Peter Pan never grew old and neither did the story, 70 years on

Despite its problematic depictions, the Disney classic presents timeless and powerful themes thanks to the original story

Walt Disney's classic animated film Peter Pan turns 70 this month. Photo: Walt Disney Animation Studios
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This year, Disney’s 1953 animated film Peter Pan, based on a play by JM Barrie, turns 70.

Watching the film today, two things are very clear. Disney has changed a lot over the years and Peter Pan remains an intriguing figure in our collective culture.

The story is about Peter Pan, a free spirited, mischievous lost boy with the power of flight, who refuses to ever grow up.

Peter visits the Darling children, Wendy, Michael and John at number 14 on an unnamed street in Bloomsbury, London, whisking them away to Neverland. There they are promised a never-ending childhood battling pirates and doing what pleases them, it's a place where Wendy acts as a pseudo mother, regaling Peter and his lost boys with stories.

But then something about never growing up starts to bother Wendy and she finds herself at odds with Peter, who seems more concerned with fighting his nemesis, Captain Hook, than ever taking anything seriously.

It’s a captivating film, wistful, imaginative, full of the stuff that makes all childhoods seem magical and infused with nostalgic sentiment.

The animation of the film holds up over the years, with wonderful depictions of London’s star-lit skies behind a chiming Big Ben, the shimmering lightness of fairy dust as it trails behind a stroppy but loyal Tinkerbell, the stunning details and stylisations of the characters, from Peter and Wendy to Captain Hook and the mermaids who live in the waters of the lagoon.

Peter Pan. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

The now-classic musical numbers are well placed within the fast pace of the film, which includes sharp, quick, dialogue and plenty of humour.

It would be wonderful for it to end there — but it doesn't and there are many aspects of the film that are incredibly problematic.

Stereotypical and racist representations of Native Americans, which includes the mocking of their culture by some of the characters, to outdated and caricature-like depictions of the women, are among the reasons Disney has made the film, along with a few others, unavailable on their streaming service on the profiles of children under seven.

Over the years, Disney has delivered more accurate and diverse depictions of race and culture, while completely reinventing how they position their female protagonists — from fairy tale princesses looking to be saved to strong, female characters who are in charge of their own destiny.

And yet, problematic issues in the original Peter Pan aside, there’s an indescribable magic, a thoughtful spirit and timeless touch that has rarely been replicated in Disney’s filmography.

Will people still care about Frozen 70 years from now? Or will Elsa and Anna’s very contemporary tongue-in-cheek rhetoric and observations feel inaccessible?

The difference between Peter Pan and many other Disney films, is the source material that provides the foundations for the 1953 film.

The Little White Bird (1902) is the first book by Barrie in which Perter Pan appears as a character in several chapters. Based on his appearance there, Barrie created a West End play in 1904 that proved to be a huge success. Barrie then expanded the play into a novel in 1911 entitled Peter and Wendy.

What’s so brilliant and enigmatic about Barrie’s work, both as a play and a novel, is the way he speaks to and with children and adults simultaneously.

The story and its characters are layered with meaning and can be read in several ways, many of which are slightly dark, if not completely heart breaking.

Barrie was the ninth child out of 10, and many of his siblings passed away as children. But it was the death of his older brother David, 13, after an ice skating accident when Barrie was six years old, that left a lasting effect on his life and work.

Scottish novelist and playwright, James Matthew Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. Getty Images

Barrie said in interviews that his brother David was their mother’s favourite and that his death changed her completely. In an effort to bond with her as a child, Barrie would dress up in David’s clothes and perform as his brother to cheer her up. It’s recorded in biographies about Barrie’s life that his mother said she was glad that through death David would remain a young boy for ever.

From Barrie’s childhood, we see how the themes of growing up, performing and storytelling made their way into his writing of Peter Pan. The novel and the play, unlike the Disney film, focus more on Wendy as the protagonist and the choices she has to make about growing up and what society expects from her.

Barrie’s unique style of writing, while not a typical fantasy, is sophisticated in its imagery and structure for a children’s story, leaving much to the imagination of the reader.

Is Peter Pan in fact the angel of death, rescuing abandoned children to a place where they never grow up? Are Peter and Wendy the same person, symbolising the internal struggle between wanting to grow up and staying a child for ever?

It’s for these reasons, Barrie pouring fragments of his childhood into the story, along with the varied readings of the themes and characters, that over the years we’ve seen countless reimaginings and adaptations of the story.

Despite the problems in Disney’s Peter Pan, the story of the boy who never wanted to grow up is a perfect fantasy adventure that has mesmerised children and adults, leaving behind a tangible mark on mainstream culture.

Updated: February 24, 2023, 6:02 PM