Growing up is one of those mythical transformations that nobody on either side of the process really seems to appreciate. Those who have already done it pine for lost innocence while those yet to do it dream independence without considering the accountability that comes with it. Neither fantasy fully captures reality, of course, but together, they form both halves of the notion that while we must eventually grow up, it’s wise to not rush into it, either. And while that theme has received too many treatments to count, perhaps the one that works the best, even 65 years after its release, is Disney’s seminal story about the perils of growing up: Peter Pan.
The story takes place in London, around 1900, in the Darling household. As their parents prepare for a formal dinner engagement, the Darling children—Wendy, John and Michael—scamper and play, much to their stuffy father’s annoyance. After they go to bed, with their father’s admonitions to grow up still ringing in their ears, the kids are visited by Peter Pan himself, an elfin boy who can fly. Peter is especially taken with Wendy, who herself is on the edge of adolescence, and he brings her and her brothers to Neverland, a fantasy landscape populated by mermaids, hostile natives, and the Lost Boys, a gang of feral kids who have come to Neverland and refused to grow up. Peter leads the Lost Boys in endless combat with the nefarious pirate Captain Hook, who is himself stalked by a crocodile that once bit off Hook’s hand. In a series of episodes, John and Michael join the Lost Boys, Wendy runs afoul of the Peter’s female counterpart Tinker Bell, and Hook plots to destroy Peter and all of his allies. It all comes to a head during a climactic battle on Hook’s pirate ship and a reckoning where the Darlings must decide which is more important: to stay forever young in a realm where they rule as heroes, or to return to their familial home, where the reality of growing up awaits?
There’s a reason why Peter Pan remains so popular after nearly seven decades since its theatrical release. Neverland remains a compelling wonderverse where the childhood games we play live forever, even if they are tinged by the casual cruelty of childhood whimsy and the unreliability of those whose only motivation is to chase pleasures of the moment. Captain Hook is easily one of the greatest villains of animated cinema, a great representation of how kids re-imagine their overbearing parents into villains as cartoonishly overdone as they are easily overthrown. Wendy is one of the earliest female protagonists of animated features, capturing the precipice between childhood and adulthood. And Peter and Tinker Bell are as immortal to the audience as they are on screen as eternally relatable fey folk whose utter lack of accountability can be both exhilarating and frustrating. Even George Darling, the children’s father offers us a redemptive close as he spies Peter flying away at the end, and recognizes his old childhood friend, suggesting that nobody is ever so old and crusty that they cannot imagine the glories of their own once-youthful imagination.
Like other Disney movies, Peter Pan features some really unacceptable stereotypes, such as its dismissive treatment of Wendy Darling as just a girl in need of saving, on the way to becoming a just mother in need of serving. Meanwhile, Tinker Bell is an especially undiluted representation of what a man’s idea of a female id must look like: flirty yet fickle, subservient yet insubordinate, passionate yet prone to tantrum. Meanwhile, Peter, the Lost Boys, and John and Michael are given free reign to do as they please amid young women who are all either sidekicks, subservient, or window dressing.
And that doesn’t hold a candle to the movie’s treatment of Native Americans as red-skinned, broad-faced savages. The Indians are just another faction in Neverland, like the mermaids or the Lost Boys, or Hook’s pirates, and they personify the Darlings’ Victorian imaginations of what “Indians” must be. And it that might hold up for those who don’t take the even easier route of pretending that the whole Indian subplot doesn’t exist at all. But then there is the unbearable musical interlude, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” in which the Indians sing forth a cavalcade of caricature that reflects the racial superiority evident in the original play on which Peter Pan was based, as well as in its 1930s animated adaptation. It’s the kind of scene that could have been cut from later editions, but that still wouldn’t address the story’s underlying attitude toward Native Americans in general.
Even the vaunted Nine Old Men—who collaborated in full for the last time on this movie, and approached it with all the racial sensitivity we might expect from a bunch of white guys in the Thirties—admitted that they would have cut the Indians from the story if they could do it over again. It’s that far out of bounds. But since it’s impossible to cut the Indians from Peter Pan without requiring a wholesale rewrite of the story, they remain, the capstone of a racist legacy at the heart fo one of the greatest children’s stories ever told.
Had this movie portrayed any other ethnic group as it portrays Native Americans, it would have been disappeared like other entries in the Disney catalog that have already been taken out of circulation for similar offenses. But there it is, downplayed and uneasily tolerated, but tolerated nevertheless. The moment of truth in Peter Pan isn’t that it has a great, big gob of racism at its core, but that people know its there and still give the movie a pass. Peter Pan’s racism played to its audience. And sadly, even after all these years, it still does. That is why it persists. That’s not just a moment of truth. That’s a moment of awful truth.