December is a month of many happenings and events. First and foremost is Christmas, a time to gather together with family and loved ones. It is also a time when many big movies hit theaters. It also happens to be the month that Walt Disney was born (December 5, 1901). And so, in honor of Walt’s 116th birthday, it’s time to take a trip back to 1953. This was a year of major historic events: Ian Fleming published James Bond’s first adventure Casino Royale in the UK, National Publications (DC Comics) and Fawcett Comics settled out of court on the issue of Captain Marvel being similar to Superman, and in February of 1953, Walt Disney’s animated feature Peter Pan opened to rousing success.
The Walt Disney Company has grown into a major entertainment giant. Boasting a stable of hit animated and live action feature films, the company also holds the rights to Marvel Entertainment and the Marvel heroes, plus Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise, not to mention the various Disney theme parks across the world, TV shows, video games, etc. But none of that would have been possible without Walt and the work he did to make the company what it is today.
Walt Disney is one of the classic American success stories. Born in Chicago, IL to parents Elias and Flora, the majority of his childhood was spent in Missouri, though in 1917 his father would move the family back to Chicago. It was there that Walt would develop his interest for art and cartoons and meet his first business partner/collaborator Ub Iwerks. Flash forward to 1953, and the release of Peter Pan. By this point Walt Disney was a household name. His animated films were making money and the various shorts starring Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and other figures were hits with all ages. In doing Peter Pan, Walt took another classic children’s tale and brought it to life through the wonder of animation. Part of that success came from the voice cast (especially in the case of the three primary characters) and what went on behind the scenes.
Choosing voices to bring cartoon figures to life requires a lot of choosing. In the voice of Peter, Walt found Bobby Driscoll. Bobby was a known figure to Disney, having starred in several of his live-action films, including Song of the South, So Dear To My Heart, and Treasure Island. Bobby embodied all the qualities of Peter: young energy, spontaneity and brash. In giving Peter a voice, Bobby helped set the precedent for all future animated versions of J. M. Barrie’s youthful hero.
Wendy Darling was given a voice courtesy of Kathryn Beaumont. Having previously voiced Alice for the company’s 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, Kathryn was the ideal pick. Like with Alice, Wendy had a strong and mature voice, that was still tinged with elements of childhood. This would be to a huge advantage for the plot when Wendy and her brothers make the decision to return home.
Captain Hook is one of children’s literature’s most famous villains. For a figure of that kind of importance, the studio found its choice in veteran movie and radio actor Hans Conried. Hans gave great life to Hook, making his portrayal very iconic for the vileness and also silliness he projected. Fulfilling a tradition dating back to the original stage play, Conried also provided the voice of Mr. Darling, making him another in the long list of actors to take on the role of both father and Neverland’s greatest evil.
Walt Disney’s style of making animated movies is one that lead to great success during his prime. The actors would first shoot all the scene work with film cameras in costume to a pre-recorded dialogue track. This aided the animators in making sure that the movements of the cartoon people were as smooth and life-like as possible. There is a lot of complex history behind the production of the movie alone. For everyone’s enjoyment, here is the ‘behind-the scenes’ video from the 45th anniversary re-release of Peter Pan.
One of the major themes of the story, stage play and Disney’s feature film, is that of growing up and embracing adulthood. Peter may be the hero of the story, but in a lot of ways he is also like one of its villains. He may not be a rogue like Captain Hook, but think on this. Peter wants Wendy and her brothers to stay in Neverland and always be kids and have fun. While this is fine at first for John and Michael, Wendy has already been dealing with some of the pressures of having to grow up. Being told that she has to move out of the nursery into her own room, and no more bedtime stories serve as the catalyst for her decision to fly away with Peter. They are also anchors to bring her back home. The biggest anchor is that of her parents after all the fun and excitement of Neverland wears off. Peter is utterly resistant to the idea of her leaving, vocally stating his contempt for the idea of adult life and growing up. Yet in the end, while Wendy and her brothers go back to London, it is the movie’s final scene with all the Darlings watching Peter and the Lost Boys fly off on the pirate ship that gives Wendy that brief glimpse of what it truly means to be an adult.
With all her adventures with Peter, it is her father’s words that help Wendy see that growing up doesn’t mean giving up on all the joys of childhood, but using them to become a loving parent and husband or wife. That is perhaps the greatest message of this story, that growing up is not bad, but just as magical as youth.
Walt Disney was many things: a businessman, a father, a husband, a patriot. But he was one thing above all else….a storyteller. Some of the finest films produced by the company were during Disney’s life and his tenure as head of Walt Disney Studios. While there have been countless other great features over the decades (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Moana, Frozen, etc.), the movies that set a major foundation-stone for future works came about during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Walt helped give imagination and the business of cartoons and animation a real foothold in the halls of Hollywood power. So this week, whether watching Peter Pan, Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs or any of the Disney hits Walt directed, remember the memory of this great man, this ambassador of children, king of cartoons and above all else, Imagineer supreme.