Disney’s animated classic Peter Pan secretly hid its biggest villain in one of its most wholesome characters, but here is the 1953 movie’s dark truth.
As one of the most wholesome elements of Disney’s Peter Pan, Nana seems like the perfect caretaker. The large-eyed, bonnet-wearing hound cleans the nursery, straightens the beds, and withstands the Darling children’s ungrateful father. However, one of her duties unearths a dark truth about both the dutiful dog and the era in which Disney’s Peter Pan was written.
The Peter Pan animated feature is adapted from J. M. Barrie’s darker Peter Pan stage play from 1904. And as is Disney’s way, the company swept a lot of questionable concepts under the nursery room rug when making their version five decades later. However, the main elements remain: both the play and the movie have the Darling children sprinkled with fairy dust and swooped off to Neverland by the rebellious Peter Pan. The story involves fairies, mermaids, princesses, and pirates all providing an engaging and seemingly innocent adventure for children.
Nana’s character is also taken from Barrie’s play, as are her chores, which originally included bathing the Darling children and administering the four-year-old Michael’s “medicine.” While her medicine for the young boy in the play may have been for an undetermined malady, research reveals that the most common “medicine” given to children at bedtime during the era was a mix of morphine and alcohol. Increasingly disturbing, in Disney’s (soon to be remade) Peter Pan, the single dose of medicine is expanded to include a spoonful of “tonic” for each of the Darling children, with the wholesome Nana trained to drug the young children to sleep.
The early 1900s was a time of “tonics,” with opium being used to cure nearly everything. As is pointed out by James Nevius (via The Guardian), by the mid-19th century, “opiates were the main ingredient in everything from teething powders to analgesics for menstrual cramps.” This included a product called Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup — a common tonic used at the time to help subdue rowdy children. As noted by Nevius, the so-called “tonic” was actually “a morphine and alcohol concoction that was marketed to parents of fussy children as a ‘perfectly harmless and pleasant’ way to produce a ‘natural quiet sleep, by relieving the child from pain.’”
It is curious that Disney (subject to many dark theories) chose to include the unnamed substance in the film, especially considering they not only included the product but expanded its use to all the children. Furthermore, in an act reminiscent of the trend’s original marketing duplicity, Disney relabeled the product, opting to call what Barrie originally referred to as “medicine” the more unassuming “tonic,” and had it served by the film’s most wholesome character, Nana the dog. As if to ensure the purpose of the “tonic” was not missed, Disney’s Peter Pan even features a scene in which Nana gets the “tonic” on her paw and begins to lick it off before stopping, distressed at the thought of taking the substance herself.
This specific creative liberty that was taken in Disney’s Peter Pan, seems to imply a mistrust of authority that was prevalent at the time the animated film was made. As America was in the middle of the Cold War at the time of Peter Pan‘s original theatrical release, it could be that Nana’s dark doings were intended to vilify the wholesome character and instill a mistrust of authority in America’s youth. However, as McCarthyism was also at its peak when Disney’s Peter Pan debuted, it is also interesting to note that the Darling children are never seen taking the “tonic.” Thus, alternatively, Nana could be seen as an authority figure wh0, had the children obeyed, would have protected them and ensured they passed the night safely at home, never tempted to fly away to a foreign land full of danger. In either instance, Peter Pan’s villain is not just the notorious Captain Hook, but also, and perhaps more so, the unassuming, drug-wielding canine nursemaid.
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