Charming is one word that we could apply to just about any Disney animated film, and even though 1953’s “Peter Pan” certainly is that, it’s devoid of charm when compared to the play/novel on which it was based. One of Walt Disney’s greatest strengths was his ability to take an older story and reinvent it for modern audiences. Doing so for “Peter Pan,” however, just replaces what is a wry and sweet sense of humor with silly slapstick, which seems cheap in comparison.
A primary reason why Barrie’s book, and presumably his play, is so charming is its witty, very Victorian narration. Disney’s “Peter Pan” opens with a narrator but few of his words are Barrie’s, and without them the movie just feels flat.
The Darling family suffers the most from its Disney-fication. We associate Disney with fuzzy happy family fun, and while that’s certainly true of their feature-length “Peter Pan,” Barrie’s original is the far happier family. Patriarch George Darling is silly, yes, but knowingly so; he enjoys playing with his children and in some ways he isn’t any more grown up than them. His biggest fault is that sometimes he takes jokes too far.
Disney’s Father Darling is a bumbling goof, one who loses his temper at the drop of a hat and hates what he calls childish silliness. He’s determined that his children grow up on schedule and discourages Wendy’s storytelling, the last thing his canonical counterpart would ever do. In the Disney movie Wendy’s primary motivation for following Peter to Neverland is that this is her last night in the nursery; come tomorrow she’ll have to grow up. She runs away with Peter to Neverland to delay the inevitable.
In the book Wendy’s reasons for going to Neverland coincide with that of her brothers: they’re children, how can they resist the lure of such a fantastical world? They’re not trying to run away from their lives, they just want to visit Neverland.
Disney’s “Peter Pan” also doesn’t age well, given that it’s both rather sexist and racist. Its treatment of Native Americans is obviously horrendous (animator Marc Davis admitted years later in an interview that if they did the movie now they’d either leave the Native Americans out altogether or portray them differently). As for the women, well, everyone but Wendy’s mother is in romantic competition over Peter Pan, despite the fact that he can’t be more than 11 years old. It’s weird, and perpetuates the idea that a woman’s primary goal should be finding a man, and that she should fight with other women over him.
This is a weakness Disney’s “Peter Pan” shares with its source text, but somehow Barrie’s gets away with it more. Maybe that’s because visual representations come across worse, or maybe it’s because Barrie’s version is obviously much older. I’m prepared to forgive Disney since the movie was released in 1953, but I don’t want to ever watch the film again or share it with my children (though, given that the same elements are also in Barrie’s version, I don’t think I’d read it to them either, or at least not without some discussion).
That’s not to say there’s no charm in Disney’s “Peter Pan.” It’s gorgeous, of course. The first time we see Peter, silhouetted against the night sky, and then leaping into action to a soaring flute score, it’s enchanting. Neverland’s vastness, the heart-filling sight of Hook’s ship against the moon: they’re all beautiful. Aside from its artistry, however, “Peter Pan” goes down as one of the few Disney movies that did not improve upon its source text.