Turning 70 this week, 1953’s Peter Pan is one of the most recognised and celebrated films in Disney’s original Golden Age of animation.
However, beyond its heavy nostalgia and quaint characters, this colourful adaptation of JM Barrie’s tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up has arguably come to encapsulate everything that makes Walt Disney Studios what it is today — for better and for worse.
A fitting project for Walt Disney
A story close to Walt’s heart, it was a project that he’d long wanted to bring to the screen and one that was originally intended to arrive much sooner than it did. In a case of life imitating art, the boy who’d go on to spend much of his adult life in youthful escapism became fascinated with Barrie’s story of a flying child in Never Never Land.
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This love was cemented after a young Walt saw a production of Peter Pan brought to life with his parents and brother Roy whilst attending a travelling show. Immediately captivated, he later admitted: “I took many memories away from the theatre with me, but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air.”
The experience left a mark. Maude Adams played Pan, an actor who’d go on to make the role her own by portraying him in the story’s Broadway debut. Years later, Walt would pull directly from Adams’ distinct look — complete with red hair, androgynous features and pointy, feather adorned hat — while crafting his own take on Barrie’s character.
A short time after he saw her on stage, Walt even got the chance to play Pan himself in a school play and live out his dream of flying through the air. Unfortunately, with his brother Roy manning the block and tackle pulley system, things didn’t quite go to plan: "I flew right into the faces of the surprised audience.”
Never never plans
Cut forward in time a few decades and Walt was busy revolutionising the world of animation. Following the release of his studio’s Academy Award-winning first movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the Disney brothers were eager to fulfil their childhood dream and bring Pan to screens next.
The idea fascinated them so much, they even began developing the project before the release of their inaugural film. However, due rights issues and a lack of technical progress in the animation world needed to believably bring the story to life, Peter Pan was swiftly put on the back-burner.
The emergence of World War II delayed things further but by 1947, the studio had finally secure the animation rights to the project and production on Walt’s passion project was finally underway.
Disney’s Peter Pan finally reached audiences on 5 February, 1953 and was a widely praised by the industry. Outlets called it “another Walt Disney masterpiece,” and in the decades since, its life-like animation, much-loved songs and overall embrace of the fantasy and fun of Barrie’s world have pretty much made it the quintessential Peter Pan adaptation.
It’s also a film that has come to visually define much of what the Walt Disney organisation represents today. Pan’s fairy friend Tinkerbell soon became the studio’s go-to mascot, blessing pre-film idents with pixie dust and regularly appearing at its various parks.
A generation grew up with its now-nostalgic songs and passed them down to their own kids, and the popular ride Peter Pan’s Flight remains one of the only original Disneyland attractions that’s been continually in operation ever since the California theme park’s opening day in 1955.
That said, with the good also comes the bad.
A troubled legacy
In addition to becoming the backbone of Disney’s reputational aesthetic, Peter Pan’s depiction of Native Americans also serves as one the earliest examples of the studio representing cultural or ethnic groups in a stereotypical and inauthentic light.
Alongside other infamous Disney moments like the racist portrayal of the crows in 1941’s Dumbo, the visually offensive siamese cats in 1970’s Aristocats and well, pretty much all of 1946’s live-action-animation-hybrid Song of the South, Walt’s beloved Pan shines a lot of light on the studio he worked so hard to create but is also a complicit player in a more uncomfortable past that the organisation has long had to grapple with.
It’s a topic that even its surviving animators eventually commented, with supervising animator Marc Davis admitting on the audio commentary for the film’s platinum edition that: “I'm not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this movie now. And if we had we wouldn't do them the way we did back then.”
While absent from the film’s belated 2002 sequel Return To Neverland, Tiger Lily, daughter to Neverland’s Indian chief Great Big Little Panther, is set to star in David Lowery’s upcoming live-action adaptation Peter Pan and Wendy.
With indigenous actor Alyssa Wapanatâhk due to play this role and a new take on Barrie’s classic story due out on Disney+ later this year, Walt Disney Studios’ fascination with Peter Pan has not only lasted seven decades but aims to continue into a brand new era.
Peter Pan is streaming on Disney+ now.
Peter Pan and Wendy will hit Disney+ in 2023. Meet the cast in the video below.