The Main Reasons Walt Disney Loved Peter Pan
Did you know that one literary character (Peter Pan) mattered more than all others to Walt Disney? The legendary filmmaker had a knack for telling stories about all manner of characters. He generally drew ideas from fables, but one of his favorites came from a contemporary work.
Disney was born in 1901, and the character would appear in a book in 1902. It quickly became a sensation among children of Disney’s era, something it has maintained to this day. Here is the behind the scenes story of Peter Pan that will help you understand why he was Walt Disney’s favorite character.
An Eventful Play
One of Uncle Walt’s favorite memories from his childhood was a performance of Peter Pan. At the time, traveling shows were arguably the most popular form of entertainment, as the movie era was still a couple of decades away from ubiquity. At the age of nearly 10, Walt and his brother Roy convinced their parents to watch a show that they’d seen advertised in town.
The play was Peter Pan, and the actress portraying the title role was Maude Adams. You may know this name or at least think that you do. Maud Adams (note the spelling) was a Bond Girl on two separate occasions, playing different roles in Octopussy and The Man with the Golden Gun. Walt Disney’s Maude Adams was among the most successful play actors ever. She portrayed Peter Pan in one of the earliest Broadway presentations.
Her visiting Marceline, Missouri, was an understandably huge deal that profoundly impacted Uncle Walt. Decades later, he would happily recount the play, stating: “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.”
Disney would later live out this fantasy when he played Peter Pan in a school play! It was to him what Harry Potter was to many children over the past 20 years. In a way, Maude Adams’ work as Peter Pan on that day is a key reason why the world still knows and loves the character today.
Disney Planned the Movie for Years
From the time that Uncle Walt opened his animation studio, the creator had a plan for Peter Pan. He knew the story that he wanted to tell, one that had coalesced in his head when he was performing in that school play. He faced a problem, though. It’s one that pops up from time to time in Disney history.
I’ve previously discussed Space Mountain, the ride that was too technologically advanced to build. Imagineers had to wait a decade for computer processing power to catch up to their needs. Unbelievably, the same situation was true of Peter Pan. Walt and Roy Disney worked on Peter Pan even before they produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!
Disney trivia buffs are a bit blown away by this revelation. Snow White became Disney’s first film upon release in 1937. Peter Pan wouldn’t come out until 16 years later in 1953. In fact, the company didn’t even own the licensing rights to create Peter Pan until 1939. None of this stopped the Disney brothers from dreaming, though. They’d thought about this film since approximately 1910. Even when they couldn’t officially make the movie, it was always in the back of their minds.
What caused the delay? Uncle Walt, the person at the forefront of animation technology, believed that the medium couldn’t satisfy his lofty goals for Peter Pan. Specifically, creating a believable Never Land and realistic flight weren’t possible yet. Imagineers repeatedly tried to come up with something that would satisfy their boss, but they lacked the requisite animation tools at the time. Then, World War II and its aftermath delayed production further. For a while, Disney fretted that his Peter Pan movie might never get made.
Telling the Right Story
Before the delays, Walt and Roy debated which film should come first between Peter Pan and Snow White. Once they picked the latter, they prepared as if Disney’s second animated movie would be Peter Pan. Roy soured on the idea over time, as he realized that J.M. Barrie’s tales of the character were somewhat ambiguous.
Barrie based the character on his brother, who tragically died the day before his 14th birthday. As a coping mechanism, the family referred to their lost son as “forever a boy.” Rather than mess with the sentiment, Barrie respectfully chose never to describe Peter Pan’s appearance in detail. He was similarly open-ended about other characters in the tale. The Disney brothers needed to fill in these spots to present Peter Pan appropriately.
Animation gave Imagineers the upper hand relative to plays. They just needed to expand their imaginations a bit. Historically, Tinkerbell was represented on stage as a ball of light. The film version became the first time that she took on a human appearance. Disney could also animate actual crocodiles, even making the most famous (and dangerous) one cute in some instances.
While the team needed nearly 15 years to tell the story the right way, their decisions ultimately redefined animation. As much as any film in the early Disney library, Peter Pan proved that anything was possible. And it reaffirmed that the Disney brothers sustained their childhood throughout their lives, never losing that sense of whimsy or that love of the magic of Pixie Dust.
The Ride Came Soon After
Peter Pan debuted in theaters on February 5, 1953. Disneyland opened to the public on July 17, 1955. Even today, this sort of turnaround between a movie and an attraction is rare. How did Imagineers pull off such a spectacular feat? They learned something during the production of Peter Pan. What worked for the film could work for a ride, too!
Peter Pan the movie dramatically improved on the play presentation of Peter Pan. Cast members deduced that the same would be true of an attraction. They could recreate the entire world presented in the books, only better. Peter Pan’s Flight brilliantly brings to life the Darling children’s bedroom, the London skyline, and the impossible realm of Never Land.
Thanks to an unprecedented ride cart, the attraction even fulfilled Walt Disney’s lifelong wish of flying. In that way, Peter Pan’s Flight based off of Peter Pan the movie perfected the ideas presented in Peter Pan the play that Uncle Walt had watched as a boy. It was a dream brought into reality.
PS: Here’s one final fact about Peter Pan the play that you will find incredible. Maude Adams earned more than one million annually as she toured the country. That’s the equivalent of $27 million today! No actor on Broadway earns more now than Maude Adams did more than 100 years ago. It’s understandable why her work as Peter Pan affected Walt Disney so much. He saw one of the most famous people in the world on that day.
PPS: One other unheralded fact about Peter Pan is how Disney acquired the rights. J.M. Barrie had died in June of 1937. The author had watched from afar as cinema ascended. He understood both the unprecedented popularity of filmmaking and the appeal that his story would have.
As a final gesture of goodwill toward all, Barrie willed the copyright to his book to Great Ormond Street Hospital. To acquire film licensing rights, Walt and Roy had to negotiate with the hospital rather than Barrie’s estate. They successfully did so, but the Peter Pan copyright has become one of the most debated legal topics in Great Britain over the past 35 years.