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From the current AUTUMN 2023 Issue

A salute to Walt Disney's Peter Pan


By Ellery LeSueur


The year is 1910 and it’s a cold day in the small town of Marceline, Missouri. At the local elementary school, an imaginative boy dons a cap and green tunic for his school’s performance of Peter Pan.

The boy’s name? Walt Disney.

For both the real boy and his fictional counterpart, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Since novelist J.M. Barrie introduced us to the boy who never grew up, the story of Peter Pan has remained as young and fresh as its title character, jumping from one adventurous adaptation to another with effortless grace. For many people, of course, the most famous version of the story is Walt Disney’s animated feature, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Walt Disney’s ambition to bring Peter Pan to life was born when he was a child and saw a touring production of the play based on Barrie’s novel. Young Walt was smitten and often spoke afterward of what it was like to see children just like him leap into the air and fly.

Walt and his brother quickly convinced the class at Park Elementary School in Marceline that they should stage their own production of Peter Pan — the 1910 production cited above — in which Walt, naturally, played the title role. Rumor has it that the production even had Walt soaring around the stage on a rope. One can imagine the delight in young Walt Disney’s eyes, just as any child would show when pretending to be their hero.

Skip ahead a generation to 1937. Walt Disney is now running his own animation studio and preparing to make the first feature-length animated film ever — and naturally, he thought of Peter Pan. The character had made his cinematic debut in 1924, thanks to a live-action silent film that starred Betty Compton; however, a full-length, completely animated film was another thing entirely.

It fell to Walt’s ever-pragmatic brother Roy to talk Walt down from that particular ledge. The limited technology of the time period and the modest resources available to the young Disney studio were clearly at odds with the story’s fantastic demands. Roy feared that attempts to create realistic flying characters and an appropriately awe-inspiring Neverland would not only inflate the film’s cost, but also extend the production schedule to impractical lengths.

These were among the reasons that Disney passed on Peter Pan and selected Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for the studio’s first major feature. When it was released at the end of 1937, it was hailed as a true marvel in its own right. In fact, it became one of the pillars on which the Disney studio were built.

The unparalleled success of Snow White seemed to be the perfect catalyst to spur on Walt’s dream production of Peter Pan — until war constraints entered the picture.

As America entered World War II, Disney – like every studio at the time – was obliged to shift focus onto the more popular, budget-conscious fare that wartime demanded. One wouldn’t have been surprised if the newly-successful Disney studio had forgotten its early dreams with the onset of the war and shelved the story of Peter Pan for good.

Happily, that was not the case, although it was another sixteen years between Snow White and Peter Pan. However, clear evidence suggests that Peter Pan was a project in constant development throughout that time. In fact, the Disney studio actually acquired the license to adapt Peter Pan as early as 1939 and more than likely would have been able to produce an adaptation much earlier had the war not intervened.

Throughout the 1940s, the studio quietly continued to explore how to make the concept come to life. A particularly fascinating clue about the production of Peter Pan can be found in The Reluctant Dragon, a live action-animation hybrid film from 1941. This forgotten Disney film is essentially a fictionalized “tour” of the newly-constructed Disney studios, occasionally breaking away to show us a handful of cartoon shorts that were “in production” at the time of filming. Several segments whisk the viewer into rooms used for animation, including a drawing class and the offices of the storyboarding departments.

Although most of the interiors were actually filmed on soundstages rather than the actual Disney studio, much of the set includes decoration from real ongoing Disney projects, including visible character designs, concept art and animation maquettes for an early concept of Peter Pan.

Perhaps the most shockingly recognizable image is the maquette sculpture of Captain Hook, who appears with his trademark black wig and mustache. It’s a remarkably similar design to the finished look of the character as he would appear in the actual animated film twelve years later.

Strangely enough, The Reluctant Dragon — and other package films like it resulting from wartime constraints — likely helped the film adaptation of Peter Pan in the long run. Such films acted as a bridge that provided content for the studio until the technology was able to catch up to the creators’ imagination. Only then could the animators and production crew bring us the weightless flying effects and fully developed Neverland that Walt had always hoped for.

The Disney studios finally released their version of Peter Pan on February 5, 1953. From the time of its release onward, the film has become an iconic symbol for the Disney studio. To this day, Peter Pan is one of the few characters who regularly appears “in person” within the Disney parks. In addition, the story of Peter Pan was the inspiration for one of the first original rides that were part of Disneyland when it opened in 1955. It remains one of the Disney parks’ most popular attractions.

Disney’s version of Peter Pan defined the character for countless generations; if you ask someone to draw what they imagine the character to look like, you’ll certainly be staring at a boy in a green tunic with a red feather in his cap. Just as important, the film’s success coincided with a renewed interest in the character — an interest that continues to this day.

Disney’s cinematic version of Peter Pan coincided with two attempts to bring the eternal boy to Broadway. There was a 1950 stage version (with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein) that ran for nine months, with Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook. Even more successful was a 1954 musical that starred Mary Martin and included music and lyrics from Broadway titans Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Of course, one reason for the show’s success was the sensational live production that NBC presented in March 1955. It was the first full-length Broadway musical presented on television in color.

The Broadway production, which featured a completely separate musical score from Disney’s version, sets itself apart with its equal-parts beautiful and riotous songs alongside unbridled theatrical energy. So beloved was Martin’s portrayal of Peter Pan that she returned to television two more times (in 1956 and 1960) to star in restaged versions of the musical.

The musical was revived for both stage and television, with Sandy Duncan and later Cathy Rigby playing the iconic role. A former Olympic gymnast, Rigby’s portrayal of the character was strong, athletic and utterly winsome, accompanied by a newly revived production which made everyone — children and adults alike — sure that they’d visited Neverland at least once before in their dreams.

Seeing how the revival managed to combine an updated production with the timeless story, A&E produced a recording of the Broadway show for television. This special is the only television production of the musical ever done in front of a live theater audience. (The show was staged again in 2014 on NBC, with Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Hook.)

Shortly after the Cathy Rigby television production, the Disney company created an animated sequel to Peter Pan. In 2002 — 49 years after the release of the original film — Disney released Peter Pan II: Return to Never Land. The sequel celebrates the original film’s first half-decade of enchantment by bringing back the familiar characters and stylings of the original animation. The story revolves around Wendy’s daughter Jane, who is kidnapped by Captain Hook and taken on her own adventure with Peter Pan.

Interestingly, the beginning of Return to Never Land is set in London during World War II, giving the story a darker tone — and, whether intentional or accidental, offering a nod to the conditions that delayed production on the original Peter Pan film. Although Return to Never Land did not enjoy the fame or prestige of the original, much of the film is made with such reverence — particularly through the uncanny voice performances, which match the original — that it does truly take the viewer back to the beautiful Never Land of five decades earlier.

The following year saw Peter return to the big screen for a tender, romantic live-action film starring Jeremy Sumpter, the first boy to ever play Peter Pan in a live-action version of the story. The 2003 production was nothing short of marvelous, utilizing state-of-the-art flying stunts and special effects while successfully retaining the heart of Barrie’s original production. In an almost magical twist of fate, Jeremy Sumpter’s birthday happens to land on February 5 — the same date when Disney first released its own version of Peter Pan in 1953.

Disney’s done its part to make sure audiences remember the magic of this story; 2023 saw the debut of Peter Pan & Wendy on Disney+, a live-action remake of the studio’s animated classic. For this version, Alexander Molony and Ever Anderson played Peter and Wendy, with Yara Shahidi as Tinkerbell and Jude Law as Captain Hook.

On a normal anniversary, one celebrates the passing of time. However, given that Peter Pan is about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, it seems we have come to this milestone to celebrate that no time has passed at all. That is the magic of Peter Pan. His story, which has captivated audiences since 1902, seems poised to captivate the young and young at heart for at least another seventy years — and maybe longer. After all, there will always be a place for Peter Pan, as long as there is faith, trust and pixie dust.

Tune in to Radio's Golden Age on November 26 to hear the Lux Radio Theater production of Peter Pan.


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