“All children, except one, grow up.” That one is the character of Peter Pan created by author and playwright J.M. Barrie in 1904. As children, we’ve all dreamed at one point in time of leaving our homes and heading to Neverland, the place where there are no parents, no schools, no bedtimes, and most importantly no growing up. Peter Pan is a story that touches the hearts of many generations throughout its 119-year existence. Filmmakers around the world have tried their hands at giving the classic story by Barrie a place in people’s lives. Movies based on the tale vary from major live action motion pictures, animated films, plays broadcasted live, and even movies from the silent era of cinema. We’ve seen the characters as light hearted and funny as well as dark and serious.
Quickly then, here is my ranking of the top 10 Peter Pan movies from 1924 right up to 2023.
1. Peter Pan & Wendy (2023)
Even though the film is just days old, audiences and critics alike have agreed that this is a superior version of the story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. It fleshes out the characters completely and everything in the story makes sense. Alexander Molony, Ever Anderson, and Jude Law play the characters that they were born to portray. The rest of the cast embraces their roles, giving off A-list performances and you never once lose your interest in it because the pace never slows down.
Combine that with both the magic of the 1953 Disney classic and the source material that started it all, and you get a well rounded and heart-wrenching tale for people of all ages. It makes Peter Pan & Wendy the best adaptation of J.M. Barrie tale.
2. Peter Pan (1953)
This is the film that continues to capture the hearts of millions throughout the generations. It is the most popular portrayal of Pan of all. If it weren’t for the elements that wouldn’t work today, this would be the number one version of the story. Racist portrayals aside, there is no doubt that Peter Pan 1953 is a staple in not only the Walt Disney canon, but in motion pictures in general. The animators went all out and the results show.
To this day, this is the most famous depiction of the character and the animation allows the characters and the island of Neverland to be experienced as they were meant to be. It became the definitive version of the story and continues to inspire adaptations to this day.
3. Return to Neverland (2002)
When Disney began making sequels to their animated classics, it became clear that the company was desperate to capitalize on the success of recent films like Aladdin and The Lion King, and so they got direct to video films like Aladdin: The Return of Jafar. While there were some that were better than others, like The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride, the sequels were ultimately hit or miss, like the live action remakes of today.
Return to Neverland received a theatrical release and after watching the movie, you can see why. Taking inspiration from the source material’s epilogue, the movie is a well made sequel with plenty of nostalgia for fans and enough heart and entertainment to make it its own.
4. Finding Neverland (2004)
Sometimes what makes a story better is learning the history behind it and that’s what Finding Neverland does for Peter Pan. Taking place in the early 20th century, the film follows J.M. Barrie (the author of Peter Pan played by Johnny Depp) as he meets Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons, who would go on to inspire the creation of the classic characters and stories within.
Fictionalized occurrences aside, this is a wonderfully made movie and a way to introduce the history of Pan to the viewer. Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet give terrific performances as usual and surprisingly share a decent amount of chemistry. The CGI is a bit outdated but it doesn’t take away from the fascinating history that the movie is attempting to present.
It inspires them to go out and research the real history and learn how Peter came to be.
5. Hook (1991)
Wait! The boy who refused to grow up actually did? The premise has the ability to grab your attention immediately. While critics trashed the film, audiences have turned it into a cult classic. As Peter (Robin Williams) returns to Neverland to save his children from his old menace (Dustin Hoffman) and discover his former identity, we do it too. We find that child that was in us while watching the animated film or reading the book all those years ago.
Dustin Hoffman steals the show as the titular Hook and makes his presence known every time he’s on screen. As a sequel to J.M. Barrie’s novel it’s quite good even though it is easy to criticize such things like the pace and its zigzagging tone. But deep down it has a heart and captures what Peter Pan is all about. Just because you have to grow up, doesn’t mean that it won’t be a fun adventure.
6. Peter and Wendy (2015)
This entry has probably the most unique approach. Lucy Rose (Hazel Doupe) is a 12 year old girl with a heart condition waiting for surgery. On the eve of her risky procedure, she reads the original novel and dreams that she is now Wendy Darling and heads off to Neverland with Peter (Zak Sutcliffe).
To start off, having the reality scenes take place at Great Ormond Street Hospital was genius because J.M. Barrie bequeathed the rights to the story and character to it. Though this isn’t a big budget theatrical movie, it doesn’t fail to disappoint. The performances by the actors are off the charts, particularly Stanley Tucci who plays Captain Hook as well as Mr. Darling (a tradition that goes back to its play days in 1904) and the doctor treating Lucy. The symbolism might be the best element. As Lucy’s condition worsens, she could actually die and head to a place like Neverland and never grow old. According to Peter himself, “to die would be an awfully big adventure.”
This movie does something completely different with the classic tale but it keeps the essence in its core which is what every adaptation of a timeless story should do. It keeps the viewers intrigued from start to finish and doesn’t disappoint. This entry is probably the most underrated and most realistic adaptation.
7. Peter Pan (2003)
And now we arrive at what is probably the most famous adaptation, aside from the 1953 Disney classic. This version sticks probably the closest to Barrie’s novel and follows most of the traditional story but with additional elements of romanticism between Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). While the cast does well with what they’re given, the writing isn’t on par for the story that’s trying to be told. It might’ve sounded good on paper but when presented in a big budget Hollywood film, it seems off.
Also, the visual effects have not aged well at all and the lighting clashing with the action doesn’t help. The romantic scenes between our main characters feel very forced and don’t hit as they should.
Now that being said, it doesn’t destroy the movie as a whole. The movie still moves at a steady pace, the much darker tone, and the way it retains Barrie’s written elements make it the beloved adaptation that it is today. Is it worth a watch? Yes. Is it the best Peter Pan film out there? Some may agree, others maybe not.
8. Peter Pan (1960)
This was the first time Peter Pan was mainstream since 1953. This was also the first time that a Broadway musical was adapted to live action television. Mary Martin plays the role of Peter, which may seem odd. Back in 1904 when the original play premiered, men were deemed too large and lacked the innocence of a child so it became a tradition that an actress plays the role of Peter.
Martin captures the hearts of all of who watch with her performance. The musical follows the same story from the 1953 film but adds the magic of being presented in Broadway form. While acting chops aren’t as good compared to most on the list, it’s a cult classic and remains a favorite of plays adapted for TV to this day.
If you’re a Peter Pan, then it is worth the check out.
9. Peter Pan (1924)
While silent era movies aren’t exactly the most popular types of films nowadays, this one has its reasons for being on the list. For starters, it was the first time that Peter Pan was given a film adaptation. Also, the special effects were considered a masterpiece of its time, though it is funny to watch the movie and notice the obvious wires attached to the actors and people in costumes playing the animals. But there’s another reason why this movie is here and it’s the main reason. This is the movie that Walt Disney saw with his childhood friend Walt Pfeiffer and his family.
Disney was amazed by the film, its story, the source material, and he never forgot about it. When it came time to adapt a second fully animated feature film (following the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937), he intended for Peter Pan to be the one to get made. But due to timing and trying to get the story right, it wasn’t until 1953 when his version was released to the world.
So without this 1924 version, we wouldn’t have 1953 version and all that followed after. This is truly the one that started it all.
10. Pan (2015)
While Hook acted as a sequel to J.M. Barrie’s novel, Pan attempts to be a prequel to the tale and it doesn’t go well. This version takes what you think you know about Peter Pan and turns it into a mess that’s incredibly hard to review. A creepy old orphanage, slavery, Blackbeard the pirate, does that sound like Peter Pan to you?
Its portrayal of Tiger Lily is worse here than the 1953 film. Though Rooney Mara is a fairly good actress, the last time we checked, she wasn’t of Native American descent and the way Peter gets to Neverland is something not even worth talking about. Peter and Hook’s relationship is a little enjoyable, not by much, but the movie as a whole is a complete disgrace to Barry’s legacy and probably wouldn’t even work if it wasn’t based off of Peter Pan.
We most likely have not seen the last of Peter Pan, but that’s not a bad thing at all. The story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up is going to continue to touch and inspire many kids and adults who watch, read, and share his story for years to come. As Wendy points out, “growing up is probably the biggest adventure of all.” If we can grow up with Peter Pan in our lives, we will be happy, and be able to fly.
A film enthusiast, I’m a senior year student at the Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Indiana, set to graduate in May 2023. My degree is in Broadcasting with minors in Journalism and Advertising.