The magic of Peter Pan restored for 60th birthday

2013-03-18 00:00

ONE of my prize possessions as a child was a vinyl record of the Walt Disney classic, Peter Pan. Even now, decades later, I can still remember the words to songs like The Second Star to the Right, You Can Fly!, A Pirate’s Life, Following the Leader and What Made the Red Man Red?

Those songs and the magical animation of the original film have been digitally restored and re-released in a limited-edition DVD as part of the celebrations for the movie’s 60th anniversary.

Originally released in 1953, Peter Pan remains one of the studio’s most popular classics and, like the title character himself, seems to never grow old.

The seeds for making a film were sown when Walt and Roy Disney watched a stage version of James M. Barrie’s classic story. Walt later recalled: “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.”

Not long afterward, he got to experience this exhilaration first-hand when he landed the plum role of Peter Pan in his school play.

In 1939, Walt arranged with Great Ormond Street Hospital in London — to whom Barrie bequeathed ownership of the play — to acquire the rights to the show, which had been filmed once before in 1924 with Betty Bronson in the lead role.

Story development and character design began at the studio in the early forties, but the outbreak of World War 2 and its ensuing financial hardships, among other factors, caused Peter Pan to be sidelined for almost a dozen years. It was finally given the green light in 1950 and, on its release three years later, proved to be a hit.

The voice cast included British-born Los Angeles resident Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy, the eldest of the Darling children. She was just 12 years old when she was personally chosen by Walt to be the voice of Wendy, having previously provided the voice for Alice in his animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Beaumont, who was honoured by the Walt Disney Company in 1998 when she was proclaimed a “Disney Legend”, also portrayed Wendy on film, but only for the benefit of the Disney animators, as a live-action reference for their work. She had to pose, act out and portray Wendy in various scenarios, including flying through the air using cables and harnesses.

“Working at Disney was a very happy experience,” she said. “It was also a wonderful learning experience working not only on the audio part, but dressing up in costumes, as I did for both Alice and Wendy, and acting out the part for the cameras.”

Beaumont said the animators often invited her up to their studio, where they would flip their drawings for her. “For the character of Wendy,” she said, “they wanted a characterisation different from Alice. She wasn’t the practical little girl that Alice was, because she was growing up and trying to be demure. This all had to come across in her voice. When Wendy got excited, she would act like a little girl again. The writers built up dialogue for these moments.”

The design and personality of Captain Hook was another innovation for the studio. Animator Frank Thomas explained: “Captain Hook was a new type of villain for us. We had never caricatured a villain that much before. He could be ruthless, but you could also laugh at him.

“As animators, we were tired of heavy, menacing villains like the Queen in Snow White and the stepmother in Cinderella. We were amazed that we could go so far with Hook and make him so funny. It sort of changed our thinking about villains from then on.”

Another critical character for the film was Tinker Bell, a major catalyst for much of the film’s action who ultimately saves the day in a daring rescue.

The animator primarily responsible for establishing the look and personality of Tinker Bell was Marc Davis. He said: “Our intention was always to make her attractive. She is basically a jealous woman and that is what motivates all her actions. The pouting aspect of her personality was suggested by Barrie.”

To help Davis visualise Tinker Bell’s complex antics, a petite young actress-dancer named Margaret Kerry was called in to act out the scenes on film.

“One of the greatest misconceptions about Tinker Bell is that she was modelled after Marilyn Monroe. There is no truth to this. Margaret Kerry was our only live-action reference and she was a tremendous help in allowing us to rough out the action,” he said.

Tinker Bell and Hook are now among a pantheon of iconic characters at the House of Mouse, and fans of Disney Junior will know that both characters make frequent appearances courtesy of J

ake and the Neverland Pirates and the Disney Fairies series.

• The 60th anniversary edition of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale is part of Disney’s Diamond Collection, which includes Cinderella, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Peter Pan, available on DVD and Blu-Ray, includes the features You Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan; In Walt’s Words: “Why I Made Peter Pan”; The Peter Pan Story; a deleted scene and song and lots more.

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