Childhood is not only a crucial time for learning and developing, but it’s also a magical time where everything seems possible and that is the feeling I got as a child when watching Disney movies. Today, as an adult, I still find myself tearing up while watching the Lion King and singing along to the songs from Tarzan and the Little Mermaid.
The author of Peter Pan, Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, was born on May 9th, 1860 in Scotland. By the age of six, his brother had passed away, leaving him to care for his grieving mother who never recovered from the tragedy. After studying at the University of Edinburgh, in 1885, he became a freelance writer in London and there he wrotebooks that were very successful. On New Year’s Eve of 1897, Barrie met George du Maurier’s daughter, Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, whom he grew fond of as well as her sons. According to Britannica Encyclopedia (2015), Barrie would spend his time playing with the boys and told them stories of Peter Pan, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”. Before his passing, Barrie gave his copyright of Peter Pan to the Hospital for Sick Children, in London, which Walt Disney Productions later made an animated movie about.
Peter Pan is a story about a young girl named Wendy and her two younger brothers, Micheal and John, who meet Peter Pan and Tinker Bell after they flew in through their bedroom window in search of Peter’s shadow. Peter Pan decides to bring Wendy and her siblings to Neverland so she can become a mother to the “Lost Boys” and tell them stories. With just a bit of faith and some pixie dust, they set off on an adventure where they encounter characters that describe most childhood memories such as pirates, mermaids, fairies and more.
Growing up I spent a lot of time playing by myself and finding things to do with my time since I didn’t have any siblings to play with and both my parents worked a lot. When I was young, my dad used to work for a company that would box video cassettes and the ones that would get rejected he would bring home for me. Disney movies were always my favorites and till this day I still watch them and they bring back this feeling of nostalgia. As a kid, I thought that if I truly believed hard enough Peter Pan would one day come for me and I could also discover the wonders of Neverland and never have to grow up. Although he never came, I still believed and waited for that day. I think the reason why this movie resonated with me so much as a child was because most of the other movies were always about a princess finding her prince, but this one was about a kid who wanted what most kids want which was to fly, or fight pirates and just be a kid.
Before I started writing this assignment I decided to re-watch Peter Pan to see if there were any references which could be relevant for my paper. From the moment the movie began, with the opening credits to the closing song “You can Fly”, it was if I had travelled back to my childhood. In our reading of “Memory and Spaces: Exploring the afterlife of children’s popular culture” the authors took a specific angle when they decided to focus the discussion around cowboys. In the article, Bell Hooks talks about a snapshot of herself dressed as a cowgirl and how it made her feel after losing it: “Losing the snapshot, I lost the proof of my worthiness – that I had been a bright-eyed child capable of wonder, the proof that there was a “me of me”’. For Hooks, the snapshot represented her childhood and it was almost like a window to her past self. Re-watching Peter Pan as an adult reminded me of my childhood in the same manner. It allowed me to reminisce to the point where I wished I could go back to just being a kid, when life wasn’t as stressful. Now that I am an adult, I can understand the second-degree meanings within the movie and some of them are not so easy to stomach. For instance, the adults in the movie, more so the men, are quite scary.
First, we’re introduced to M. Darling, Wendy’s father, who has a very bad temperament and is very easily aggravated especially when his children talk about Peter Pan. On the other hand, the mother has a much healthier relationship with her children. She engages with them and tells them stories just as any parent should. The contrast between the two parents fits well with the concept that Harju (2011) was trying to portray when he said, “Memories can, alternatively, connect young people and adults when they share stories.” Basically, through story-telling, adults and children can build a bond between them. Later in the movie, we’re introduced to captain Hook for the first time. His entire existence in the movie is to kill Peter Pan and the “Lost Boys”. Due to the music and the theatrics in the movie, as well as the fact that Peter Pan never gets caught, it is very easy to overlook the fact that this is a grown man plotting to kill children the entire movie. This can be compared to society telling us to “grow up” and to stop acting like “children”, but it also symbolizes the killing of one’s innocence. Another important analysis in the movie is Peter Pan’s the ability to fly. The reoccurring idea in the film is that with a little faith and some pixie dust you could fly. Peter Pan, who is a representation of the child in all of us, had the ability to fly and therefore, the freedom to basically do anything he wants. Flying is not just the freedom to go places, but it is also a metaphor for pursuing your passions, discovering new things about yourself and the world and about doing things that you never thought you could achieve or love. Flying is the road to how you can get to your goals in life.
Walt Disney has made some impressive strides over the years, but there is a dark past which never seems to go away. One of the least subtle references in the movie is the controversial portrayal of the Native American tribe. Walt Disney Productions has been known over the decades for its racial ignorance when it comes to portraying other cultures in their movies. They’ve done so in Pocahontas, Lady and the Tramp and Peter Pan is no different. As a kid, I didn’t think too much about what I was watching, but now I’ve noticed some cringe worthy scenes. When we are first introduced to the Native American tribe, they are portrayed to us as savages that hide behind trees so catch their prey (the Lost Boys). We then learn that it is a game of hid and go seek that the Lost Boys play with the native tribe. However, this looks like it could be compared to European colonizers first coming to North America and forcefully taking the land away from the natives.
The next scene is when Peter Pan saves Tiger Lily from captain Hook and the natives have a huge celebration to thank him. The Native Americans start to sing a song called “What made the Red Man Red”. The whole scene depicts them in an unflattering light: weird caricatures, flamboyant outfits, smoking an unknown herb, dancing around a fire, slanted eyes that barely open and talking/singing in a broken English. Although I have good memories of watching this movie, those scenes remained distasteful and uncomfortable.
Despite the offensive scenes in the movie, Peter Pan does offer some important life lessons for children. Bazalgette and Buckingham (1997) made the point that fairy tales do have a significance in the lives of children, because it gives them access coping methods when faced with certain dilemmas and anxieties. Children learn a lot through observation and fairy tales are a more entertaining yet efficient way of doing so. Peter Pan uses everyday children to relay messages to other children which makes the story more relatable.
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