I recall this movie with the most affection of any Disney animated feature. I would have been six when it came out. I don’t know if my family went to see it then (my sisters would have been three and two) but if we didn’t, we surely saw it in its first re-release, in 1958. Age eleven would have been the perfect time to see it, as ageless Peter looks to be somewhere in that age range. And I was captivated. What boy wouldn’t have been? Not the part about not wanting to grow up—I think most kids that age can’t wait to grow up. (Little do they suspect.) And it wasn’t even the adventures, though that wasn’t too shabby. No, it was the flying. When they go out that window and soar over London, over the clouds, swooping like birds and accelerating like jet planes … those scenes lingered in my fantasies for years. Hell, they’re there even now.
Walt had wanted to make this since 1935, but he couldn’t get the rights from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, to whom Barrie had willed them, until 1939, and then came the war. So he had plenty of time to think about it. One can make the usual complaints about faithfulness to the source material, and I’ll yawn my usual yawn. I’ve never seen either of the stage plays nor have I read the book, so why should I care?
The movie has survived intact, unlike Song of the South, in spite of some pretty insulting portrayals of Native-Americans, who we then called Indians. (Actually, they seem to want to be called Indians again these days. Fine with me.) The song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” is funny, if you listen to it, and also full of “wild Injun” conventions of the time, like saying Ugh! and How! Only older folks like me will recall just how big cowboys and Indians were in the early part of last century, up until the ‘60s. Cowboy shows filled the theaters, most of them B-movies, and dominated the TV sets all through the ‘50s. Frontierland was a major part of Disneyland when it opened, and they had actual Indians doing traditional dances. I wonder if they said ugh and how when talking to visitors? Very little of the original Frontierland is left, replaced by stuff like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and it’s unmourned by me. No kid plays cowboys and Indians these days. In Neverland, of course, there is no scalping and such unpleasantness. It’s all a game.
Not so with the evil Captain Hook, that codfish! He and his crew really are dastardly, and would make you walk the plank except that Pan would never allow it. My favorite parts of the movie involve Hook (brilliantly voiced—along with Mr. Darling—by the great Hans Conried), especially his epic battles with the crocodile, which are hilarious slapstick. The crocodile is a great character, with his metronomic eyes and his determination to finish the meal he started with that tasty hand.
In fact, everybody in Neverland is a lot of fun, and the Darling children suffer a bit in comparison. Michael is just a kid. John is a gentleman-in-training, and will grow up to be a stiff-upper-lip officer, and probably die uncomplainingly at Ypres or the Marne. Wendy … well, she wears out her welcome pretty fast. I know she feels responsibility for the boys, but hell, the Darling family has a super-intelligent dog, Nana, for that. They should have brought Nana along, and in fact they did in one version. Why can’t Wendy loosen up and have a little fun? All she really wants to do in Neverland is visit Mermaid Lagoon—which makes no sense at all; why would a girl want to see mermaids? I guess she has a bit of a schoolgirl crush on Pan, but she hardly shows it. That British reserve, I guess. And besides, she’s not very nice. Pan already has a girlfriend.
And even at age eleven I knew that for my romantic interest, I preferred Tinkerbell to hell and gone over proper Wendy. Tink was my kind of girl, the kind who speaks up for herself (well, rings up for herself) and takes no shit from anybody… albeit a bit small, I’ll admit. But maybe she had some pixie dust that would make her larger or me smaller …
This movie is the basis of the best ride in Fantasyland. I remember on my first visit to Disneyland—this would have been 1978, ’79, in there—I liked it better than Space Mountain, better than the Matterhorn, better than the Jungle Cruise. When that little pirate ship swooped out the window and soared over London Bridge, Big Ben, and on to Neverland … well. I was eleven again. The line is always long and the ride is only two minutes, but it’s worth it.
PC Warning: Hook smokes two cigars at once. The Indian Chief smokes a peace pipe and passes it on to Peter (maybe he doesn’t inhale), and then to John, who does inhale, and turns green. They can digitally remove stuff like that now. No telling if they might censor future DVD releases.