THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Peter Pan’

The one that taught us to never grow up.

After the relatively muted response to Alice in Wonderland, Walt Disney Productions were again in dire need of a critical and commercial hit. As fate would have it, that very film would be based on a story permeating in Walt Disney’s imagination since he was a child. In Walt’s younger years in Marceline, Missouri, he attended a travelling production of J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up and was immediately enthralled.

Several years later, Walt starred in an elementary school production of the play in the lead role and strongly identified with the perpetually youthful protagonist. When later asked of his performance, Walt recollected his kinship to the role by stating, “No actor ever identified with the part he was playing more than I.” It was an affiliation which followed him for the rest of his life with Walt essentially becoming the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Right from the early days of Walt Disney Productions, Walt had longed to adapt Barrie’s play into a feature-length animated film. In 1935, with production on Snow White and Seven Dwarfs well underway, he openly expressed his desire for Peter Pan to be the studio’s second animated feature film. As fate would have it, Walt would be forced to wait another 18 years for his dream to come to fruition, namely due to rights issues.

When Barrie died in 1937, he left the rights to both the play and subsequent book of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. In conjunction with Barrie himself, Paramount Pictures had produced a silent film adaptation in 1924 and still currently held the live-action films rights. As such, the hospital first suggested Disney collaborate with Paramount on an animated feature, which Walt naturally declined. However, in 1939, Disney finally obtained the animation rights and immediately put the adaptation into production.

At this point in Disney’s history, the studio was already drowning in animated feature projects with Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo all currently in production. While an early story reel of Peter Pan had been produced utilising concept art, Walt simply couldn’t spare any of his animators to take the production further, leaving it stuck in pre-production limbo.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America’s subsequent entry into World War II, all future animated feature film production ceased and Peter Pan was shelved indefinitely. It wasn’t until 1947 that Walt was able to plan Disney’s return to full-length animated films with three potential choices for their revival film; Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.

Walt felt animation technology and the skills of his artists hadn’t progressed sufficiently to properly produce the sequences within Peter Pan, especially given his animators hadn’t crafted a full-length animated feature film in over five years. Peter Pan was undoubtedly a passion project for Walt and he wanted to get it right. It wouldn’t be until May 1949 that Peter Pan would finally be placed back into production with an intended release date in early 1953.

Working from the typically-colourful concept art of Disney Legend Mary Blair, Walt once again turned to his “Nine Old Men” to bring the animation of Peter Pan to life. It would mark the final collaborative effort of the entire team, with the nine animators continuing to work for Disney for decades to come, but never again as one complete unit on the same film.

For the voice actors, Walt cast several performers the studio had previously worked with. Bobby Driscoll, the young star of Song of the South and Treasure Island, was cast as the voice of Peter, marking a departure from stage adaptations where the role was traditionally played by a female. Not to bring the mood of this piece down, but the post-Peter Pan life of Driscoll is rather tragic. After his career declined in the 1950s, Driscoll became addicted to heroin and died in 1968 at the age of just 31.

Two of the voice actors from Alice in Wonderland were again utilised. Kathryn Beaumont, who had voiced the role of Alice, was hired to voice Wendy, while Bill Thompson, who had voiced the role of White Rabbit, was hired for the voice of Mr. Smee. Radio and stage actor Hans Conried was cast to voice both Captain Hook and George Darling, in keeping with the tradition of the stage play where one actor would portray both characters.

As with previous Disney animated features, Walt employed the use of live-action recreations in the Disney studio to stand as references for his animators, with Driscoll, Beaumont, and Conried performing key segments from the film in full costume. Margaret Kerry served as a live-action model for the hot-headed silent character of Tinker Bell, often interacting with oversized props to accurately reference the scale of the tiny fairy. Take a look at this article for several fascinating behind-the-scenes photos.

To keep Peter Pan to a relatively brief running time of 76 minutes, the writing team dropped numerous backstory elements of Barrie’s play, with the entire narrative now taking place over the course of one evening. This changed the central conceit of the film to being more dreamlike, echoing a similar narrative to that of Alice in Wonderland, leading to an ambiguous ending which doesn’t necessarily answer if the adventures of Wendy and the Darling children in Neverland were a dream or reality.

When Peter Pan was in early pre-production in the 1940s, perennial Disney composer Frank Churchill wrote several songs for the film, but only “Never Smile at a Crocodile” survived once the film recommenced production in 1949, minus the lyrics written by Jack Lawrence. Instead, Walt turned to Broadway composers Sammy Cahn and Sammy Fain to write the film’s soundtrack, with Oliver Wallace providing the score. The melody for “The Second Star to the Right” was originally written by Cahn and Fain for Alice in Wonderland, but was reworked for use in Peter Pan. Surprisingly, the film failed to receive Academy Awards nominations for either its score or its songs.

Peter Pan opened on February 5, 1953, to mostly positive reviews, although some critics took exception with the liberties Disney had taken with Barrie’s original work. New York City film trade journal Harrison’s Report declared the film “another Walt Disney masterpiece,” while Variety described Peter Pan as a “feature cartoon of enchanting quality.” The response from the public was equally rapturous with the film taking over $7 million in domestic rentals in its initial run. Disney was back in the black.

While Peter Pan is one of Disney’s most cherished properties, it has long suffered from its now uncomfortably outdated depiction of Native Americans, particularly the garish song “What Made the Red Man Red?” where the lyrics imply their “red skin” is a result of their persistent pursuit of women. The exaggerated character designs played on racist stereotypes and the savage chief of the Indians is portrayed as a latent sexist, all played for laughs by white voice actor Candy Candido.

As with any of Disney’s now culturally-outdated depictions, it’s easy to dismiss these creations as a product of their time. Native Americans were still fighting for civil rights in the 1950s and it would be another decade before any progress would be made. While these stereotypical characters are also present in Barrie’s play, Disney made the decision to continue their use in this adaptation and they deserve to be held accountable for such a baffling artistic choice. In later years, animator Marc Davis would state his personal embarrassment and regret over the depiction of Native Americans in his work. The film now carries a disclaimer on Disney+ stating it “may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

In the decades that followed its release, Peter Pan has become one of Disney’s most profitable and beloved titles, namely due to Tinker Bell becoming a breakout star of her own, with spin-off movies and a hugely successful line of merchandise. Alongside Mickey Mouse, Tinker Bell is now a symbol of the Disney corporation itself, often used in commercials, television shows, and Disney Parks attractions. For a character who never utters a word and is genuinely mistreated for most of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell is perhaps the most memorable aspect of this film.

Personally, I have never particularly warmed to Peter Pan. Despite its gorgeous animation and beautiful music, Peter is a fairly unlikeable protagonist who treats both Wendy and Tinker Bell rather poorly and spends most of the film acting like a petulant brat. Perhaps it’s entirely intentional, as a means of displaying why refusing to grow up is not a path children should follow. But it creates a Disney lead character who’s difficult to connect with, which is obviously a problem, given he’s front and centre for 95% of this film.

Regardless, Peter Pan still stands as one of the most beautifully animated films of this era. The gorgeous flight over London is an iconic moment planted in Disney infamy and Peter’s swashbuckling battle with Captain Hook is fabulously thrilling. Hook may not be one of Disney’s most terrifying villains, but his character design is a work of art. The film’s songs have become classics in their own right and Tinker Bell rightfully rose above this film to become an icon of Disney lore, cementing Peter Pan as one of Disney’s most successful achievements.

Is Peter Pan a Disney Classic? It may not be a personal favourite of mine, but you cannot deny the cultural impact of Peter Pan. Its legacy is almost unrivalled in Disney’s history, making it clearly worthy of consideration as a Disney Classic.

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