Peter Pan anniversary

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: Peter Pan turns 65 and it’s time to grapple with this popular but problematic classic.)

Few stories have endured throughout the last 100-plus years more than the tale of a boy who could fly and never had to grow up. Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, the upstanding Darling children, Captain Hook, Never Land, and the other details within the iconic yarn weaved by J.M. Barrie have, like pixie dust, lingered in films, TV specials, books, and the Broadway stage literally for generations. The 1904 play led to the 1911 novel, both of which inspired stage musicals, other plays, films and more that directly adapted or were heavily inspired by Barrie’s work.

Today marks the 65th anniversary of arguably the most famous adaptation of Barrie’s eternally young pirate, Disney’s animated take on Peter Pan, a film marked as much by its memorable imagery and music as by its immensely troublesome, retrograde depiction of women and people of color.

Peter Pan anniversary

The Striking and the Embarrassing

Peter Pan inspired one of the most popular theme-park attractions in Disney history, Peter Pan’s Flight. Peter’s fairy friend Tinker Bell is, next to Mickey Mouse, the most enduring symbol of the Walt Disney Company. The film itself, when you adjust for inflation, has raked in nearly half a billion dollars domestically over multiple theatrical releases. In some way, what makes the film work for so many people can be almost entirely separated from its troublesome, often wince-inducing aspects. We remember songs like “You Can Fly” and “The Second Star to the Right” just as quickly as we choose to forget that Peter Pan also features a song called “What Makes the Red Man Red.” The nostalgia that serves as the underpinning for Peter Pan is sneaky that way; just as it lets you pretend you’re a kid again and forget about being an adult, it gives you permission to ignore the elements of the story that are too challenging or embarrassing to consider.

Of course, Disney animation is no stranger to blending the striking and the retroactively embarrassing. Over the last quarter-century, Walt Disney Animation Studios has populated its films with more non-White characters, such as the leads of Aladdin, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana. That period has offered many steps forward for the House of Mouse, steps beyond the days of “What Makes the Red Man Red,” but it’s also featured growing pains: Aladdin depicted Middle Eastern culture, but almost entirely whitewashed it with its too-modern-sounding and White cast; Pocahontas tried to paint a more accurate picture of Native American culture than, say, Peter Pan, but still grafted a fairy-tale romance onto the harsh cruelties of the English occupation of the New World.

Those mistakes, however, are at least reflective of a culture of filmmakers who wanted to improve themselves and represent diversity in a more respectful way. They are, perhaps, long-overdue baby steps, but when you consider the era of Peter Pan and other Disney animation of the 1940s and 1950s, the baby steps feel like leaps. A good number of early Disney films utilized non-White characters for easy, lazy jokes that traffic in stereotypes that are dated at best and painfully racist at worst. Some examples — such as the jocular group of crows in Dumbo, the infamous animated sequences in Song of the South, and Princess Tiger Lily and her Native American tribe in Peter Pan — are more notable. But there are moments that are easier to look past, from the dark and literally faceless roustabouts in Dumbo, to the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats to King Louie and his comrades in The Jungle Book.

So, on one hand, if you watch Peter Pan as an adult for the umpteenth time, it’s easy to be utterly repulsed by the depiction of Native Americans. (If you have not seen the “What Makes the Red Man Red” musical sequence recently or ever, just know that it somehow gets worse after that title.) The long-lasting popularity of Peter Pan does not excuse its racism; we can shrug it off, even if it shouldn’t actually be shrugged off. The reasons to look past its racism are easy to spot. The movie was made 65 years ago. Its creators were almost entirely White men. Even more, they were adapting a story from the turn of the 20th century, one that does include Tiger Lily and her tribe (then dubbed “Piccaninny”). The racism present in the Disney film may be embarrassing, sure, but if it was there to begin with, who’s truly at fault?

Some of those reasons can apply to the sexism inherent in Peter Pan, too. A film made in the early 1950s primarily by men, inspired by a story written just as the 20th century began, maybe shouldn’t be expected to offer up a picture of strong, independent women. Whether or not such expectations are fair, though, does not eliminate the fact the way that Peter Pan does portray female characters like Wendy Darling and Tinker Bell is painfully regressive. Yes, the film is borne of pure fantasy — Wendy and her brothers encounter fairies, mermaids, and other fantastical creatures during the film. But even if imagery such as Wendy being attacked by jealous mermaids over Peter Pan’s affection isn’t grounded in reality, it’s still imagery of three women fighting over a man who watches them.

If anything unites most of the female characters in Peter Pan, it’s that desire to be number-one in the title character’s heart. Peter, as voiced by Bobby Driscoll, is not quite at the age where a boy actively notices a girl and pursues her romantically. (The underrated 2003 live-action Peter Pan from Universal Pictures cast two teenagers as Peter and Wendy, and didn’t shy away as much from the undertones of romance between the leads.) But Peter doesn’t have to be aware of his apparent effect on the female characters of Never Land, because they’re too busy duking it out to see if they can be his favorite. Peter is not as endearing as he could be, either; when the mermaids try to kill Wendy, he’s too busy laughing at the melee to realize that his new friend from London might be in harm’s way.

What is it, then, that compels people to return to Peter Pan?

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