March to Disney: The Advances of Peter Pan


Last year to coincide with a trip to Walt Disney World in March, I decided to have a month-long focus on Disney fare. Their vaults are vast and varied enough such that this is a theme that could recur annually. Below you will find links to the inaugural posts written for the theme.

Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan (1953, Disney)

Walt Disney’s production of Peter Pan is one that seems like its oft overlooked. That is why I a glad that it has recently come back up in the Disney rotation both with a Blu-ray release and also with a new Disney World attraction. Of course, the story is one that is universally known and beloved, but what can be lost with such a ubiquitous narrative is the distinguishing characteristics of each individual rendition.

Disney, from 1938 to its eventual 1953 release, dedicated himself to bringing this story to the silver screen anew in a version unlike anything anyone had yet seen. It’s ingenious but sometimes it takes a genius to think of something so ingenious: even in the 1950s the only way to bring forth a revolutionary interpretation of this story was to animate it.

With the conventions of stagecraft being stripped like actors flying on wires, an actor in a dog suit, a light as Tinkerbell and a girl playing Peter; the easiest way to changes these things, things that occurred on screen in the silent era, was to draw it.

The recycled documentary on the Blu-ray (it was on the DVD release as well) does well to highlight that the animators in this film had the brand new challenge of attempting to depict weightlessness of the human form. For to be able to fly, a person had to also be able to float.

Disney to this point, and past it in its history, used live models regardless, but never had their role been as pivotal as it was here for the animators through them were given guidance, and a frame of reference without the constraint of cameras rolling and a production around them, as to how to create said effect.

Peter Pan (1953, Disney)

The actors ability to pantomime for the animators was just one thing that had to be taken into consideration. Casting in this day and age at Disney was a multi-faceted process. Typically, animators were usually dealing with specific characters so they too had to “cast” so to speak. Yet, there was also the voice aspect to consider. Here there were a few inspired choices made.

First, there was Hans Conreid, who was most notably a radio actor, in the tandem roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. There is a duality to his voice and so much emotion that he can emit through it that makes it one of the more indelible performances in the Disney canon. It is also rightly noted that Bobby Driscoll, although Disney’s first contract player and roundabout the right age for the part, was still the proper choice. Sure, it was the easy choice but it was the correct one. It was his Disney swan song, and perhaps his most lasting turn.

Also interesting to note here, in hindsight, that some of the concept art was darker than what Walt eventually approved for use in the film. Especially considering that it seems that P.J. Hogan’s sensibility in his ’03 live action version is closer to those original concepts. While it would’ve been great to see those things drawn by the talented hands at Disney un-softened. I look at it more as a calculated decision by Walt rather than softening for softening’s sake.

There is still in this story the threat of death and of growing up being flaunted in the face of children. Hook’s menace is quite real and present, thanks in large part to Conreid. Therefore, the visuals needn’t be as harsh as initially designed to get the message home. The emotions desired will still be elicited. Also, at a young age kids don’t necessarily consider stylistic choices. The danger, the emotions in general, are generated by the characters how they act and interact rather than the atmosphere.

What Walt Disney’s Peter Pan is most definitely Disney’s version of the narrative but also one that is progressive in terms of altering, and depending on your opinion, correcting prior conventions of this particular narrative. Like many things in the canon there are the iconic moments, namely Tinkerbell who became part of the Walt Disney Pictures logo. And she should be, since the first cinematic image of the character was his creation. However, in that logo she blends with Cinderella’s castle and is removed from her original context. The context being this film, which in spite of its changes and quirks is one of the true Disney masterpieces. A labor of love unquestionably re-branded, but also indebted to its source, and one that should live in the consciousness of children and children-at-heart for generations to come.