With their catchy melodies and optimistic outlooks, Disney movies rarely fail to uplift audiences of adults and kids alike. It's no secret that much of their source material is decidedly darker than the studio's finished product, and those alterations make a lot of sense. Who wouldn't rather listen to "You Can Fly!" with their kids instead of having a heavy conversation about morality?
Still, now that I'm a bit older with a lifelong appreciation for all things Disney, I like to look back at the original stories that inspired the magic. In J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, there's definitely a much different approach the character of Peter and his treatment of the Lost Boys, which drastically changes everything I've ever known about this story.
Read on for an unexpectedly serious look at the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up from the man who created him. Obviously, there are book spoilers abound, so read ahead at your own risk!
Despite Living in Neverland, the Lost Boys Do Age
That's why the play that's based on the book is called Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, drawing a distinction between Pan and his followers.
The Group Always Consists of Young Boys due to Very Non-Magical Causes
If they don't die on one of their many dangerous adventures, Peter "thins them out."
While This Is Left Ambiguous, the Implication Is Pretty Devastating
Peter finds some way to kill them off when "they seem to be growing up." According to Barrie, this allows a steady flow and the permanent presence of children without Neverland getting overpopulated. Peter even "trims" them down when they can't fit in their holes to the treehouse.
It Sounds Drastic (Even Despicable), But This Is Totally in Line with Peter's Original Character
Despite the routine murder, he's not meant to be malicious or evil. In fact, this is the clearest manifestation of his enduring innocence.
As a Permanent Child, He Can't Learn From His Mistakes
Peter Pan can never grow up, so he can never truly develop an understanding of morality. He doesn't do anything based off the notions of good and evil, and, in that way, he acts "like mankind before the fall." Blissfully unaware that his actions have consequences.
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The Inability to Remember Mistakes and Grow Is Meant to Represent All Children
This is why all the children that go to Neverland are completely uninhibited. Wendy, John, and Michael happily abandon their parents without realizing how much that may hurt them and seamlessly fall into step with Peter's fantastic antics.
Wendy Is Growing Up, Even Though She May Not Want To
And that glimpse into adulthood—when she takes on the role of the Lost Boys' mother—means she can disrupt this cycle for John and Michael. She's the only one who can see that they're starting to forget all about their parents in exchange for their adventures. Wendy regrets her decision to leave them behind and wants to head home.
When Peter Returns to Visit Wendy, His Innocent Egocentrism Becomes Clear
He's alone, and Wendy wonders where Tinker Bell has gone. Peter's forgotten all about Tink, his devoted friend to the end, even though he died ages ago. When Peter finds that Wendy has grown up, he's unabashed, and his plans don't change. He takes off with Wendy's daughter Jane to Neverland to repeat a similar story.
Funnily enough, Barrie also implies that the same experience happened to Wendy's mother, proving that when Peter wants something, he just goes ahead and takes it.
Major Takeaway: Innocence Doesn't Mean "Being Good" in Peter Pan
This moral goes for any child, not just the fictional, elven ones. Just like Peter, kids can be rash, cunning, uninhibited, and even cruel. But that doesn't make them monsters, they just haven't grown up yet.
In the end, Peter Pan could be all about the beauty of growing up, but you might not realize that from Disney's version.
If this theory is too dark for you, there is an alternative. Peter Pan is actually guiding the kids to heaven when he's teaching them to fly, and that's why they never age. In this case, they're still dead, but at least they're going to some kind of paradise.