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