When I recently watched Lady and the Tramp (1955), I took note of the requisite disclaimer that appears before the film talking about the racial depictions in it. Today’s film, Peter Pan (1953), has the same thing. One of the points it makes is how the way people of color, native peoples in this one, was presented wrongly then and is still wrong now. There are some that roll their eyes at such pronouncements, though neither do I think this annoyance is entirely racially motivated. At least I hope that is not the case. Instead, I think it is more about living in a society where these kinds of proclamations are necessary. I genuinely believe the majority people desire to live their lives as they see fit, and let others do the same. Racialized characterizations, past and present, were designed to order society in a way that was, and is, detrimental to anyone who is not white. Of course, that is putting it mildly. Yet, we seem to live in a society where people like George Floyd are killed in the streets because a police officer believed he was a threat mostly for being African American. Until we reach a point where, for example, these thoughts do not motivate police actions, I do not begrudge Disney for taking steps to address the issue. At the same time, I am glad they still have films like today’s available on Disney +. History should not be ignored. While Peter Pan is no Song of the South (1946), it is instructive of what we used to think about non-white peoples and demonstrate how far we have come since those days.
Now that we have gotten some of the serious business out of the way, let us turn to Disney’s version of J. M. Barrie’s classic play Peter Pan. The Darling family’s children are getting in one last round of play time before bed in their London home as their parents, George (voiced by Hans Conried) and Mary (voiced by Heather Angel), prepare to go to a party. The two boys, John (voiced by Paul Collins) and the youngest Michael (voiced by Tommy Luske), act out one of the stories they have heard of Peter Pan (voiced by Bobby Driscoll), the boy who never grew up. They learned of this legendary character from their older sister Wendy (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont), who in turned got them from Mary. George, however, feels like these tales, coupled with Wendy’s age and the general nonsense he perceives around him, mean that she is now too old to be sleeping in the nursery with her brothers. He especially does not want to hear anything more about Peter Pan. With the prospect of leaving childhood behind before she is ready, she pleads with Mary to leave the window open in case their hero visits, which could happen because she claims to have stolen his shadow. That night, Peter Pan arrives in search of his missing shade, and in wrestling with it awakens the Darling children. When they explain to him Wendy’s upcoming move and their general fears of change, he invites them to come away with him to the place from which he comes, Neverland. This is not to the liking of Peter Pan’s companions, the pixie Tinker Bell, and only through threats does he get her to imbue the Darlings with the magical dust that she emits that allow people to fly. Meanwhile in Neverland, the pirate Captain Hook (voiced by Hans Conried) plots how to get even with Peter Pan and his band, the Lost Boys. When one of his men spots Peter Pan and the Darlings getting to Neverland, he orders them to fire at the group. Peter Pan has Wendy take her brothers to the Lost Boys hideout, though Tinker Bell beats them there and tells the Lost Boys that Peter Pan wants the Darlings shot down. When Peter Pan finally catches up and prevents disaster, he banishes Tinker Bell. Captain Hook’s next plan is to capture the Indian princess Tiger Lily, who he believes will draw Peter Pan into a trap. They manage to get hold of her. This displeases the native peoples on the island, as experienced by the Darling brothers and the Lost Boys, who are captured in retaliation for the missing Tiger Lily. At the same time, Peter Pan takes Wendy to see the mermaids, but then spot the captured Tiger Lily with Captain Hook and his mate, Mr. Smee (voiced by Bill Thompson). Peter Pan is able to free Tiger Lily, and in doing so return her to her people and secure the release of the Darling brother and the Lost Boys. There follows a raucous celebration with which Wendy quickly grows tired. This is the beginning of her desire to go home, and offers that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys go with them and be adopted by the Darlings. While this goes on, a fed-up Tinker Bell goes to Captain Hook and reveals the location of Peter Pan’s secret base. With Peter Pan sulking about his friends wanting to start aging, essentially, Captain Hook’s pirates sneak in and kidnap the Darlings and the Lost Boys and plant a bomb on Peter Pan. Tinker Bell, feeling remorse for her betrayal, manages to get the explosive away from her idol before it can do any damage, and tells Peter Pan where the others have been taken. He then flies off to duel Captain Hook, the result of which leads to the pirate being almost eaten by the crocodile responsible for him losing his hand, and who had been hanging around waiting for an opportunity to munch on the rest. Peter Pan next commandeers Captain Hook’s ship for a return voyage to London. Once there, Wendy awakens in the window of the nursery upon George and Mary’s entry from the party, excitedly telling them about their adventures. George wants to dismiss it until he looks into the sky and sees the outline of sails in the clouds passing in front of the moon.
Since I took the time to discuss why the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp were problematic, I should do the same for the native peoples in Peter Pan. One thing to bear in mind here is that the United States in 1953, and the world by extension, was not too long removed from the westward expansion that gave rise to tales of “Cowboys and Indians.” The former of those were always the good guys, and the latter were the bad guys. This is a portrayal that goes back to the nineteenth century, but it was given new life with the advent of cinema. When you saw native peoples in film, they represented one of two things, neither of which were flattering: they were either the enemies of the advancement of (white) civilization or the protectors of a supposedly backwards way of life. In either case, they did not seem to belong in modern society. This fit well, thematically, with a story about kids determined to remain in a childlike state. The lesson, for better or worse, is that eventually we all have to leave our childhood in the past. Native peoples represented that immature past. By behaving like wild animals, they provided the Darlings with a place where they could indulge their baser instincts. Equally, it is not sustainable as clearly the message is that the more staid London society is preferable.
Had there not been the unfortunate depictions of native peoples, Peter Pan would have a more applicable message for us today. Then again, there are other films in the franchise like Hook (1991) that do the same thing without the racism. Nonetheless, 1 Corinthians 13:11 perfectly summarizes what is going on, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” What that is saying is that there is a time and a season for everything, which also echoes the oft repeated phrase in Ecclesiastes. At its most basic, it means a child should not try to be an adult, and vice versa. Yet, there is nothing wrong with maintaining a childlike disposition. Jesus tells us elsewhere that doing so is how one inherits the Kingdom of Heaven. Confused yet? Wondering whether or not you should be acting your age? There is no easy answer to this question. The problem with Peter Pan is that he is avoiding aging because he does not want to take on its concomitant responsibilities. People cannot duck those, no matter their age. Okay, maybe infants and the infirm, but those who are able should do their part. We cannot runaway to Neverland to get out of them, either. At the same time, it is okay to dream. A little wistfulness for a simpler time can bring a good balance to your life, work-wise or spiritually. It is part of a piece in all of us, given to us from the moment God imbues us with the spark of life in the womb, that longs to be with God the Father. It is what guides the Darlings home, and eventually leads to the Lost Boys wanting to do the same. All except Peter Pan.
Between the hero of the story never wanting to grow up and the racial depictions, you would probably assume that I do not recommend Peter Pan. That is not necessarily the case. If you are an adult watching it, you will see the disclaimer at the beginning and probably know exactly to what it is referring when it gets to that part. For children, I think it is okay as long as you, the parent, have an open and honest discussion about these issues with them.