In His Own Words: Walt Disney on Peter Pan

Suspended Animation #412

You never know what you might find in obscure, forgotten magazines. Walt Disney often gave interviews to magazines and local newspapers and often shared things that he never said anywhere else.

The articles that were by-lined by Walt that appeared in magazines were often massaged by the Disney Studio publicity department but anything that went out with Walt’s name on it, especially articles that were by-lined by him, had to have the direct approval of Walt himself.

With 2023 the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Disney animated feature Peter Pan, here is an excerpt from Brief magazine (Vol. 1, No. 4) April 1953 entitled “Why I Made Peter Pan” by Walt Disney:

Walt Disney: “Next to Snow White, I cared most for Peter Pan. He did not come from our well-loved story book, but my introduction to him was even more exciting. We were living on a farm, and one morning as we walked to school, we found entrancing new posters on the barns and fences along the road. A road company was coming to the nearby town of Marceline and the play they were presenting was Peter Pan with Maude Adams.

“It took most of the contents of two toy saving banks to buy our tickets, but my brother Roy and I didn’t care. For two hours, we lived in Never Land with Peter and his friends. I took many memories away from the theater with me, but the most thrilling of all was the vision of Peter flying through the air.

“Shortly afterward, Peter Pan was chosen for our school play and I was allowed to play Peter. 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.

“When I began producing cartoons, Peter Pan was high on my list of subjects. In fact, after talking it over, Roy and I bought the rights with the idea of making the second full-length feature for our company.

“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.

“What Barrie wished to do – and what we had to do in bringing his play to the screen – was to recreate a children’s world, but a children’s world in which adults could find a place.

“The difficulties of recreating the world that Barrie made were great, but they were also exciting and stimulating. And we had one great advantage over the author. He was working in the limited scope of the theater. We were making Peter Pan as an animated cartoon with complete freedom to make anything happen, even things that could only happen in Never Land.

“Barrie’s own play notations and stage directions, scribbled during rehearsals were extremely helpful to us. His concepts of the characters and their reactions to magical events and strange circumstances gave us more insight into what he had in mind than the actual dialogue and scene description.

“We felt that we had considerable leeway with the characters. From the first stage performance, they were interpreted by living players. They’ve never really been physical types. We had, therefore, to create our own concept of how they looked and talked and gestured as we translated them into cartoon personalities.

Bobby Driscoll as Peter Pan

“For the first time in the long history of the play, we have cast a boy – or at least his voice – for the part of Peter. Up to now, the role has always been played by a woman, from the first, unforgettable impersonation by Maude Adams down to the recent brilliant performance by Jean Arthur.

“But Peter is a boy, and we felt that a clear boy’s voice was needed. We cast Bobby Driscoll in the part and we think that his personality is in perfect keeping with the cartoon character.

“For the voice of Wendy, we chose Kathryn Beaumont who was the voice of Alice in Wonderland. I think you’ll like her even more as Wendy.

“We made no attempt and had no intent to hold the scope of the story to the theater-stage dimensions. We could define Never Land – which Barrie first called Never-Never-Never Land – very much as we pleased. The camp of the Indians, the pool of the mermaids, the trails of the Lost Boys, the lagoon of the pirates’ ship, the cave and Skull Island and all the mysterious landmarks of Barrie’s fanciful geography – all could be established with our own imaginations.

“There is no miracle the mind can conceive that the cartoon animation technique cannot create. We needed no stage wires to lift Peter 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 animator’s pencil. We could make the little sprite, Tinker Bell, glow like a firefly as she darted through space and have her speak with the sound of bells.

“In our Never Land lagoons, 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.

“I really believe that if Barrie were alive today, he would write his fantastic adventure in the Never Land directly for the screen. Despite his canny stagecraft, the theater never quite satisfied him. He kept on groping for the devising new effects behind the footlights as long as he was associated with the staging. He added and eliminated characters all the time. He never seemed to have enough props. With us, the sky’s the limit.

“We have been in actual animation for more than two years now and we have nearly a million separate drawings of scenes and characters by several hundred artists.

“It is the greatest pleasure to me, now, to be able to make Peter fly wherever he wants to go, for as long as he wants to stay there. You can rest assured that no wires will break and not ropes will snap. Peter will go zooming through the air with the greatest of ease over movie screens all over the country.

“I think you’ll like seeing him in your movie theaters. He’s 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 that we have always loved.”