Tales of Walt’s Peter Pan
In April 2016, the Disney Company announced that, in the spirit of recent releases like Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book, they are proceeding with a live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated version of Peter Pan. This version will be handled by director David Lowrey and screenwriter Toby Halbrooks whose version of Pete’s Dragon will be released this summer.
Disney has quite an extensive list of animated new kids films that they have announced as being adapted to live-action including, Beauty and the Beast, Cruella, Maleficent 2, Dumbo, Mulan, Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, Genies, Night on Bald Mountain, and The Sword in the Stone. All of them are in various stages of development or production.
Walt Disney, not Peter Pan, was truly the boy who never grew up. Disneyland was once described as the biggest toy for the biggest boy in the world.
When Disney’s animated feature film Peter Pan was released on February 5, 1953, it became one of Disney’s biggest hits in its initial release and contributed significantly to the Disney Studios’ economic recovery that had begun a few years earlier with the success of Cinderella (1950).
It took roughly three years and approximately $4 million to make the film, but in it first six releases, it made more than $145 million and when it was released for the first time on video in September 1990, it quickly climbed to the No. 1 spot and remained in Billboard’s top 10 best-selling videos for quite some time.
Walt began talking about doing an animated version of Peter Pan as early as 1935, two years before the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). However, it wasn’t until 1939 that Disney was able to secure the rights to make an animated feature based on Barrie’s classic story.
In 1937, the year of Barrie’s death and before the release of Snow White, a Disney memo was sent to Disney’s London representative to obtain the rights to Peter Pan immediately. Walt feared that when Snow White came out and was successful that prices for similar properties would soar sky high, just like Peter himself. Also, Walt worried that his rivals might obtain the rights and would also ruin the project by not understanding what made it magical.
When Walt finally was able to purchase the screen rights in 1939 from London’s Hospital for Sick Children (later known as the Great Ormond Street Hospital), the charity to which Barrie had bequeathed the rights, story development and character design for Peter Pan seriously began at the Disney Studios in the early 1940s with Walt planning to follow Bambi with Peter Pan according to a publicity release.
In 1940, Walt wrote to actress Maude Adams, who was renowned for her portrayal of Peter and who Walt had seen perform in the role when he was a young boy to see if she would review a scenario the studio had developed for the animated feature. Adams didn’t even want to see it feeling that it would just be a “ghost” compared to her definitive stage version. She died in 1953, the same year that the film was released.
Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II and the ensuing financial hardships of the studio delayed more work being done on Peter Pan and many other projects until the late 1940s.
Based on Sir James Barrie’s popular play Peter Pan (1904) and his subsequent book version, the film tells the story of Peter Pan, the magical boy who wouldn’t grow up, who takes Wendy, John, and Michael Darling to Never Land to battle Captain Hook and his pirates and have adventures with the Lost Boys, Indians and mermaids. Peter’s pixie friend, Tinker Bell, is also along to add to the mischief and excitement.
To try to capture the spirit of the story of Peter Pan, Walt veered from some of the traditional stage traditions like the audience clapping its hands to revive Tinker Bell. Walt realized that while that moment was emotionally effective for a live stage audience that audiences in a movie theater would respond differently.
Other changes included the Lost Boys remaining with the Darling family. Walt also borrowed some elements from the silent-film version, released in 1924, (just as he have borrowed from the silent-film version of Snow White for his animated version) that had Barrie as a consultant, including the flying pirate ship at the end and showing Tinker Bell as a person rather than just a ball of light.
Walt Disney’s version of Peter Pan is the only one where Captain Hook is missing his left hand. In the original theatrical and film versions of the story, Captain Hook is missing his right hand because that was his sword hand and he was using it to poke Peter with his sword which is why Peter was forced to cut it off. The Disney animators felt a right hand was more expressive in showing emotions so a switch was made and there were no complaints from the audience.
The melody for the song “The Second Star to the Right” was originally written for a song titled “Beyond the Laughing Sky” that was never used in the Disney animated feature Alice in Wonderland (1951).
The songs from Peter Pan were not major hits, but did skillfully help move the story along. Interestingly, one song that gained some popularity as a novelty tune was “Never Smile at a Crocodile,” written by Frank Churchill with lyrics by Jack Lawrence. The lyrics are never sung in the film. Just the melody is used to announce the presence of the crocodile. Churchill had written the song more than a decade earlier and had committed suicide so never heard it in the final film.
Peter Pan would be the last Disney animated feature film in which all nine members of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men worked together as directing animators. Kathryn Beaumont, who did the voice for Alice in Alice in Wonderland, also supplied the voice for Wendy.
“She wasn’t the practical little girl that Alice was because she was growing up and trying to be demure. When Wendy got excited, she would act like a little girl again and just rattle away,” said Beaumont when the film was first released.
Margaret Kerry, Connie Hilton and June Foray (who would later voice Rocky the Flying Squirrel) provided both the voices and the live-action reference for the mermaids. Kerry also provided the live-action reference for Tinker Bell.
The use of Bobby Driscoll was publicized as being the first time a young male had played the role of Peter Pan. Margaret Kerry told me: “For his age—he was one of the first young actors that I ever worked with who thought about what he was saying. It was not just getting the line out… he thought it through and you can hear it in his voice in Peter Pan. …He was ready to give that little extra on everything that we did. We had lots of fun. He was remarkable.”
Disney Legend Frank Thomas told this story in 1997:
“Walt once told us a story about something that happened to him during a trip to England. He was walking past a theater in London, where Peter Pan was being shown. He stopped for a minute and overheard two ladies talking about the film.
“One of them said, ‘Have you seen it yet? I hear that it’s terribly Americanized.’ And the other lady said, ‘Yes, it is, but you know, when you see it you don’t mind that so much.’ When Walt heard that, he said he couldn’t wait to come back to the Studio and tell us.”
The opening narration in the film is read by actor Tom Conway, the brother of actor George Sanders who would later provide the voice of Shere Khan.
Peter Pan was entered in competition at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, and though it did not win any awards, it won the hearts of the Cannes festival goers.
More than 60 years from its first release, Disney’s version of Peter Pan continues to enchant audiences and to remind them that with a little faith, trust and pixie dust, their hearts can take wing to a Never Land of adventure and happiness.
Earlier, I shared another Walt by-lined article on Peter Pan from The American Weekly magazine supplement for newspapers dated June 1, 1952 and titled “My Plans for Peter Pan.”
You might notice that Walt included some of the same phrasing and ideas that appear in the article by-lined by him as well that I am sharing today. That was not unusual for Walt which is why there are sometimes different versions of Walt’s quotes on the same topic and sometimes different sources cited.
From Brief magazine (Vol. 1, No. 4) April 1953. “Why I Made Peter Pan” by Walt Disney:
“The world of make-believe has always delighted and absorbed me, ever since I was a little boy. And I know exactly how my interest started. It began when I was a child, one of five in our family. Every evening after supper, my grandmother would take down from the shelf the well-worn volumes of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. We would gather around her, the two youngest children on her knees and listen to the stories that we knew so well we could repeat them word for word.
“After my grandmother’s death, my mother continued the evening story hour. It was the best time of the day for me and the stories and the characters in them seemed quite as real as my schoolmates and our games. Of all the characters in the fairy tales I loved Snow White best, and when I planned my first full-length cartoon, she inevitably was the heroine.
“Next to Snow White, I cared most for Peter Pan. He did not come from our well-loved story book, but my introduction to him was even more exciting. We were living on a farm, and one morning as we walked to school, we found entrancing new posters on the barns and fences along the road. A road company was coming to the nearby town of Marceline and the play they were presenting was Peter Pan with Maude Adams.
“It took most of the contents of two toy saving banks to buy our tickets, but my brother Roy and I didn’t care. For two hours, we lived in Never Land with Peter and his friends. I took many memories away from the theater with me, but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air.
“Shortly afterward, Peter Pan was chosen for our school play and I was allowed to play Peter. No actor ever identified himself with the part he was playing more than I—and I was more realistic than Maude Adams in at least one particular: I actually flew through the air! Roy was using a block and tackle to hoist me. It gave way, and I flew right into the faces of the surprised audience.
“When I began producing cartoons, Peter Pan was high on my list of subjects. In fact, after talking it over, Roy and I bought the rights with the idea of making the second full-length feature for our company.
“Actually, it was a long time before we began work on the story. In the first place, I was unwilling to start until I could do full justice to the well-loved story. Animation techniques were constantly improving, but they still fell short of what I felt was needed to tell the story of Peter Pan as I saw it.
“Not until 1947 did we begin production. When we finally sat down to go to work, we faced a real challenge. Peter Pan is a work of sheer magic, and you do not create magic to order. We had, somehow, to recreate the essence of make-believe, and do it in such a way that millions of people who have known and loved Barrie’s play since it was first performed in 1904, would recognize it and approve of what we had done.
“We found the key to our approach in the words of Barrie himself: ‘Nothing of importance ever happens to us after we reach the age of 12’. And he also once wrote the heartfelt plea, ‘Oh, that we might be boys and girls all our lives’.
“Packed into these two sentences is the secret that the author had found—the understanding that no experience of our grown-up lives can equal the experience of the child, to whom everything in the world is bright and new and full of wonder.
“What Barrie wished to do—and what we had to do in bringing his play to the screen – was to recreate a children’s world, but a children’s world in which adults could find a place.
“As a reminder of the difficulty of building this kind of illusory world, our research told us how Barrie himself was in an agony of nervousness on the historic opening night of his play in London. He was afraid of the ‘gallery gods’, the tough-minded spectators in the cheap seats.
“But he worried needlessly. When the audience was asked from the stage the now-famous question, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’, they rose to a man to shout ‘Yes!’
“Peter Pan’s first success then was with grown-ups, the sophisticated first-night audience and the adult theatergoers, who came on the nights that followed. Not for several days did any children see the play. But when they did, they claimed it for their own and ever since Peter Pan has been something unique in the theater: A fairy tale for children and adults.
“The difficulties of recreating the world that Barrie made were great, but they were also exciting and stimulating. And we had one great advantage over the author. He was working in the limited scope of the theater. We were making Peter Pan as an animated cartoon with complete freedom to make anything happen, even things that could only happen in Never Land.
“Barrie’s own play notations and stage directions, scribbled during rehearsals were extremely helpful to us. His concepts of the characters and their reactions to magical events and strange circumstances gave us more insight into what he had in mind than the actual dialogue and scene description.
“We felt that we had considerable leeway with the characters. From the first stage performance, they were interpreted by living players. They’ve never really been physical types. We had, therefore, to create our own concept of how they looked and talked and gestured as we translated them into cartoon personalities.
“For the first time in the long history of the play, we have cast a boy—or at least his voice—for the part of Peter. Up to now, the role has always been played by a woman, from the first, unforgettable impersonation by Maude Adams down to the recent brilliant performance by Jean Arthur.
“But Peter is a boy, and we felt that a clear boy’s voice was needed. We cast Bobby Driscoll in the part and we think that his personality is in perfect keeping with the cartoon character.
“For the voice of Wendy, we chose Kathryn Beaumont who was the voice of Alice in Wonderland. I think you’ll like her even more as Wendy.
“We made no attempt and had no intent to hold the scope of the story to the theater-stage dimensions. We could define Never Land – which Barrie first called Never-Never-Never Land—very much as we pleased. The camp of the Indians, the pool of the mermaids, the trails of the Lost Boys, the lagoon of the pirates’ ship, the cave and Skull Island and all the mysterious landmarks of Barrie’s fanciful geography—all could be established with our own imaginations.
“There is no miracle the mind can conceive that the cartoon animation technique cannot create. We needed no stage wires to lift Peter and Wendy and their eager co-adventurers into flight across the roof-tops. We could detach Peter from his elusive shadow with the stroke of animator’s pencil. We could make the little sprite, Tinker Bell, glow like a firefly as she darted through space and have her speak with the sound of bells.
“In our Never Land lagoons, the sleek little mermaids can cavort as they never could on a theater stage. Our Indians have the freedom to whoop and dance and play their parts beyond all footlight limits.
“Our mechanics of fantasy are certainly different from the ones Barrie had at his command 50 years ago, but I think that in some ways, we have come closer to his original concept than anyone else has.
“I really believe that if Barrie were alive today, he would write his fantastic adventure in the Never Land directly for the screen. Despite his canny stagecraft, the theater never quite satisfied him. He kept on groping for the devising new effects behind the footlights as long as he was associated with the staging. He added and eliminated characters all the time. He never seemed to have enough props. With us, the sky’s the limit.
“We have been in actual animation for more than two years now and we have nearly a million separate drawings of scenes and characters by several hundred artists.
“Actually, our preparations extend back for as many years as I have considered putting Peter Pan into animated form. As I have said, Peter has been a special pet of mine almost from the beginning of our feature-length production.
“It is the greatest pleasure to me, now, to be able to make Peter fly wherever he wants to go, for as long as he wants to stay there. You can rest assured that no wires will break and no ropes will snap. Peter will go zooming through the air with the greatest of ease over movie screens all over the country.
“I think you’ll like seeing him in your movie theaters. He’s able to do a lot of things, besides flying, that he could never do on the stage. But he’s the same Peter and it’s the same Never Land and the same Tinker Bell and the same Darling family that we have always loved.”
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