Peter Pan (1953)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Peter Pan</strong> (1953)

(On Blu-ray, October 2018) I’m usually soft on Disney Animation Studio features—they’re usually classics for a reason, and I’m not usually tempted to be overly critical of them. But Peter Pan is something else: Its racist portrayal of natives was dodgy back in 1953 and is completely reprehensible today—and I’m not talking about Pocahontas levels of well-intentioned but misguided representation: I’m talking full-blown insulting stereotypes featured front and centre within a musical number. I’m already cool on the Peter Pan story itself (most adaptations work hard to tone down the less pleasant aspects of the original story already) but the Disney adaptation is one of the worst ones I’ve seen so far. Finding Neverland was dull metafiction; 2015’s Pan was a generic fantasy adventure in Peter Pan costume; 1991’s Hook was a disappointing rethread but the Disney version redeems every single one of them, and consecrates 2003’s live-action Peter Pan as the best adaptation so far. There are a few things I do like about the Disney film—the opening segment is surprisingly long in introducing the characters, and Tinker Bell is an icon for a reason. Alas, Peter Pan shoots itself not just in the foot but in the gut with that “What Made the Red Man Red?” segment. I’ve got this half-baked theory that as far as Hollywood racism is concerned, native Indians have been consistently treated worse than African-Americans, and Peter Pan dumps an entire cord of firewood on the bonfire of that theory. The issue here is not having a tribe of “others” on the island intrinsic to the plot—it’s explicitly couching them in native stereotypes. Again; see other treatments of the Peter Pan story on how to tone it down rather than put it in stark relief. As I’ve mentioned, it doesn’t help that I’m not that fond of Peter Pan’s core conceit—but that deliberate racism is on another level. I am not showing that movie to my daughter. The crazy thing is that everybody knows that this part of the film is terrible—I grew up on a lot of material derived from the Disney movies (albums, picture books, recordings, etc.) and I do not remember that sequence, which was often excised from TV broadcasts of the film. This is bottom-tier Disney material as far as I’m concerned, and probably bottom tenth if I’m being honest—I’ll take Chicken Little and Brother Bear (which I like quite a bit, actually) and, yes, Pocahontas over Peter Pan.

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