Yesterday, I binged the two animated Peter Pan movies back to back. First, though, I watched my favorite clips of Thumbelina. Fun thing: When I was little and first saw Thumbelina, I thought Prince Cornelius was actually Peter Pan at first, but then realized it was someone else. I think his character for the movie was inspired by Peter Pan in some ways, because moving from Thumbelina to Peter Pan, I started noticing some subtle parallels. And then after I watched the two Peter Pan movies, I watched some of the original Disney Cinderella animated film which came out a few years before Peter Pan, fittingly enough (in the book Peter Pan, the story of Cinderella is mentioned as being one of the stories Mrs. Darling tells her children that Peter Pan listened in on, and he wanted to know how it ended). This will be a rambly post that talks about details from the book and Disney movies.
Anyway, recently, I skimmed-reread through a few of my copies of Peter Pan by J M Barrie and felt the nostalgic feelings. Now I know Peter Pan was not intended to be seen as a Christ figure, but I still see some Christ-figure elements in him. He is the ruler of the Neverland island. Whenever he leaves or is in great distress, Neverland seems to turn to winter (2003 movie version). Not only is he the “Spirit of youth,” but he seems eternal because he is the one child who never grows up–even the lost boys grow up eventually, but not Peter in the book. He is victorious and a rescuer.
Some Christ-figure elements show even more-so in the first Disney animated film. In the very opening when the narrator talks about Peter Pan, he says that Peter Pan visits those who believed in him.
There is this aspect of faith in both Disney films that has always resonated with me and inspired my own fantasy writing. In the story of Peter Pan in general, the aspect of believing in fairies seems symbolic of something deeper and more significant. When a fairy dies, it is because of a lack of belief in them and a statement of that disbelief–“I don’t believe in fairies.” There is this feeling of a loss of innocence that needs to be regained. In both Disney animated films, Tinker Bell dies and comes back to life at a climactic moment where it is shown who believes in fairies and who does not. In the second film’s case, it is that Jane has a change in heart and repents of her unbelief that caused Tinker Bell to die. I remember crying during that scene as a kid seeing it in theaters. The Peter Pan sequel meant a lot to me and still means a lot to me.
Of course, in the story, J M Barrie did not explore the two sides of being like a child, that is, the side of being childlike that is good and the side of being childlike that is immature and selfish–he lumps the two together, because children are not self-conscious. On one side, it is good that this book gives representation of how children actually act, because in this time period, there were many children’s books that showed children as being like perfect angels. Also, I feel as though the story of Peter Pan comes out of a deep-seated frustration with the strictness and properness of society in 1904. Peter Pan’s character laughs in the face of society expectations of how a person should live and be. I mean, if I lived in that time period, I would probably be fed up with all the politeness and strictness of society, too. I think that may be why Captain Hook, the villain, is shown to be a character who cares about “good form” in the book–though ironically he goes against it in one or two places. However, in the Disney movies, he is portrayed as someone who does not respect good form at all.
J M Barrie, from what I’ve read, held respect for young people who “showed spirit” and who spoke bluntly.
If Walt Disney wanted people to see the darker side of not caring about “good form” and good manners, the chaos of not adhering to rules, it makes sense that he would portray Captain Hook as someone who from his introduction shows that he does not care a wit about “good form” and manners. Walt Disney understood the influence of his films on children. They would want to do the opposite of what the villain does. This is just a theory though.
One other thing I noticed that is different between the book and the movies: In both Disney animated films, the children go to Neverland and come back the same night, and there is the possibility that it was all a dream. The parents do not even know the child has been gone, so there is no problem with them having gone to Neverland at all. In the book, however, the parents know the children have gone, that they have flown, that they have gone out by the window, and they are heartbroken. There is this dark element in the book that comes out here, and the audience is not told how to interpret it: should the children have gone to Neverland with Peter Pan or should they have said, “No” and stayed home? The audience is not asked to make a judgment, but I do feel conflicted about it now that I’m older. The thing about it that may appeal to teenagers is that when the children return, there is no punishment for them having left at all. The parents are not angry, they are just thankful the children are alright. There is this sense of freedom, being able to do something even if one’s parents don’t approve, and getting away with it. I suppose that could be seen in a positive or negative way depending on one’s perspective. Of course in a literal context, it would be negative–don’t go with strangers, don’t go off without asking permission from parents first. Symbolically, it could be seen as positive only in the sense of children being able to express themselves freely and be who they were meant to be even when it goes against the expectations or labeling of the parents. There is that need to get away from society and find out who you are in an unfamiliar land. I feel like that is one reason the story of Peter Pan feels therapeutic to me in that sense.
Anyway, these are some thoughts I had while watching the movies after having skim-read through the book recently.
Growing up, I loved the book and I loved the 2003 movie and the Disney original had its moments that made me gasp with awe too. In my later teens, I started noticing different people talking about the darker side of Peter Pan, things I hadn’t even thought of, and it tainted my love for several years. I wondered if it was okay for me to enjoy the story at all anymore–the idea of Peter Pan as a “kidnapper” and “murderer.” I do not like interpreting the story that way, though the book is subtle enough that people can take away multiple different interpretations from it, and that may be a reason there are many retellings of the story.
This year, I’ve been drawn back to the character–there’s a spark of something there that is hard to explain. I just know that this character of Peter Pan, this story, helped draw me closer to Jesus because it made me care about remaining childlike in the good ways, and then reading verses where Jesus said we must “become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven,” those verses spoke to me in connection to the story of Peter Pan.
And then, too, if you believe in the idea of the rapture, the idea that Jesus will one day come to bring His believers to heaven, there is the parallel of Peter Pan coming “like a thief in the night” to take away those who believe in him to another land far away. It always gave me goosebumps.
There’s a lot of psychology in the story of Peter Pan that would be interesting to analyze, and I have found an interesting though dark video exploring potential interpretations of the story from a psychological perspective.
This story is fascinating to me, and it still unlocks creativity inside of me.
In a book titled Vein of Gold by Julia Cameron, about healing your creative side, she says something very interesting. It is like our creative self has been “kidnapped,” and we have to rescue it, nurture it, and then go on adventures with it. It reminded me of how Jane is “kidnapped” in the Peter Pan Disney sequel by doubt and unbelief, but also literally by Captain Hook–who also doesn’t understand who she is and doesn’t even call her by her real name but by her mother’s name, that’s an interesting detail that could be analyzed from an identity angle–and Peter Pan, the Spirit of Youth, rescues her. Over the course of the movie, she finds a sense of belonging, how to play, and she learns how to believe in the reality of things she did not believe in before.
Man, that’s probably why I love the movie so much and identify with it so well.
Also, I really want to write a retelling of Peter Pan now that gives Wendy a better experience in Neverland because she really didn’t have a fun time while she was there except for flying and being a mother to the Lost Boys–she literally ran away from home to avoid growing up, but going to Neverland forces her to grow up anyway. She sees the consequences of immaturity and wants to escape that. From another angle, she goes to Neverland to be in a safe place where she can play-act at being an adult and navigate difficulties of growing up, which then prepares her to grow up when she returns home.
There are so many aspects of this story that are fun to analyze and interpret. These are just some of my rambly thoughts.