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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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Original theatrical release poster for The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad

Walt Disney started the 1940s with two of the most ambitious creative gambles of his career: Pinocchio and Fantasia. Neither one paid off the way he had hoped. What followed was arguably the most tumultuous decade of his life. World War II, an animators strike, and too many expensive box office flops had forced him to scale back considerably. Walt had started the decade with high hopes and big dreams. By 1949, he just wanted to be done.

Walt’s lack of enthusiasm bled over into the last few package films of the decade. The connective tissue between the segments grew flimsier as time went on. The segments themselves betrayed their origins as scraps and leftovers from other projects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the behind-the-scenes drama on Disney’s final package film, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad.

Walt’s animators first pitched The Wind In The Willows as a potential feature back in 1938. Walt was lukewarm on the idea but bought the rights to Kenneth Grahame’s book anyway. Since the Disney coffers were stuffed with Snow White money, he was buying the rights to a lot of things at the time. Production officially began in 1941 with James Algar directing. But they didn’t get far before the strike and the war caused it to be abandoned.

A few years later, Walt turned his attention back to the project. He took a look at what had been done so far and didn’t care for it. He told Algar and Frank Thomas to take another crack at it but to cut it down to the bone. If they could get it under 25 minutes, Walt would pair it up with the Mickey Mouse mega-short The Legend Of Happy Valley (soon to be renamed Mickey And The Beanstalk) and release it under the truly abysmal title Two Fabulous Characters.

But it soon became apparent that The Wind In The Willows was going to take longer to finish than anyone had anticipated. Not wanting to delay the release of the Mickey cartoon any longer, Mickey And The Beanstalk got shuffled over to Fun & Fancy Free. In need of a fabulous replacement character, Walt settled on another project that didn’t seem worth expanding to feature-length, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Not because it made a better thematic match with The Wind In The Willows. That’s just what he had left.

At some point, Disney mercifully decided to drop the Two Fabulous Characters name, although not before the phrase crept into the narration. Instead, he gave the project the slightly-less generic title The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. That’s not even the order the stories appear in the film but whatever. At this point, I’m surprised Walt didn’t call the movie Fire Sale: Everything Must Go!

(For whatever reason, Walt seemed to have a thing for that original title. Later on, he’d air an episode of the Disneyland TV series called Four Fabulous Characters that had nothing to do with any of this. Instead, it featured The Martins And The Coys and Casey At The Bat segments from Make Mine Music, Johnny Appleseed from Melody Time and The Brave Engineer short. If nothing else, Walt Disney was a firm believer in recycling.)

To narrate the stories, Walt hired two of the biggest stars he’d worked with to date. Basil Rathbone was already a highly respected actor when his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on film and radio turned him into an icon. Bing Crosby was one of the most popular entertainers in the world. Having either one associated with a Disney production must have been a huge coup.

Even though the movie was assembled in such a lazy, slapdash manner, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad ironically emerges as one of Disney’s better package films. The only real problem with it, and it’s a fairly large problem, is that the two stories could not be more dissimilar. If you’re a fan of Ichabod, it’s a chore to sit through The Wind In The Willows. And if you loved Mr. Toad, Sleepy Hollow is a jarring change of tone. Even the flow from one story to the next seems off. The British Wind In The Willows ends up as a Christmas/New Years story. The American Sleepy Hollow is autumn leading up to Halloween. Everything about the film seems backwards.

Walt’s disinterest in The Wind In The Willows may have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether his mind was on other things or he simply didn’t get it, he really wasn’t the right choice to adapt Grahame’s gentle, deeply British novel. Like a lot of adaptations, Disney decides to focus on the fun-loving, adventure-seeking Toad, although Mole and Rat are really the main characters of the book. There’s nothing wrong with that choice but it does reduce the story to a series of madcap chases. At least Walt was able to get a fun Disneyland attraction out of it.

UK quad poster for The Wind In The Willows.

For what it is, Disney’s Wind In The Willows is perfectly fine. The animation is lively and the character design is memorable. Rathbone’s narration gives it an air of English authenticity that is otherwise wholly unearned. Eric Blore, a reliably hilarious presence in such films as Top Hat and Sullivan’s Travels, is an excellent choice to provide the voice of J. Thaddeus Toad. But it’s easier to appreciate the cartoon’s strengths when viewed on its own instead of as an opening act.

Make no mistake, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow is very much the headliner of this double feature. All these years later, I would argue that it remains the definitive screen version of Washington Irving’s classic story (sorry, Tim Burton). Even though it’s lighter and family-friendlier than Irving’s original, the cartoon’s images and sounds are so indelible that they’ve come to represent the tale in the popular imagination.

On the face of it, Bing Crosby may seem a counterintuitive choice to tell the tale but it’s actually an inspired choice. Crosby had been a hugely popular singer since the early 1930s. Since crossing over to film, he had become a top box office draw and won an Oscar for his work in Going My Way. Thanks to his work for the USO during the war, he had essentially become the voice of America. In 1948, he topped polls as “the most admired man alive”. Who better to take you by the hand and guide you through a quintessentially American ghost story?

Of course, you don’t hire Bing Crosby just to narrate. You want him to sing, so Disney hired songwriters Don Raye and Gene de Paul to come up with three original songs, one for each of the main characters, Ichabod, Katrina and the Headless Horseman. Raye and de Paul didn’t contribute all that much to the Disney songbook. They’d written the song “It’s Whatcha Do With Whatcha Got” for So Dear To My Heart and would later come up with “Beware The Jabberwock”, an unused song from Alice In Wonderland. But they’re best known for future standards like “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Their pop sensibilities work well here, creating three instant earworms that suit Crosby’s style perfectly.

Album cover art for Walt Disney's Ichabod by Bing Crosby

As wonderful as the music and Crosby’s narration are, it’s the animation and design that makes Sleepy Hollow so unforgettable. Co-director Jack Kinney was the main director on the Goofy shorts and you can see the same lanky, graceful awkwardness in Ichabod Crane. Brom Bones is such an ideal caricature of a rugged he-man that the studio essentially recast him some 40 years later as Gaston in Beauty And The Beast.

And then there’s the Headless Horseman, a character who gets one of the top-five best entrances in Disney history. Only Maleficent and maybe Cruella De Vil come close to topping it. Every other character is exaggerated to some extent but the Horseman is played completely straight. This isn’t some cartoon monster. This is a demon who seriously means to cut your head clean off.

The chase sequence is a masterpiece of animation. Directors Kinney and Clyde Geronimi manage to pull off the difficult trick of making the scene both funny and frightening at the same time. Humor is a vital element in horror, helping to provide a release valve for tension. Without the business between Ichabod and his horse, this sequence would be unbearably tense for most kids.

Even with it, it’s still a lot to take. I’ve talked to plenty of people who say this movie gave them nightmares and it’s hardly surprising. This chase feels completely different from, say, the police pursuit of Mr. Toad in the previous segment. Even though bullets are flying, you’re never afraid that Toad is in danger of being picked off. You don’t have that same assurance with Ichabod and the Horseman. There’s real weight behind the Horseman’s sword.

The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad was released in October of 1949, in time for Halloween. It made some money but considering the fact that the studio had been working on it in some form or another for the better part of a decade, it wasn’t enough to recover its costs. After it completed its original theatrical engagement, the film wouldn’t be seen in its original form again for decades.

Instead, as had become common practice with the package films, the two halves were split up to air separately on TV, theatrically, and eventually on video. The Wind In The Willows debuted on television first, paired with Disney’s earlier adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Years later, it was retitled The Madcap Adventures Of Mr. Toad and released in front of the live-action comedy western Hot Lead And Cold Feet.

Sleepy Hollow had a much bigger impact on its own. Its television debut was a Halloween episode of Disneyland, for which the studio produced an introductory prologue on the life of Washington Irving. Disney has never officially released that prologue on home video but YouTube is a thing, so here it is now:

The short was released to theatres in 1963 and I can personally vouch for the fact that it became a Halloween staple of elementary school teachers throughout the 1970s and 80s. It would continue to be a part of holiday specials like Halloween Hall O’ Fame (featuring a pumpkinhead Jonathan Winters) and Disney’s Halloween Treat for years. In the early 90s, Disney finally put the original film back together on laserdisc.

VHS cover art for Disney's Halloween Treat

For too long, you could only see these films individually. Today it’s the opposite problem: whether it’s on Blu-ray or streaming, you can only access them together. Why on earth is it so difficult for Disney to give audiences BOTH options? Believe it or not, most people don’t want to make The Wind In The Willows part of their Halloween traditions. To be clear, I don’t want them to erase the original version from existence. But when a studio repurposes material as drastically as Disney has done with the segments from its various package films, the ideal presentation would include all the different variations.

Disney ended the package film years on a high note, even if that wouldn’t become fully apparent until later. At the time, I’m sure that Walt didn’t even notice. The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad had never been a priority for him. As usual, his eyes were on the future. The 1950s would be a much different decade for Walt Disney.

VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus but it’d be a Disney Double Plus if they split the segments up again.

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