Peter Pan: the play, the book, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, the inspiration for this list.
Author and playwright J.M. Barrie first wrote about Peter in The Little White Bird in 1902. Then, he transformed the tale into a play in 1904. And finally, he adapted it into a novel in 1911. Since then, the world has seen a number of film adaptations and sequels, from the 1924 silent film to Disney’s 1953 animated classic to Spielberg’s take in 1991’s Hook to the present with Disney’s live-action flick: Peter Pan & Wendy.
Everyone has their favorite. And if you do a simple web search, you’ll find any number of articles ranking these films. So what makes this any different? Well, we’re Plugged In, and we’re not ranking by what our personal favorites are: We’re ranking by family-friendliness.
Also, not every Peter Pan tale made it on to this list. So if you’ve seen other adaptations, let us and your fellow readers know in the comments! We’d love to hear all about your favorite takes on the story.
7. Wendy (2020) – PG-13
This retelling of Peter Pan’s story, told from a more modern perspective, is the least family-friendly of the bunch. (It’s also the only one rated PG-13.) The story follows Wendy, a young girl who believes that growing up means giving up freedom and adventure. So, she hops on a train with her older twin brothers, hoping it will take them to a place where they’ll be able to stay forever young.
Plugged In’s Paul Asay writes: “Wendy reminds us that, as children, we all might’ve preferred the job of pirating, or sword-fighting, or princessing or any number of fantastical jobs we dreamed about. Few of us realize those dreams. … But we exchange those dreams for different ones. And that’s the way it should be. We set aside our childish things. We grow up.”
However, despite this healthy message, the film includes some harsh language (including a singular use of the f-word). We witness someone’s hand getting chopped off (and see, very briefly, the bloody stump, along with a pool of blood). And there are other scenes featuring blood and death, that could certainly frighten younger viewers. Those elements, plus the story’s spiritual, animistic components, place it lowest in this ranking.
6. Finding Neverland (2004) – PG
Writes Rhonda Handlon for Plugged In, “In this movie based on a play (The Man Who Was Peter Pan) based on his life, famous playwright Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) has just suffered a major theatrical flop and his marriage is floundering when he happens upon the widow Sylvia Davies and her four winsome sons at the park. The writer’s fertile imagination and the boys’ penchant for role-playing spark [a friendship] … that rejuvenates his writing and brings new life to the grieving family … and fuels the local rumor mill.”
The film isn’t necessarily about Peter Pan or even geared toward children, which is part of the reason it scores so low on this list. It also features some harsh language and decidedly adult themes that parents may not be ready to navigate with their children just yet. (Barrie is wrongly accused of having inappropriate relationships with both Sylvia and her boys.)
But according to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of the most beloved retellings because it gives us insight into the creation of Peter Pan (much like Saving Mr. Banks did for Mary Poppins), adding more significance and meaning for the next time you experience the story.
5. Hook (1991) – PG
Hook acts as a sequel to the events of Peter Pan, where Peter (played by Robin Williams) is now a successful adult businessman with a wife and two children of his own. However, when the dastardly Captain Hook (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) kidnaps Peter’s children, Peter is brought back to Neverland by Tinker Bell (Julia Roberts) so that he can remember how to fight, fly, crow and be a child once again.
This was one of my favorite movies as a kid. But I’ll admit I was shocked by the amount of content concerns as an adult. There’s some mild language (“a–,” “h—” and “b–ch”), as well as a few euphemisms and other sexual references that went straight over my head as a youngster (“Dead man’s dinghy,” “near-sighted gynecologist” and the madam of a house of ill repute telling her prostitutes to “paint your faces, ladies!”).
But even though I missed those elements, there were a few others that always gave me pause. Peter is kissed by several mermaids (wearing traditional shell-bra garb). And even though I’m pretty sure they were actually blowing air into his mouth to save him from drowning, as a kid I was always grossed out. There’s also (spoiler alert) the death of the Lost Boy Rufio. It’s a rough scene to watch, and paired with other deaths scattered throughout the film, that might be more violence than some families are willing to navigate.
4. Pan (2015) – PG
This film is probably best described by Plugged In’s Bob Hoose in his original review:
“Director Joe Wright’s latest addition to [the] picaresque panoply of all things Pan could be seen as a pseudo-superhero-style origin story (in this age of superhero everything). It gives us the low down on a boy named Peter before he was soaring about with raucous glee and brandishing his dagger. Here, he’s just an orphan kid, longing for his mum, when he’s yanked unexpectedly into the fantastic—and the heroic.
“This is a prequel, however, where the pirates are more coarse and gritty than colorful and goony. … Tiger Lilly’s tribe is, well, more trans-globalish than we’ve seen before. Hook is something of an Indiana Jones romantic hero rather than a hook-handed rake with a ticking-clock phobia. Toss in epic battles between flying ships and WWII fighter planes, as well as bim-bam-booms involving waves of tiny fairies and a prancing baddy named Blackbeard, and what we’ve got here is something fairly entertaining … but barely identifiable for those expecting a more traditional take on the Peter Pan canon.
“Purists will likely balk. The family’s youngest will likely duck for cover. And the rest of us will likely wonder where this would-be franchise reboot goes from here. Because this sweeping, swirling, twinkling explosion of CGI color is a long way from that beloved story about a boy in green tights who never wants to grow up—even if it’s got some charms of its own.”
3. Peter Pan (1953) – G
Don’t be fooled by the G rating here. This film was produced by Disney in 1953, and the MPAA’s standards were far more lax back then. True, there’s no harsh language or death sequences (which is why this film ranks a bit higher than some of the others) and most of the negative content is played for laughs. But 70 years later, this film doesn’t hold up nearly as well as we’d like it to.
The biggest problem that parents need to look out for are the racist portrayals of Native peoples. They’re called rude names, drawn as racist stereotypes and there’s even a hint at cannibalism when the Lost Boys are tied up around a big soup pot. There is also a scene where the Chief passes a ceremonial pipe to the kiddos, who then smoke it. There are some other outdated depictions of drinking and smoking, and parents should also be wary of some sexism.
Both Tinker Bell and some mermaids are drawn with voluptuous figures, wearing very little clothing. (One of the mermaids appears to not be wearing anything at all, using her hair to cover herself instead.) Tink, the mermaids and Wendy all compete for Peter’s attentions and affections. And we also hear some seriously sexist remarks like “Girls talk too much!” and “A jealous female can be tricked into anything.”
I still love parts of this film. But honestly, I’m just glad that there are other versions of this story that eliminate the needless racism and sexism.
2. Peter Pan (2003) – PG
In ways, this live-action adaptation of Peter Pan is darker and more violent than many families would prefer, considering it’s aimed at a grade-school audience. Director and screenwriter P.J. Hogan told Plugged In that his team wanted its Captain Hook to be “genuinely scary,” not like the comical Disney cartoon or Dustin Hoffman’s witty villain in Steven Spielberg’s Hook. (And personally, I think Jason Isaacs might be my favorite Hook ever. Because even though he terrified me as an 11-year-old watching this for the first time, he was also just such a good villain.)
Per Bob Smithouser’s review for Plugged In, “There’s also a subtle sexual subtext that may generate questions from little ones that force Mom and Dad to discuss issues of puberty and first love before they’re ready.” But Smithouser also wrote that “These drawbacks aren’t inherently a problem for adolescents, though.” In fact, he said, “the film is a vehicle that—with proper parental input—could make the transition [into puberty] smoother.” And as someone who was right on the cusp of adolescence when this film came out, I agree. Wendy’s crush on Peter felt (and still feels) incredibly relatable, innocent and age appropriate.
I’ve placed this film above Disney’s 1953 animation for several reasons: there’s no language, no blood and gore, no negative portrayals of girls or racism (in fact, they cast an Indigenous girl to play Tiger Lily), and nothing so tantalizing that parents might feel the need to jump in front of the television screen. That said, I concur with Smithouser’s assessment that younger children will still need a bit more hand-holding if you choose to watch this flick.
1. Peter Pan & Wendy (2023) – PG
Peter Pan & Wendy, Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of its animated classics, seeks to remedy the mistakes of its 1953 version.
The most notable change is the lack of sexism. There are no scantily clad mermaids, voluptuous fairies or outdated statements about girls. In fact, Wendy, Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell don’t engage in petty jealousies at all. Rather, they work together to save themselves and their friends from the dastardly Hook. (And, more importantly, they take on the role of big sisters with aplomb, gently guiding their siblings—biological and otherwise—on a path toward kindness and forgiveness.)
On another positive note, the film cast a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation to portray Tiger Lily. She even speaks some Cree in the movie. And while this isn’t necessarily original (As I mentioned above, Universal also cast an Indigenous girl to play the princess in 2003’s Peter Pan), it’s encouraging to see authentic representation in contrast to the harmful stereotypes and racial tropes of yesteryear.
There’s still plenty of swashbuckling, death threats and carnivorous crocodiles to be wary of, but as a fan of the tale of Peter Pan, I felt this film held up pretty well. The changes mentioned above help to tell a story that more children can feel a part of. Parents should still consider thematic elements and magical content when making a decision about this film. But this film ends on a very positive message: To grow up will be an awfully big adventure.