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Disney Canon Countdown 14: ‘Peter Pan’

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We’re continuing our Rotoscopers Disney Canon Countdown, as we explore each entry in the pantheon of Walt Disney Animation Studios, from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs all the way through this November’s release of Moana. Today let’s break down Disney’s ultimate adventure: Peter Pan.

With its 1953 release, Peter Pan came at an intriguing point in Disney history. As we’ve seen in our Canon Countdown thus far, the studio was recovering from its post-war era of package films and was back in the business of making full-length features. Peter Pan was the third of these after Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, and it seems that Walt was at a point when he could put much of his personal passions into his work. Peter Pan comes on the brink of an ambitious time for Disney, both the company and the person. He was experimenting with television specials as vehicles for film promotion, and within the next few years would launch the Disneyland weekly series and The Mickey Mouse Club. Then, of course, there was the imminent progress and preparation for the Disneyland park, unarguably Walt’s most personal project ever. We see that same thread of bold career projects sparked by personal aspiration in the decision to develop Peter Pan during this same time. As a boy, Walt himself played Peter in a school version of J.M. Barrie’s classic play, and the embodiment of childhood and imagination that the character so expertly embodies is undoubtedly stayed with Walt throughout his career. After attempting to get the film off the ground over a decade earlier, the 50s was an opportune time to finally produce Peter Pan.

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In elsewhere connection to the Disney stable at the time, this was definitely an era of pooling voice talent the studio had prior experience with. As such, the Peter Pan cast is an all-star ensemble of personalities who had worked or would later work with Disney in other pictures. Peter is Bobby Driscoll, who already headlined Song of the South (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1949), and Treasure Island (1950) for Disney. Wendy is Kathryn Beaumont, synonymous with Alice in Alice in Wonderland (1951). Playing dual duty as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling (keeping the tradition established in Barrie’s play) is Hans Conreid, who would later play Thimblerig in the Davy Crockett television serials. The most esteemed Disney veteran among the cast, though, is Bill Thompson, who at this point had already played the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, and would soon voice King Hubert in Sleeping Beauty (1959), Ranger Woodlore in the shorts showcasing Humphrey the Bear, and nearly half the cast of Lady and the Tramp (1955), but more on that in our next Canon Countdown!

Peter Pan marks the last Disney entry that all of the legendary Nine Old Men contributed to together. The craft in their work is evident throughout the entire film. The skyscape during the London flight sequence is positively breathtaking, a picture-perfect postcard moment. The standout performance of Tinker Bell as a pantomime character is delightful as it brings animation to its silent roots while simultaneously advancing the craft through its pioneering style and technique, brought to life through Marc Davis’s animation and Margaret Kerry’s live-action reference footage. Even while presenting a world that is distinctly fantastical and imaginative, the artistry remains beautiful.

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That word—imaginative—is indicative of what makes Peter Pan such a long-lasting beacon of not just the Disney legacy, and not even just literature, but of the idea of imagination itself. These characters have become such archetypes of what they represent: Peter as adventure, Tinker Bell as fantasy, Wendy as youth, Captain Hook as villainy. In 1953, the Barrie play was well-known, and the Disney film was not the first introduction to this world for many people in the audience. Today, there are numerous other well-known adaptations of Peter Pan, and the Disney film is not the only isolated exposure that the public has to this story. The characters and themes are familiar from other outlets, yet in holding up for over six decades, Disney’s Peter Pan remains a golden sample of this story in its purest form. Peter is adventure. Tink is fantasy. They represent these characteristics to the very point that they define them, and over the years have been used as icons for those words. Their true impact is not really in the film itself, but in stepping back to look at the bigger picture and how they’re infused elsewhere in Disney’s own media. Even being a boy, Peter is almost a patriarchal figure for adventure in the Disney theme parks. And you don’t need reminding whose sparkle of Pixie Dust welcomes audiences into countless Disney productions emblazoned with that castle logo. Though the 1953 film is undoubtedly important, the ultimate legacy for the characters comes through what they’ve come to be associated with after the fact.

It helps that the film presents such a diverse property from which to develop further projects. This starts with 2002’s direct sequel Return to Never Land (which, curiously, aligns Peter’s personality with the slightly more mature, leader figure he’s seen as in the parks and decidedly not portrayed as in 1953), but goes far beyond that. You can take this franchise in so many different angles, and Disney has. There was the Disney Fairies boom of recent years, with six direct-to-DVD Tinker Bell features produced by Disneytoon Studios. There was Peter and the Starcatchers, the series of youth adventure books from Disney Editions that acted as a prequel to Peter Pan and went on to inspire a live show from Disney Theatrical. Then there’s the pirate angle, taken advantage of when Pirates of the Caribbean was all the rage and still in use today through the Disney Junior series Jake and the Never Land Pirates, for which Hook and Smee are series regulars and other Pan characters make special appearances.

There’s a lot to love about this gem from the ’50s, this favorite that connects audiences across vastly different fan communities, from Disney to animation to literature. In its simplest explanation, Peter Pan is an escape. In a world that can be a troubling reality, the spirit of Never Land can sometimes be exactly what we need.

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For more Peter Pan goodness, check out the Rotoscopers’ Animation Addicts Podcast Episode #97.

Do you enjoy Disney’s adaptation of ‘Peter Pan’? What do these characters symbolize to you?

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About Blake Taylor

Blake is a scriptwriter at Elevation Church, where he develops documentary shorts and creative elements as part of the film team. He graduated Appalachian State University studying Electronic Media Production and is an alumni of the Disney College Program. Blake’s favorite films are Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and Toy Story 3. You can find him on Twitter (@blake_242) and visit his blog at blakeonline.com.
  • Manuel Orozco

    I like Peter Pan as much as Alice in Wonderland! They are both full of fun, color, playfulness and laughter. Captain Hook has to be one of Disney’s funniest antagonists! I love Tinker Bell’s solo movies and she deserves her mascot title alongside Mickey and Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio. I’ve seen two other versions of Peter Pan over the years the 2003 live action film from Universal/Sony and the recent LIVE NBC musical remake that starred Allison Williams, Christopher Walken and Christian Borle from Peter and the Starcatcher. The Disney live action reimagining that is in development should be interesting as well.

  • Dan Siciliano

    I really like “Peter Pan” but I’m really split on it as a whole.

    WHAT DO I LIKE: I’m glad they brought back Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy, even though her part is not as big as Alice. Really enjoyed the parts with the pirates, especially with Hook and Smee, plus the crocodile. And two and a half songs I really love: “The Elegant Captain Hook”, “A Pirate’s Life” and the second half of “You Can Fly” (The first part was kind meddling in a way.)

    WHAT DON’T I LIKE: Throughout the film, there is this talk about what’s it really like to have a mother. And that leads to not only one of the worst Disney songs in my list but also one of the saddest songs I have heard that makes me depressed…”Your Mother and Mine”. That song always makes me worry about what would happen I lose my mother too early in life. That song made me really upset when I was 8 years old on Mother’s Day. But as long as I don’t listen to that song, I just hope I am with my mom until the end.

  • VoiceTalentBrendan
    • Sebastian

      Oh I really like those bright colors that used to be on vhs it made even old movies look like they came from the early 90s.

  • Rachel Wagner

    Great article! I didn’t know that about Walt playing Peter Pan as a chld. I am mixed about Peter Pan. The artistry and most of the songs are really good and the slapstick humor can be very funny. I am just not a big fan of the Redman song and don’t like how mean everyone is to Wendy for no reason.

    • Jackson Staninger

      Wendy’s torment is the point. When you really think about it the movie’s about her. Peter Pan and Neverland are similar to that of Thomas Moore’s Utopia. In that their philosophy (never grow up) is nice but really unobtainable. So the reason why Neverland is quasi nightmarish is that it represents the dangers of not growing up. Something the Disney version throws out the window.

      • Rachel Wagner

        Hmm. That’s a very interesting take on the film. So Wendy being treated badly is kind of the dark side of Utopia?

        • Jackson Staninger

          Well sorta….. Peter Pan being a jackass is meant to represent the dangers of not growing up, Wendy realizing that leads to her realizing the importance of growing up, among other things (in the book anyway)

          • Rachel Wagner

            I can see that.

  • I just adore Peter Pan, really wish I grew up with watching this non stop when I was younger, I was only beginning Middle School when I first saw this 🙁
    But nonetheless this movie is so much fun and definitely very memorable indeed! ^.^

  • Ryan Prieto

    Peter Pan really captured my attention as a youngling. I used to watch it over and over again. It’s a young child’s dream. Pirates, Indians, and exploration all placed in one magical island. The concept of flying was awesome as well.

  • Jackson Staninger

    This is a personal favorite. But I can’t help but feel this movie would be on par with something like Snow White if it were smarter.
    to me, this movie is to it’s predecessor, Alice in Wonderland, what Naussica is to Princess Mononoke: it’s a less good version of the same thing. Alice is better looking, takes bigger risks, the female lead (who is voiced by the same person who does Wendy) is much more interesting and developed, and it’s smarter with adapting it’s source material. Peter Pan has muted colors, Wendy has little to no arc, and it’s just a straight romanticized version of Barrie’s Play/book.
    Peter is ultimately not Disney’s smartest movie. I think anyone over the age of 20 knows that the temptation of not growing up is dangerous. And while he’s likable, Peter Pan doesn’t exactly make an ideal “hero”, sure he is a child, but he represents also the dangers of not growing up.
    The book includes these two aspects, but the problem is not so much that it’s in the book and not in the movie (Something I would never do because they are two different mediums), but rather that there is something this movie is lacking that I don’t think we notice until we get older. Instead of representing the joys and dangers of a child, he’s more like a jerk with no consequences. If this movie was smarter with telling it’s story, we could have something as brilliant as Pinocchio, Dumbo, or even Alice in Wonderland. So give or take, I can see why this movie is not exactly a critical gem. But I have a soft spot for the fairy tale of the child who goes through a magical journey, from Spirited Away to Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s impossible for me to resist. Dated? Sure. Superfluous? Maybe. But it’s a personal favorite.

    Also, I don’t know if you mentioned this, but Walt Disney actually hated this film! Sure he had a history with it, but he felt that the final product wasn’t very good.

    • Dan Siciliano

      I think part of the problem that Walt Disney didn’t care about this film was that he was trying to put so much heart in this film so the audience can feel for the main character, like he did on “Snow White”, “Pinocchio” and “Bambi”, but like his reaction to “Alice in Wonderland”, he felt that there wasn’t enough heart in the film.

      • Jackson Staninger

        I always thought that was a harsh criticism for Alice.
        1. The Whole Point of Alice in Wonderland is that it appeals to the intellect, not the heart. Saying the story sucks otherwise is like saying “I don’t like Frozen because Elsa doesn’t have a love interest: 1. that’s the point 2. If you did add that you would just take away a part of what made it so unique/make it more traditional. Who want’s that!
        2. I find Alice very interesting and sympathetic. She has more of a rounded personality, the first and last until maybe Ariel for female leads, and who can’t relate to someone who struggles with being an adult and being responsible.

        • Dan Siciliano

          I quite agree.

  • Jackson Staninger

    BTW:
    I do love Tinker Bell (THIS version of Disney’s Tinker Bell anyway)
    But I’m sick of Disney’s marketing her as the ideal feminist archetype for all time (like how DC portrays Wonder Woman). She’s just as sexist as Snow White or Ariel, just a different Stereotype.