Disney's fifties animations of the classics (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, etc.) don't get much attention, but I think they're seriously underrated. Disney's Alice in Wonderland expands upon the books, but I think those changes helped Disney capture the essence of Lewis Carroll. Personally I love that film. Similarly, Disney's 1953 Peter Pan captures the essence of J.M. Barrie in important ways. In some senses it's more faithful than a modern adaptation would be. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are both fragmented and episodic, not bothering with the kind of Joseph Campbell-inspired Hero's Journey that modern scriptwriters cannot omit. Plotwise, they're a bit of a mess. Disney's 2002 sequel, Peter Pan in Return to Neverland, is a better film than their 1953 original. However both need that kind of episodic non-story. Imposing a modern character arc on their adventures would be a mistake. Peter Pan will never change and must never change; giving him a voyage of self-discovery would be to miss the whole point of the original.
The main difference between Disney's Peter Pan and Barrie's is the pain. J.M. Barrie put his characters through the wringer, with Wendy getting shot, Peter getting stabbed and the Darlings going through agonies after finding their children gone. Disney cuts all that. Tinkerbell doesn't even need belief in fairies; that had to wait for the 2002 sequel. Wendy and her brothers return home only a couple of hours after they left.
That doesn't mean Disney's version is boringly sanitised, though. Tinkerbell tries to murder Wendy. Hook shoots a man and talks about cutting throats. The pirates are menacing and their dandyish captain is an imposing villain rather than the comic character we saw in the sequel. Axes and swords are used in earnest. There's an edge of danger (and staggering political incorrectness with the Red Indians) which Disney couldn't get away with today. I see this as all-important. If the danger wasn't real, Peter would become a self-obsessed annoyance. But no, the Indians and the pirates are cunning and dangerous, making Peter's eventual triumph far from inevitable.
Of course the crocodile's a joke and Smee is basically Doc from the Seven Dwarves, but there's enough dramatic unpredictability to compensate for this. Tinkerbell's attempted murder is a particularly nasty moment. That was cool!
Peter Pan is the story's focus, as is right and proper. He's the boy who'll never grow up, living for fabulous, terrifying adventures. He's no mere mortal, but the distillation of all heroes from all children's stories. Of course his world is one of shameless adventure cliches! Skull Island, Indians, pirates... it's *meant* to be bloodcurdling nonsense! Peter's swordfight is scary as he parries Hook's cutlass with his tiny dagger. All that is just as it should be.
But then there's poignancy and psychological realism in his relationship with women. Maybe it's human nature to want the unattainable? Peter is immature, incorrigible... and loved by Tinkerbell, Wendy, Tiger Lily and the mermaids to the point of dangerous jealousy. Even gentle Wendy is annoyed by Tiger Lily's kisses. For me this gives the story its human dimension. Peter can never reciprocate romantic feelings, and what's more pathetic than unrequited love? Note that unlike their men, the women are all drawn realistically - though in fairness this is often true of Disney's early animated films.
As a curious aside, the English stage tends to cast actresses to play Peter. I suppose it's part of our pantomime tradition, but might not Peter Pan be the most utterly male character in all literature?
Further aside: contrary to urban myth, Tinkerbell's appearance wasn't based on Marilyn Monroe but on actress Margaret Kerry, who also provided the voice for one of the mermaids. Not only does Kerry recognise her body language in the film, but apparently so did her second husband Jack Willcox when she took him to a Peter Pan screening. In Kerry's words... "I was so excited and nudging him. 'There I am,' I said. 'Jack! Jack! Jack, that's me!' He just leaned over and said, 'Margaret, I'd recognize those thighs anywhere.'"
But back to the movie! One curiosity is Disney's use of shadows. Peter visits Wendy because she has his shadow in a drawer... a notion which is reflected in one of the film's repeated visual motifs. Characters are introduced by their shadows, like puppets rather than being seen directly. Even Peter himself first appears in silhouette.
Note that this 1953 film accidentally foreshadows its 2002 sequel. They're linked thematically. Wendy's final goodbye to Peter doesn't really happen until Return to Neverland. And most obviously there's the opening voice-over... "All this has happened before, and it will happen again; but this time it happened in London." Obviously sequels shouldn't affect one's opinion of the original, but I still found this interesting.
I was expecting to hate Peter's American accent, but even that wasn't a problem for me. This film can be funny, but it's also exciting, thrilling and Peter Pannish. Impressive.