Original Release: February 1953
Runtime: 76 Minutes
Directed By: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Think of a wonderful thought. Any happy little thought. Got it? Are you flying yet? No? Me neither, but at least we tried right? At this point in this project, saying that a film in our lineup is one of the most iconic films we’ve watched so far seems a bit repetitive, but in this case it is extremely true. Peter Pan is a prolific film. The play, by J.M. Barrie, has had a legacy strong enough to launch dozens of retellings, remakes, prequels, sequels and spin-offs and at the center of that, the first Pan that comes to anyone’s mind when the subject is brought up is Disney’s version. Yes, Peter is a character that we all wanted to be at some point. He lives as a constant child, having nothing but fun everyday. He can fly and his friends include fairies, mermaids and other kids, just as rambunctious as himself. But let me tell you something here and now. This is a story about a little girl who sees Peter’s recklessness as a reason to finally accept growing up and for all its magic, that’s what this film is really about.
Peter Pan was originally planned to be Disney’s second animated feature but when Walt couldn’t get the rights secured, which were owned then by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the film was put on hold and Pinocchio took its place. In the meantime, the film was put through several script treatments. Like so many of the Disney’s films based on something else, the question was placed on how much would be kept similar to the original play.
Walt really wanted to be the first to show Tinker Bell as a person, rather than just a glowing light as it had been done in the play and most media before. Actually Paramount Pictures had released a silent version of Peter Pan in 1924 which featured actress Virginia Brown Faire as the little fairy in a few close up shots of the character. Sorry Disney, you were a couple decades too late. Tink is interesting historically in her own right as many people still believe that she was based on Marilyn Monroe. This, however, is more of a tall tale. She was actually based on actress Margaret Kerry who was her live action reference. She was dressed as the character and had to interact with oversized props so that the animators could capture her movements. She even recounted in an interview the fun she had trying to fit into an oversized keyhole. Not a bad job, if I do say so myself.
After several years of low revenue, the company was finally in a good place to work in Peter Pan and with the rights finally secured, production began in 1947, despite Walt’s brother Roy thinking that the film would not do well in theaters. Several scenes were changed or cut from the original play until only a few scenes remained the same. Though, one major piece of the film is taken from the play in that George Darling and Captain Hook are played by the same actor, Hans Conried.
So here’s the gist. Wendy Angela Moyra Darling is the oldest child in the Darling family. She takes care of her two brothers, John and Michael, and tells them stories while the family’s dog Nana helps keep their room cleaned up and their medicine spoons filled. The children upset their father with stories of Peter Pan and the pirates and he becomes so enraged that he tells Wendy she must no longer sleep in the nursery. It is time to grow up. That night, Peter Pan arrives and after some convincing, takes them all to Neverland where they go on a merry adventure involving pirates, mermaids and Indians. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about the Indians later.
In an early version of the script, there was an idea to have Nana go to Neverland with the children and we would actually see the story through her eyes which would have been amazing as Nana was easily my favorite character. Seriously. I think I must have some sort of disfunction or mental block because some dogs are so cute that I can’t even look at them without cackling with laughter. Nana is one such dog. Her sad face when she is dragged outside to sleep out of the house. Her longing look as the children fly off without her while she floats by her rump. Even her disagreeable eyes when her brick tower continues to get knocked over. She is just so fantastic and I would gladly take an entire movie about her.
Peter is a fantastic character but as you might expect, I like him less now that I’m an adult. He’s very inconsiderate and pushy and really thinks only of himself. He’s also a huge womanizer. He’s sort of the equivalent of those kids whose parents have a ton of money and let them do whatever they want. If he live today he’d be heavily featured on the “Rich Kids of Instagram” blog. I think as I child I always considered Wendy to be Peter’s love interest, probably in part because of the live action film Hook, but based purely on this film alone, I would tell Wendy to run for the hills. He is bad news and the only person he really loves is himself. I mean, he basically wants to kidnap her so she can tell his friends stories and be their mother. Sure, his perception of a mother is really warped, but come on. Unless I take into account other versions of this story, especially the play, I’d have to say that I would not wish Peter on any girl.
Interestingly enough, Peter was voiced by actor Bobby Driscoll but was animated using the live action reference of Roland Dupree for all his flying scenes. A dancer, Roland was able to capture the delicate movements that would be needed to fly. Bobby still stood in for the all the live action reference of everything non-flight specific.
There are many changes to the play, which I find interesting as I vividly remember these things as part of the story and always assumed they were in this film. For one, Wendy doesn’t give Peter a thimble as a kiss. I was shocked by this. For another, there is no mention of clapping to bring fairies back to life. Say what? Walt felt that this would not work as in the play it was the audience which must do the clapping. I think I remember all of this so vividly because of the Robin Williams film, Hook, and in my head these two films became one entity somehow.
A fun story about pixie dust that I just have to share. Fairy dust was originally not needed to fly in the play. The kids just thought of something magical and up they went. Fairy dust, which we now associate so closely with Tinker Bell and thus Disney, was added after several reports of children trying to fly off of beds, furniture and even balconies during the show, and hurting themselves. With the inclusion of Fairy dust, kids would understand that they were missing part of the flying formula.
Captain Hook is a fantastic villain. His motives are very clear and I think much more understandable than some others. The Evil Queen is just vain but Peter actually cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to a crocodile. That’s pretty rough and anyone would want revenge. Hook also has his own enemy in the crocodile who, much like Tink, is signaled by the rhythm of the clock which he has swallowed. The fights and chase scenes between Hook and this croc are some of the best and most fun in the film. Hook’s voice also sets him apart as every one of his lines resonates very clearly with us and no other villain quite matches his intonation.
Okay guys, time to get serious. You know I’m going to talk about these Neverland Natives. As with anything I’ll try to present both sides, but I’ll be honest, the song “What Made the Red Man Red,” is pretty rough. This song takes a whole bunch of Native American stereotypes and shoves them into one song with lines such as “Why does the red man say “How?” “When the first brave married squaw, he gave out with a big ugh,” and of course “Once the Injun didn’t know, all the things that he know now.” This is not to mention that John and Michael, along with all the lost boys, discuss what to hunt, and among bears and tigers, Indians is also an option. I’ll come clean here. These scenes made me more uncomfortable than ALL of Song of the South.
BUT, let’s keep something in mind. Political correctness was not what it is today back then. A friend of mine who recently performed in the stage musical version of Peter Pan, pointed out to me that in terms of the original play, we have to remember that these were a Victorian Scottish man’s versions of what an Indian would be. Today, we obviously know better, but at the time, information was just not as accessible. It’s hard to blame someone for making something like this when they had no possible way of knowing any better.
Hindsight is always 20/20 and even one of the animators of the film, Marc Davis, said later “I’m not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this movie now. And if we had we wouldn’t do them the way we did back then.” While I think among a present day audience, these scenes are extremely stereotypical and borderline offensive, I think that if we look at this film in the context of history, it makes quite a bit more sense. The film doesn’t really go to any level that the play does not and given that thought, it’s hard to really stay mad at the film. As creators, we can never really guess what effect our work will have 50 or 100 years later so we have to do the best with what we have.
Wendy is really the hero here. She watches these children behave out of control and sees what happens when you stay young forever and while she enjoys her last night as a child, she is ready to grow up when she gets home as we must all inevitably do. I love that I got a different message from this film as a child than I did as an adult because it shows the universality of the film.
Peter Pan was the highest grossing film of 1953 and was so popular that it was re-released in 1958, 1969, 1976, 1982 AND 1989. Several direct to DVD sequels have been released and Tinker Bell is now just as synonymous with Disney as Mickey Mouse. J.M. Barrie was an author and playwright ahead of his time and creative as they come and whether it stays perfectly to the book or not, I’m glad to see that his legacy survives for children over 50 years later in this film and for many generations yet to come. If we can think of our happiest thought, we can remember that the feeling it gives us, is the same as having wings.
Next Up: Lady and the Tramp
* * *
NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!