Flying to Neverland with Walt

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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"All children, except one, grow up." That may seem like a perfect description of Walt Disney but it was actually written by Sir James Barrie to describe his popular character, Peter Pan.

I'll be buying the Platinum DVD edition being released this month even though I have the film in a variety of other formats—from Betamax to LaserDisc to VHS to DVD already—simply because Disney's version of the Peter Pan story is one of my personal favorites and for me, really captures the spirit of the Peter Pan story.

In addition, the latest edition will include two extras I am interested in seeing that are not available on all the other versions I have.

The story of Peter Pan was a particular favorite of Walt Disney as well. It was one of several possible feature length projects that he considered producing before he finally decided on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Walt had done preliminary work on an animated/live-action Alice in Wonderland with silent screen star Mary Pickford, had discussed doing an animated/live-action feature of Rip Van Winkle with Will Rogers and had talked with King Kong producer Merian Cooper about a possible adaptation of Babes in Toyland.

"In fact, he was working on ideas for Peter Panbefore he even began work on Snow White," animator Frank Thomas told me when I interviewed him many years ago. He and fellow animator Ollie Johnston remembered working on and off on the project for many years before it finally went into production.

However, author James Barrie was reluctant for a variety of reasons to assign the film rights after his experience with Paramount and a silent film live action version released in 1924.

In 1937, the year of Barrie's death and before the release of Snow White, a Disney memo was sent to Disney's London representative to obtain the rights to Peter Pan immediately. Walt was fearful that a competitor like the Fleischer Studio would pounce on the project once Snow White was released. Worse, Walt feared that another studio wouldn't understand the character and ruin the story. It took until 1939 for negotiations to the property to be completed with the Disney Company also obtaining the rights to the 1924 silent film version that resulted in that film not being available to audiences for decades.

"Roy and I bought the rights with the idea of making it the second full-length feature for our company," wrote Walt when the film was finally released," Actually, it was a long time before we began work on the story. In the first place, I was unwilling to start until I could do full justice to the well-loved story. Animation techniques were constantly improving, but they still fell short of what I felt was needed to tell the story of Peter Pan as I saw it."

Walt Disney had a lot more in common with Peter Pan than you might imagine. Both were boys who never grew up and soared to unlimited heights by thinking happy thoughts. Walt certainly was the leader of a band of "lost boys" and they had many adventures.

As a young boy in Marceline, Missouri, Walt and his older brother Roy saw a road show touring company of the theatrical version of Peter Pan with Maude Adams as the boy who wouldn't grow up. Colorful posters plastered on the local barns excited the young boy and his little sister, Ruth. Apparently, Walt and Roy broke into their piggy banks in order to buy tickets to attend.

The play had opened on Broadway in 1905 with Maude Adams in the title role. She later she toured the country performing in the production, including stops in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as a brief stop over in Marceline sometime between 1909 and 1911 when Walt was between the ages of 8 and 10 years old.

"For two hours, we lived in Never Land with Peter and his friends. I took many memories away from the theater with me," said Walt, "but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air. No actor ever identified himself with the part he was playing more than I. And I was more realistic than Maude Adams in at least one particular: I actually flew through the air! Roy was using a block and tackle to hoist me. It gave way, and I flew right into the faces of the surprised audience," laughed Walt about the production at Marceline's Park Elementary School.

I went to school with Christina Anderson who was the daughter of Disney live action film producer Bill Anderson. That friendship garnered me a small, non-speaking part in a Disney live action educational film. I remember one time Bill Anderson telling us that Walt wasn't quite as "flighty" as some of us thought.

"Walt never flew off to Never Land without knowing exactly where he was going," laughed Anderson.

Story development and character design for Peter Pan seriously began at the Disney Studio around 1940 with Walt planning to follow the release of Bambi with Peter Pan. British illustrator David Hall did some conceptual sketches.

Ward Kimball told interviewer Taylor White that "I can remember that it went through at least two or possibly three false starts, early on. Walt would look through the different story versions and give it the old 'ho-hum' every time. The talk among the crew at the time was either that he wasn't satisfied with it, or maybe he just wasn't ready for it. I think some people thought it was a 'sissy' story, especially with the names of the parents being Darling and with Tinker Bell scattering her pixie dust. I remember there was that feeling even before we considered making the picture that Peter Pan was a story for girls. Even when I was a kid, you'd never read a book like that."

In 1940, Walt wrote to the then-retired Maude Adams asking if she could meet with him and director Hamilton Luske to review the work they had done so far on the story. She rejected the offer and her reasons according to a letter Walt wrote to Kay Kamen were to the effect that "the Peter whom she created was to her real life and blood, while another's creation of this character would only be a ghost to her. Pretty silly and, from my point of view, I would say that Miss Adams is simply living in the past." Adams died in 1953, the year that Disney's Peter Pan was released.

In the live action segment of The Reluctant Dragon released in 1941, comedian Robert Benchley toured the Disney Studio to see how animated cartoons are made. In the model department, on a table, quite clearly, is a maquette of Captain Hook. In 1944, Simon and Schuster released a book entitled Walt Disney's Surprise Package that featured stories that were currently under development at the Disney Studio including an adaptation of Peter Pan.

Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II and the ensuing financial hardships at the Disney Studio delayed more work being done on Peter Pan. It was not until 1950, over a decade after Walt first got the rights to make the film, that the project was finally slated for production.

According to Walt, Peter Pan is "a boy who can do very strange things. He flies without wings. He is forever twelve years old simply because he refuses to grow up beyond that comfortable age. Most remarkable of all, he knows just where Never Land is and how to get there. Peter is able to do a lot of things, besides flying, that he could never do on the stage. But he's the same Peter and it's the same Never Land and the same Tinker Bell and the same Darling family we have always loved."

"Here was a story, it seemed to me, that had never been quite fulfilled despite its fabulous success on the stage, and once before on the screen. This was a story that deserved, really demanded, the added dimension of the animated cartoon. I believe that if Sir James Barrie were alive today he would write his fantastic adventure in Never Land directly for the screen. For this—particularly the animated cartoon—is the only medium which can do real justice to the quality of his spirit and his talents.

"We needed to stage wires to lift Peter Pan and Wendy and their eager co-adventurers into flight across the roof-tops. We could detach Peter from his elusive shadow with the stroke of an animator's pencil. We could make the little sprite, Tinker Bell, glow like a firefly as she darts through space and have her speak with the sound of bells. In our Never Land lagoon, the sleek little mermaids can cavort as they never could on a theater stage. Our Indians have the freedom to whoop and dance and play their parts beyond all footlight limits. Our mechanics of fantasy are certainly different from the ones Barrie had at his command 50 years ago, but I think that in some ways we have come closer to his original concept than anyone else has."

"Peter Panis a complicated story, really," stated animator Frank Thomas, "It seems so simple and direct. But who are all those characters—Nana in the nursery, the mermaids, the Indians, the Lost Boys and the pirates? There were lots of wonderful things you could do with those characters, but then before you knew it, there was too much of Nana. You had to try to keep things in proportion. I always would have liked more pirates, myself. But then, what would you have to give up? The mermaids? The Indians?"

Disney's Peter Pan opened February 5, 1953. It had cost the studio approximately $4 million to produce and in its initial release, it earned over $14 million.

Some British reviewers accused Walt of Americanizing the story. Walt responded with the following anecdote: He was walking down a street in London past a theater that was showing the film. According to Walt, he overheard two elderly ladies going in to see the film. One of them said, "Have you seen it yet? I hear it's terribly Americanized." The other answered, "Well, yes, but while you're watching it, you really don't mind it."

As I re-watch Disney's Peter Pan, I don't see the famous British character created by James Barrie. I see Walt Disney unfettered by the reality of gravity soaring from adventure to new adventure and the rest of us struggling to catch up. I see the little boy from Marceline whose imagination ignited and encouraged him to push his limits so that he fell into the laps of the audience.