red?” which is offensive on several different levels. I can tell you that the representation of Native Americans is not much better in the book. I don’t know if this makes me feel better about the movie or much, much worse, considering how little had changed between the early 1900s and 1953.
Now that I’ve spent all this time airing out my grievances about this movie, I feel I should defend it a little, too. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not good enough. There’s something missing, and until I read the book, I didn’t know what it was. It’s a fun adventure, with some nice songs that aren’t racist, and it’s definitely become iconic in pop culture, but it’s not one of Disney’s best, if you ask me.
You’ll do better next time, Disney. I promise.
Favorite scene: You Can Fly, You Can Fly, You Can Fly!
Because how exciting was it that first time you watched this scene and thought you could fly just by thinking happy thoughts? (And pixie dust, whatever. Surely, if I close my eyes and think about it really hard, I’ll fly when I jump off my bed!)
Next time: Lady and the Tramp!