Movie Review: Peter Pan

For the 61st anniversary of Walt Disney's Peter Pan, I thought I would offer a review of the film.  Released on February 5, 1953, Peter Pan was Walt Disney Studio's 14th animated feature and the final film released by RKO before Walt founded his own distribution company.

Based on J.M. Barrie's classic play, the story revolves around a boy who decided to never grow up and continue to have adventures on a magical island called Never Land and a girl who decides to escape to Never Land after her father tells her she has to grow up.  While getting ready to go out, Mr. Darling grows increasingly impatient with his children's youthfulness and believes that his daughter Wendy is filling their head with ideas as she tells them stories of a mythical sprite named Peter Pan.  So, he decides that after that night, she will no longer stay in the nursery with her two younger brothers John and Michael.  She must grow up.  After they leave, Wendy finds herself face to face with Peter Pan who is in search of his shadow which Wendy has been keeping a drawer after he left it there during a visit to the Darling home.  Peter is horrified to learn Wendy must grow up and offers to take her to Never Land where she never has to grow up.  John and Michael, of course, want to come along.  And, with a little help from Tinker Bell, Peter's pixie friend, they are able to fly to the land just past the second star on the right and straight on to morning.  On the island, they meet the Lost Boys, Peter's followers who are all kids that fled to Never Land to never grow up.  And, while Never Land looks wonderful on the outside, it is full of jealous fairies, catty mermaids, stereotypical Native Americans and pirates led by the infamous Captain Hook!  In the end, Wendy realizes that one cannot stay young forever and accepts that she has to grow up.  But, oh, what a last adventure she was able to take.

Peter Pan was actually a story that Walt Disney wanted to bring to animation well before the 1950s.  He even started trying to get the rights in the 1930s with intentions for it to be his second animated film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  But, it wasn't until the late 1939.  By the time the studio was able to start development, the country had been hit by World War II.  And, during the war, the studio ended up doing more films for the United State government in support of the war effort and, while development continued to happen, the release was put on the back burner until it was finally released in 1953.

Peter Pan is actually one of my favorite Disney films.  There's something very enchanting about the message of never having to grow up.  And, many Disney fans carry that motto in their souls.  Some people have criticized the film for not being true to the spirit of the play and that it lacked some of the darker features from the play.  But, personally, I'm glad that Disney kept the spirit of the film light.  I have watched many versions of Peter Pan and I'll always go back to Walt Disney's Peter Pan mainly because the Never Land portrayed in the classic animated film is a place I'd actually want to go and could find myself trapped in.  To me, it is more magical than any other I've seen.

Part of this is due to the wonderful color stylings of Mary Blair.  Never Land has never looked more beautiful.  Her colors capture the emotion of this world from the sense of wonder of Mermaid Lagoon to the foreboding of Skull Rock.  It is her artwork that brings a sense of whimsy to Walt Disney's Peter Pan that you never get anywhere else.

Also, while the movie is not a musical per say, it has some of my favorite music from any Walt Disney Animated Feature.  Sammy Cahn and Sammy Fain's songs capture the magic of this story.  When I listen to "You Can Fly!," I almost feel like with a little bit of pixie dust and a happy thought that I, too, can fly.  And, "The Second Star To The Right" makes me feel that there is an actual road map to Never Land.  In a story about believing in magic, the songs all hit the right chord.

The only thing that mars the film is the stereotypical treatment of the Native Americans.  Speaking of songs, the one song that does make me grit my teeth when I watch it is "What Makes The Red Man Red."  But, one has to look at the time in which the film was made.  Not only did J.M. Barrie's original play contain such stereotypes, but Westerns were the popular film of the day.  All of Hollywood had portrayed Native Americans this way.  It is unfortunate, but it is also important to realize the context of history.  Even Marc Davis, one of the Nine Old Men and a supervising animator, said on the 2007 Platinum Edition of Peter Pan, "I'm not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this movie now. And if we had we wouldn't do them the way we did back then."

That said, the film really is a classic.  And, it is a milestone for Walt Disney Studios in which it is also the last film in which all of the Nine Old Men acted together as directing animators.  After Peter Pan, the studios released just two other animated classics in the 1950s with 1959's Sleeping Beauty marking the end of the Golden Age of Walt Disney Animated Features.  And, regardless of the problems the film might have, it will always remain in the hearts of every person who treasure feeling young at heart.


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