After artistic successes of Toad’s larceny hijinks and Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, Disney turned once again to the world of British children’s literature for tales of adventure and travel and found J.M. Barrie’s imaginative story of pirates, mermaids and temporal crocodiles. The result is a lot of fun, although lacking in the absurdity and humour of Alice, or the magic of their Golden Age films. The positives are that Neverland seems like a great playground; Tinkerbell is so much more interesting than her spin off franchise might suggest; Hook is the best villain Disney have animated yet. The problems are that the humour sometimes feels quite facile; the portrayal of native Americans is problematic; Wendy is a drip of the wettest order; Peter never really charms as he should. It’s a minor Disney for me, although the mythic, ageless appeal of Barrie’s Neverland means that this is sure to be several people’s favourite from the studio.
However, there is a chance that Peter Pan is actually Disney’s most thematically complex film, as following on from the search for identity in Alice, Disney have begun to explore subtext in greater depth. With a greater attention to the details beneath the surface, it emerges that Peter Pan is one long sexual nightmare. It’s Wendy’s journey into adulthood and all the hormonal confusion associated with that; undoubtedly, this is the stuff of Freudian fear and coming-of-age curiosity. Although I have read Barrie’s original play, this will just be an article about the film. The two mediums are different so it’s just going to be a specific look at Disney’s interpretation of the story. It also may not be entirely serious. Let’s examine the evidence.
Firstly, it is worth noting that Neverland is entirely made up by the children. Just as Alice entirely dreamed all her adventures, so with the Darling children it is hinted (although a little less explicitly) that they have invented Neverland. They read books about this character Peter Pan and play games set in the magical world he lives in. Then, when Peter offers them the chance to go to Neverland, they all express what they want to find there – fighting pirates, seeing some Indians and meeting mermaids. All of these things are there when they get there, exactly as they imagined. Why is it that the kids travel there the night before Wendy has to leave the nursery and grow up? Because they want to, so they imagine it as an escape. Right at the end, the ship that they travel home in is revealed to be nothing but clouds – was it ever there in the first place? Probably not. If this is, indeed, all a product of Wendy’s imagination, it’s worth looking at what she imagines and why she imagines it in the first place.
The person forcing her to grow up is her domineering, aggressive father that wants her to stop being a child and become more like her passive, gentle mother. The figure replacing her father is a mysterious boy who climbs in through her window, and takes her on a journey specifically so that she doesn’t grow up. He is her way out of womanhood, yet she is still clearly attracted to him. She wants to be distanced from a controlling father, and her escape from this is to fly away with a young boy who she tries to kiss. Yet Peter doesn’t even know what a kiss is, and Wendy is stopped the moment before she is able to show him. Her attempts at romancing Peter Pan are possibly her way of spiting her father – who doesn’t believe in him. But her adventure is one where this ambition is thwarted at every turn.
When Wendy finally gets to Neverland, she spends the time with a group of feral boys all brandishing weapons that they don’t really know how to use. However, none of these boys see her in any romantic light – Pan included – and would rather have her as a mother. Just like Wendy’s unsuccessful kiss right at the beginning of the film, once more Peter and his friends are utterly unresponsive to her as a romantic figure. This ambiguity of her feminine role angers and frustrates her, and eventually her decision to go home is because she shuns her position as a mother – a position even her brothers have come to see her in. Peter’s asexuality is apparently linked to his lack of a mother and his detachment disorder – once they grow up they are never allowed back into Neverland because being grown up brings with it unwanted characteristics like sexuality. He’s trapped as a permanent pre-adolescent.
The other women of the story, her mother excluded, are all seen as sexual threats to Wendy. Tinkerbell is a vain, jealous little pixie in a ridiculously short skirt who is self conscious about the size of her bum. Tink is a fascinating character, going as far as plotting to get Wendy killed by the lost boys, a surprisingly brutal plan. It’s also never really addressed why Pan has his own personal pixie. Then there are the mermaids – Wendy goes to see them hoping for something exotic and beautiful, and she finds some nubile, scantily clad women who are all keen for Peter’s pants. Again, they all attack Wendy, just as Tinkerbell did. Then there is Tiger-Lily, a character who performs a personal dance for Peter in a hilariously inappropriate scene when the kids are smoking weed and the ‘Injuns’ are singing ‘What Makes The Red Man Red’. Wendy is forced to pick up firewood whilst Tiger-Lily nose-kisses Peter. All the women she encounters are aggressively sexual, whereas none of the lost boys seem to notice this, just adding to the nightmare of sexual ambiguity and confusion.
Then there’s Captain Hook, a man who is afraid of the virile young upstart. He’s that horrible thing: an adult man with a big sword (not the little knife that Peter has to fight with). He’s haunted by time itself, in the form of a crocodile who has swallowed a ticking clock. It’s enough to reduce the fearsome leader of all the pirates to a gibbering wreck. At one end he is fighting youth – Peter and the Lost Boys – and at the other he is trying to avoid death and old age creeping up on him. Ultimately, he is an impotent figure, and he is defeated by this double threat. He is masculinity undone, which doesn’t help Wendy’s conflicted image of men. They are either young and in need of a mother or old, aggressive and impotent.
Of course, when Wendy gets back, she is ready to grow up. All of her desires have been thwarted in Neverland. Ultimately, hanging out with a group of boys who will never become men is unsatisfying to her. These are boys who need a mother, not a sweetheart, whereas Wendy wants a man in a suit, not tights. They all return to Neverland to continue on in their immaturity, whilst she resolves to symbolically move out of the nursery. Her adventures turned out, more often than not, to be violent and deeply unpleasant, and her romantic hopes were consistently stymied by other women, who were more sexually appealing to Pan than the motherly Wendy. Her journey to Neverland is one of confusion and conflicted responses to the men and women she meets. This is no simple adventure but a nightmare of sexual ambiguity and insecurity which results in Wendy growing up, and all that that entails.