‘Peter Pan’, Native Americans, and Disney’s Racial Dilemma

Sixty years ago, it was more or less normal. No matter the situation or the setting, when cowboys came in contact with the indigenous population they were planning to overthrow (violently, one might add), names like “Injuns,” “redskins,” and “savages” were readily tossed around. It was part and parcel of Hollywood’s – and society’s for that matter – blatant disregard for the concept of inclusiveness and racial understanding. All the studios were guilty, none more so than the House that Mouse built, Disney. Under Walt’s wavering hand, the burgeoning children’s entertainment empire unleashed more than its fair share of hideous portraits of prejudice, many today excused of being “of their time” and “part of the past.”

Granted, in the realm of animation, such slanderous extremes are often excused. While pundits have picked apart live action offerings such as Amos and Andy and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, cartoons by the Warners and other outlets have silently sliced out the most offensive bits from their creative canon. Even Disney has done something similar, removing a horrific caricature of an African American minotaur from their masterpiece Fantasia and keeping the controversial relic Song of the South under PC-inappropriate wraps. Now, the company is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its sparkling take on the classic JM Barrie story Peter Pan. Loaded with colorful imagery and memorable music, there remains a sticky point that could have some parents perplexed.

Walt always loved the story of a little boy who refused to grow up, and wanted to make it his second film after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Sadly, the hospital that holds the rights to Barrie’s book proved difficult to deal with, leaving the idea to languish until long after World War II. By that time, the studio had struggled, regained its financial footing, and was slowly becoming the entertainment safe haven for a new school of suburbanites. Freely adapting the story, Disney removed some of the darker material in favor of its standard song and dance. It also kept a portion of the plot that, today, would either be reconfigured or dropped completely considering the blatant bigotry on display.

The story starts simply enough. Peter Pan (voice by Bobby Driscoll) steals into the bedroom of Edwardian children Wendy Darling (Kathryn Beaumont) and her brothers John and Michael. Trying to capture his elusive shadow, the ageless boy invites them to join him, his Lost Boys, and his pixie pal Tinkerbell in Never Land a place where kids can be kids. Teaching them to fly, Peter leads them to a world where no one ages. It is also a place where angry pirate Captain Hook (Hans Conried) has kidnapped the ‘Indian’ maiden Tiger Lily, hoping to use her as bait in discovering Pan’s hideaway. He has a bone to pick with the boy involving an ongoing duel – and a missing hand. As Wendy draws the affections of her guide (and the ire of his fairy friend), John and Michael are captured by a local tribe. It all leads to a final confrontation between Peter and Hook, a showdown swords, skill, and one very hungry crocodile.

For most of its running time, Peter Pan is as magical as its source subject. Disney, doing what it did/does best, imparted the revered tale with the right amount of style and wit. Unlike live action productions that usually see spritely women playing the decidedly male role, this is one of the rare times when Peter is see as an obvious boy. Similarly, the use of Tinkerbell has become a House of Mouse brand, a characterization (and realization of same) that has, perhaps, outlasted the film it was spawned from. For decades, Tink introduced the TV staple The Wonderful World of Disney to millions of viewers. Even today, he pixie dust arch can be seen topping the Magic Kingdom castle as part of the company logo.

Then the is the music, most of it handled by Tin Pan Alley veteran Sammy Cahn and his then collaborator Sammy Fain. Such staples as “You Can Fly” and “The Second Star to the Right” have endured beyond their moments in the movie. In fact, everything about this Pan is so polished, presented in such a sunny and smile-inducing manner, that you can overlook the occasional lapses in narrative and faithfulness. One area where the film fails, however, is in the portrayal of Tiger Lily’s tribe. While Barrie had Native Americans (or better still, a vaudevillian version of what mythologists had made the aboriginal population of the Wild West West) in his story, Disney does him one better. Not only do they turn the sequence into something akin to a hate crime, they give it a sour sing-along that will have your children chiming in like preprogrammed, prejudiced pawns.

“What Makes the Red Man Red” is one of those “what were they thinking moments” that only makes sense within the context of the times. Like the horrid affront that is Kate Smith’s African American slam, “Pickaninny Heaven” from her only feature film, Hello Everybody, it’s indicative of a inexcusably dismissive entertainment attitude toward minorities. Even worse, Pan‘s treatment of the Native American is further fostered by the media temperament at the time. Westerns were huge in the ’50s, a staple that today is viewed with either a jaundiced or revisionistic eye. Still, Disney knew that Pan‘s audiences would be filled with kids immersed in the portrayed version of the West. They wouldn’t mind, and at the time, neither did their parents. Of course, as civil rights became part of the social landscape, such scandals as Fantasia and Song of the South were buried. For some reason, Pan survived.

The reason, of course, is commerce. Peter Pan is huge in Walt’s World, spawning sequels, stand-along projects for Tink and her fairy friends…even a popular ride at the company’s many theme parks. Besides, the backlash has never really risen above a defiant din. Unlike South, which has been championed by some but consistently censured by both the studio and its supporters, Pan is seen as more “acceptable,” though the reasons why make little solid sense. Yes, cartoons are not real life, but they have just as much influence. In 1955, Mom and Dad may not have cared if Junior ran around singing about how blushing gave the Native America its supposedly distinct skin color. In 2013…well, let’s just say that few families will be anxious for their child to warble that particular tune.

Does such a situation destroy the otherwise ethereal joys of the film? No. You can still get a kick out of watching the London skyline melt into the background and Peter and his pals traverse the night skies toward Never Land, and Hook, his first mate Shmee, and that diabolical croc are a pure cartooning delight. Sometimes, a small thing can explode into an unavoidable problem. In this case, Peter Pan wears its bigotry on its sleeve. Luckily, it’s not enough to ruin an otherwise magical movie experience.

RATING 6 / 10