Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Peter Pan

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Peter Pan

As with Alice In Wonderland before it, Walt Disney spent a long, long time bringing Peter Pan to the screen. It had been seriously considered as the follow-up to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as far back as 1935. But Walt wasn’t able to secure the rights until 1939, as part of his Snow White-financed spending spree. It would take fourteen years, many discarded drafts, and countless artists, animators and composers before Peter Pan finally premiered in February of 1953. But this time, unlike Alice, Walt seemed to think the finished picture was worth the effort.

It’s easy to understand why Walt would have been interested in J.M. Barrie’s play about the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Read any biography or watch any documentary about Walt and time how long it takes before someone refers to him as “a big kid” or something like that. He had seen the play as a child in Marceline, Missouri, and even played the title role in a school production. But despite his personal affinity for the material, it obviously took him awhile to decide how he wanted to adapt it to animation.

Some of the earliest concept art for Peter Pan was provided by artist David Hall. His work was considerably darker than what eventually ended up on screen. Walt continued trying to crack the story until the outbreak of World War II ground everything to a halt. The war years brought Disney’s studio to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing Walt to take out a massive loan from the Bank of America to stay afloat.

One of the stipulations of that loan was that the studio wasn’t allowed to put any new projects into production. They were only allowed to continue working on films that were already in progress. Even at that early date, Disney had put so much work into Peter Pan that the bank okayed the studio to keep going with it. But by the time the studio began to get back on its feet, Walt still wasn’t entirely satisfied with Peter Pan and started focusing on Cinderella instead.

By mid-1949, Walt felt the story was in good enough shape to finally give it an official greenlight. As was becoming standard practice, Walt insisted on shooting extensive live-action reference footage for the animators. Kathryn Beaumont went straight from working on Alice In Wonderland to voicing and modeling the role of Wendy. The great Hans Conried spent a few days providing the voices of both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling but was called back repeatedly over the course of over two years for additional live-action filming.

For the title role, Disney broke with the tradition of casting somewhat androgynous young women. Instead, contract player Bobby Driscoll was given the part, although he split the live-action duties with dancer and choreographer Roland Dupree, who handled the flying and action sequences. Driscoll had been 9 years old when he made his Disney debut in Song Of The South. By the time he worked on Peter Pan, he would have been around 14 and he definitely sounds like a teenager.

Bobby Driscoll and Walt Disney during the live-action filming of Peter Pan.
Bobby and Walt behind the scenes on Peter Pan.

Unfortunately, adolescence was not kind to Bobby Driscoll. For years, he had been Walt’s favorite juvenile lead. Through such films as So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island, Walt had referred to Bobby as “the living embodiment of his own youth”. But that all changed after Bobby hit puberty. Suddenly, Walt didn’t see him as the boy next door anymore. Bobby’s changing voice and a severe outbreak of acne now made Walt see him more as the neighborhood bully. In 1953, weeks after the premiere of Peter Pan, an extension on Bobby’s Disney contract was abruptly cancelled.

The next years were difficult ones. Bobby’s parents enrolled him in a public high school where his movie career made him a target. His grades dropped and eventually he began using drugs, leading to his first arrest in 1956 for possession. He started going by the name Robert Driscoll and landed a handful of roles, primarily on TV, but by the end of the 1950s, his acting career was essentially over.

In 1961, he was arrested once again and sentenced to a stint in rehab. Finding it impossible to get acting work, Bobby moved to New York where he fell in with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. While at the Factory, he displayed a talent for art and appeared in at least one last film, underground filmmaker Piero Heliczer’s experimental Dirt, alongside the likes of Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Edie Sedgwick.

But Bobby eventually ran out of money and disappeared from the Factory. His whereabouts remained unknown until 1968 when two boys came upon his body in an abandoned tenement building. The cause of death was determined to be heart failure brought about by his heavy drug use. On the day his body was discovered, Bobby Driscoll would have been 31.

Because he carried no identification and no one locally stepped forward to claim him, he was buried in Potter’s Field in an unmarked, pauper’s grave. His fate wasn’t discovered until 1969, when his mother contacted someone at Disney for help tracking him down. A fingerprint match allowed the NYPD to confirm that the body buried on Hart Island belonged to Bobby Driscoll. It was a tragic conclusion to the former child star’s story.

Peter Pan marked the end of an era in other ways, too. It would be the last animated feature distributed by Disney’s longtime partner RKO. We’ll get into the reasons behind Disney’s split with RKO soon. It was one of the last films whose origins could be traced all the way back to the 1930s. Development on Lady And The Tramp also began around that time but by the time it hit screens in 1955, it had changed considerably from those preliminary discussions.

It was also the last feature to utilize the animation talents of all nine of the legendary Nine Old Men. Les Clark was the longest tenured member of the team, having joined the studio back in 1927. All nine would continue to work for the studio in various capacities. But this would be the final film to tap into the unique alchemy that resulted from all nine working together.

If nothing else, Peter Pan is a terrific looking movie. It features some outstanding character animation and thrilling setpieces. “You Can Fly!”, featuring Peter and the kids soaring effortlessly over a beautifully detailed London skyline, is an undeniable high point. Conried, who would go on to voice some of my personal favorite animated characters including Snidely Whiplash and the MathemaGician in Chuck Jones’ The Phantom Tollbooth, is an ideal Captain Hook. He’s amusingly paired with Bill Thompson as Smee, once again doing a slight variation on his Wallace Wimple/Droopy/White Rabbit/Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore voice.

Tinker Bell is also a fine addition to the pantheon of Disney characters. Taking a character that was literally just a speck of light flitting around the stage and giving her personality and depth couldn’t have been an easy task. Doing it all without the benefit of dialogue makes the achievement even more impressive. Marc Davis animated Tinker Bell and he imbues her with a unique, contemporary style and attitude. Tink became the breakout star of Peter Pan, going on to essentially become the animated hostess of Disney’s long-running TV anthology.

In 2005, the studio finally decided to do something with Tink’s continued popularity by launching the Disney Fairies line. Unless you have kids of your own, you might not realize how massive this franchise has become. It encompasses books for a wide range of reading levels, comics, video games, and a long-running series of direct-to-video movies beginning with 2008’s Tinker Bell that finally gave her a voice (provided by Mae Whitman). DTV features are mercifully outside the purview of this column. This project is going to take long enough as it is, thanks very much. But it’s interesting to note that the Tinker Bell series has proven to be one of the studio’s most successful ventures in that realm.

Cover art for the direct-to-video Peter Pan spin-off Tinker Bell

Peter Pan did quite well during its original release. Most critics liked it and Walt himself was pleased with how it had turned out. But I’ve personally never quite connected with Peter Pan. I find the Lost Boys to be an aggressively annoying pack of urchins, not the playful scamps that Disney presumably intended. The Darling children aren’t as actively irritating but they aren’t particularly sympathetic, either. They’re just sort of blank, generic children.

Then there’s Peter Pan himself. He’s completely self-absorbed and remains that way throughout. He’s a hard hero to root for. It’s even harder to understand why every female character is obsessed with him. Tinker Bell’s jealousy over Wendy’s interest makes a little bit of sense since their relationship goes back decades or even centuries. It’s impossible to say how old a pixie and a boy who never grows up actually are. But the mermaids also fawn all over him and try to humiliate Wendy. Then it’s Wendy’s turn to get jealous when Tiger Lily makes her play. Every female character seems to possess just two emotions: blind devotion and petty jealousy.

We should also take a second to talk about Tiger Lily and the Indians. Disney indulges in pretty much every offensive Native American stereotype in the book, from the broken English to literally coloring them red. To be fair, this problem was not unique to Disney or even animation at the time. Nuanced, culturally appropriate depictions of indigenous peoples were few and far between in 1953. Still, a song like “What Made The Red Man Red?” isn’t great no matter what the context of the time.

Considering that Disney has essentially tried to erase Song Of The South from its history altogether, it’s a bit surprising that the latest Blu-ray of Peter Pan (released in 2018) doesn’t even warrant an outdated cultural depictions disclaimer (the version available on Disney+ carries one). Song Of The South is mostly offensive by omission, leaving out specific details that would have helped make the picture more palatable to modern audiences. Peter Pan is actively insulting. You can argue that the Indians aren’t meant to represent actual Native Americans any more than the Pirates are meant to realistically depict life at sea. That’s true enough, as far as that goes. But decades of being represented as literal and figurative cartoon characters is a big reason why racism against native people isn’t taken seriously.

For me, the only thing about Peter Pan that really works is the business with the Pirates, especially the cat-and-mouse game between Hook and the Crocodile. These sequences come alive with a slapstick energy that’s more akin to Looney Tunes than Disney. During one of Peter’s confrontations with Hook, they even indulge in the old cartoon standby of a fight continuing off the edge of a precipice. Hook doesn’t start to fall until Peter points down and Hook remembers that gravity is a thing. Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner made their debut in 1949’s Fast And Furry-ous. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Frank Thomas and Wolfgang Reitherman, who were largely responsible for animating Hook and the Crocodile, cribbed some inspiration from their rivals at Warner Bros.

1989 theatrical re-release poster for Peter Pan

By the time Peter Pan was released in 1953, things were changing rapidly at Disney. Up until now, this column has focused primarily on animated features. That’s about to change. From this point forward, the live-action division of the Disney studio will become a lot more active.

Walt had built his reputation on animation, both short subjects and features. But production on the shorts had already begun to slow down. By the end of the decade, the studio all but abandoned the format. Every animated feature had taken years to develop and produce. Now with the backlog of unfinished projects beginning to run dry, the wait between full-length animated features became even longer.

While he’d never abandon the artform, Walt’s interest in animation had diminished considerably. Instead, he had thrown his energy into a new project: a massive amusement park that seemed so impossibly ambitious that even his wife, Lillian, thought he was nuts to attempt it. To help pay for and promote the park, Walt embraced the new medium of television, creating and hosting a weekly anthology series on ABC. Between Disneyland, the park, and Disneyland, the TV show, Walt now had bigger fish to fry. The movies that bore his name would now have a lot less direct input from Walt Disney.

VERDICT: This is going to be an unpopular opinion but for me, this is a Disney Minus. Nothing personal if you’re one of the millions who love it.

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