Disney Silver Age #3: Peter Pan

I was three-quarters of the way through watching the classic Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire musical Swing Time and just about ready to declare it one of the best things I had ever seen. Up to that point it had been a breezy and sweet musical filled with splendiferous dance numbers and a touch of old-school Hollywood class. It was seemingly a near-perfect movie. Then just as Fred Astaire is getting ready for another big musical number in his dressing room he pulls out a can of shoe polish and before my brain has any time to register what is going on he starts applying the shoe polish to his face and I realize that I’m about to witness Fred Astaire dance in blackface. To say that this had an averse effect on my ability to enjoy the rest of the movie would be an understatement.

I bring this experience up because I had a similar experience when I revisited Peter Pan. There was a time in my life when I had no problem declaring this as my favourite Disney movie and spent many an afternoon visiting Never Land. And indeed in my recent revisit it is easy to see exactly why I fell in love with the movie in the first place. Peter Pan represents Disney at the peak of their storytelling powers as it is filled with captivating characters, an all-time great villain, a colourful locale, and a thrilling mix of humour and action that hardly ever lets up. And yet, there is an incredibly racist sequence in this movie that threatens to sink the whole movie.

But that is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. Before we get to the problematic scene in question we are first treated to Disney storytelling at its best. We meet the Darling children Wendy, John, and Michael just as their father throws a hysterical and hilarious fit concerning Wendy’s need to grow up and not tell some silly stories about Peter Pan. This naturally is the catalyst for Peter Pan to show up in their bedroom and entice the Darling children to journey with him to Never Land. This early sequence is set the tone for the rest of the movie especially as they break into the iconic song “You Can Fly” and the motley group fly through London at night on their way to Never Land.

Never Land, apart from one notable exception, is one of Disney’s greatest rendered fantasy worlds. From the moment the Darlings, Peter Pan, and Tinkerbell arrive in Never Land it is clear that the animators have made the perfect recreation of a young boy’s imagination come to life. And if this is to be a film for a young boy’s imagination what better person to lead the adventure than Peter Pan. Disney’s Pan, though a little brash and usually rude, represents a new kind of protagonist for Disney in that he is a swashbuckling hero who looks and sounds like your typical 1950s American boy.

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© 1953 – Walt Disney Studios.

But though Peter Pan is the main character of this movie, it is the villainous Captain Hook and his bumbling sidekick Smee who are the MVP’s of this movie. There is a strong argument to be made that these two represent the best comic duo in Disney history. Each of their scenes are pitch perfect examples of comic timing and with Hook being the straight-laced Abbott to Smee’s Costello. Hook also represents a new kind of villain not previously seen in Disney lore: the villain whose goals clearly outstrips his competence. Toss in an infernal crocodile (the best “villain of a villain”) and all the ingredients are there for comedy goal, which Disney exploits to great delight making the pirates the clear standouts of this movie.

Unfortunately while the pirates are the highlight of this adventure, the movie’s lowlights are extremely problematic. To put it bluntly, Peter Pan contains some of the most racist imagery publicly available in the Disney canon. While Disney has had racially problematic sequences before most notably in Dumbo and the never-coming-out-of-the-vault Song of the SouthPeter Pan‘s depiction of Native Americans still manages to be shockingly offensive. For instance take a look at the picture below:

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© 1953 – Walt Disney Studios.

This is one of the least offensive shots I could find and it is still highly problematic. Big Chief in the middle is drawn to look crudely like every other caricature of Native Americans while Pan is yet another white man appropriating a culture not his own. But the hits keep coming from there. Earlier in the movie Captain Hook refers to them as “savage Redskins”, while John describes the Native Americans as “cunning, but not very intelligent.” When the Native Americans speak they use stereotypical broken English (“Me no spoofem. Heap big lie.”) and is obviously used as a point of humour. Worse yet, the centrepiece of their appearance in the movie is their musical number “What Makes the Red Man Red?”. Just in case you have allowed this song to recede to memory here are the lyrics to the song:

Why does he ask you, “How?”
Why does he ask you, “How?”
Once the Injun didn’t know
All the things that he know now
But the Injun, he sure learn a lot
And it’s all from asking, “How?”

Hana Mana Ganda
Hana Mana Ganda
We translate for you
Hana means what mana means
And ganda means that too

When did he first say, “Ugh!”
When did he first say, “Ugh!”
In the Injun book it say
When the first brave married squaw
He gave out with a big ugh
When he saw his Mother-in-Law

What made the red man red?
What made the red man red?
Let’s go back a million years
To the very first Injun prince
He kissed a maid and start to blush
And we’ve all been blushin’ since

You’ve got it from the headman
The real true story of the red man
No matter what’s been written or said
Now you know why the red man’s red! 

In other words, yikes. While one might be tempted to mitigate Disney’s blame by saying that the problematic depiction of Native Americans is present in the source material from J. M. Barrie there is absolutely no redeeming this section of the movie from its horrific racism. The final proof of the inherent offensiveness of this section of the movie is that Disney’s direct-to-DVD sequel Return to Never Land (2002) completely excises the Native Americans from Never Land – a clear sign that current sensibilities have finally caught up to what has always been offensively racist in Peter Pan.

(Briefly seen in Captain Hook’s map of Never Land they show a place called “Cannibal Cove” with some clearly African silhouettes. Thank goodness they never decided to visit that place.)

While the racist depiction of Native Americans rightly takes centre stage in any modern viewing of Peter Pan, it is not the movie’s only problem. Out of all the Disney movies that I have revisited so far, it is also the movie with the most problematic depiction of women – even after two docile princesses in Snow White and Cinderella.

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© 1953 – Walt Disney Studios.

The problems begin immediately with the introduction of Tinkerbell. Tinkerbell is shown to have an hour-glass figure, is scantily clad, and within seconds of appearing onscreen looks disparagingly at her thighs in the mirror and starts measuring her hips. I cannot imagine the amount of damage this one scene must have done to the body image of little girls (and eventual women) everywhere, but it is ridiculously and insultingly irresponsible that the animators would even remotely insinuate that Tinkerbell’s figure is somehow still not “ideal” enough.

Women are also seen as threats to the men on this island by their mere existence (Smee utters that there is “women trouble” about at one point). Tinkerbell and the other women in this movie fall into three largely passive categories: the jealously murderous type who are objects of desire for Pan (Tinkerbell, Tiger Lily, and the scantily-clad mermaids), the obviously ugly and thus remotely undesirable (a female Native American who chastises Wendy for not being domestic enough), and Wendy. Wendy’s arc, set up in the movie as the obviously virtuous path, is to be a girl who grows up from being a slightly precocious and independent child to becoming a more motherly person. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys are only interested in Wendy as a mother figure, and the most romantic song in the movie is Wendy literally singing about the virtues of motherhood. Thus the movie’s message regarding women is clear: they are either ugly therefore undesirable, wanton therefore unsuitable, or motherly and thus to be cherished and loved. This reductionistic view of women is less obviously problematic than Peter Pan‘s depiction of race, but it is no less insulting.

And so this leaves my ultimate evaluation of this movie in a conundrum. It’s artistic highs are very high indeed with some of the best action animation in Disney’s canon. But though it wants to be enjoyed as a wistful and innocent boy’s fantasy, it simply cannot be viewed innocently either. It is a movie with a shockingly racist depiction of Native Americans and a retrograde view of women. In a less enlightened time and angrily to my shame, I easily would have called this my favourite Disney movie. And yet of all the movies in Disney’s canon, Peter Pan is the only one I cannot envisage a way to show this to my 4-year old daughter in good conscience because it is damaging in so many ways. Unlike the promise of Never Land, it seems that watching Peter Pan today does nothing but force you to grow up.

Rating: ★★½

Other movies in “Disney Silver Age” series:

Cinderella

Alice in Wonderland

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2 thoughts on “Disney Silver Age #3: Peter Pan

  1. Pingback: Disney Silver Age #4: Lady and the Tramp – Homebody Movies

  2. Pingback: Disney’s Silver Age #5: Sleeping Beauty – Homebody Movies

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