Using Tinker Bell To Shake Magic Into Everything: Disney’s Peter Pan

Back when he was a boy, Walt Disney caught a traveling production of Peter Pan, and was instantly captivated. A few critics even later claimed that Walt Disney had been a little too captivated, creating a life that focused more on childhood than on growing up—even if this life and artistic choice ended up working to his financial benefit. Regardless, Disney planned very early on to do a full length animated feature film for Peter Pan. It would, he thought, be his second film after Snow White. Or perhaps his third film, after Snow White and Pinocchio. Or—as the film continued to linger in development hell—his fourth? After Fantasia?

Or, well, as it turned out, the 14th, not released until 1953.

Part of the problem involved the eternal issue facing any Peter Pan production: copyright. J.M. Barrie had left the rights to the book and play to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, who wrangled with Disney for four years over the rights to Peter Pan. (This wrangling was not limited to Disney.) By the time Disney obtained the rights, the animators were struggling with Fantasia, Bambi and (in a separate area of the studio) Dumbo, with no time to think about yet another production, especially with Bambi already so badly over budget and behind schedule. Disney was also dealing with grumbling animators, who went on strike on May 1941. Later that year, the Pearl Harbor bombing dragged both the United States and Disney into World War II. Peter Pan was placed on hold, although some early concept art for the film can be seen in The Reluctant Dragon.

Even after the studio began its post war recovery, Peter Pan lingered in development. The flying sequences and special effects needed for Tinker Bell and the pixie dust immediately made it more expensive than either Cinderella or Alice in Wonderland. The overall look was tinkered with, completely changed, tinkered with, and completely changed again: comparing the original, dark, terrifying concept art by David Hall with the brighter, softer look created by Mary Blair gives an immediate sense of the problems involved. (If you’re in the Orlando area, Disney’s Hollywood Studios currently has reproductions of the David Hall concept art on display in their animation area.) The animators also struggled with the story. Several initial attempts to provide more of a prequel were eventually dropped: the animated film starts in about the same place as the play and book, though several changes were made, sometimes to the detriment of both story and character.

pan-shadow

In the film, for instance, the entire story takes place in a single evening, from the time that Mr. and Mrs. Darling get ready for their dinner party until their return. Setting aside, for a moment, the logistical difficulties involved in flying all the way to Neverland, meeting mermaids, defeating pirates, and getting in a few other adventures in just a few hours—since, to be fair, this is also all squeezed into a 76 minute film—this robs the story of the grief of the Darling family, and also robs portions of the story of any sense whatsoever. For example, little Michael forgetting his mother makes sense in the book: he hasn’t seen her for months at that point, not to mention that he’s been underfed, forced to zip up and down a tree trunk, and gotten nearly killed by pirates. It’s amazing he can remember Wendy’s name. In the movie, however, this side comment makes no sense; they’ve only been gone for two hours. Unless Peter Pan is a lot more sinister than he seems. More on this in a bit.

The shortness of their stay may explain another change: in this film, the Lost Boys stay in Neverland instead of returning to London. And we don’t really get their names, or much of a sense of their personalities—though that’s true of some of the stage adaptations as well. That short stay allowed the film to imply that the entire trip was nothing but a dream. Not only did it happen in the space of a single evening, but when the Darlings return, they find Wendy sleeping on the window sill. Her attempt to explain what happened sounds even less coherent than Dorothy’s attempt to retell her dream at the end of Wizard of Oz. But that possibly is immediately countered by another change to the original story: the Darlings see the pirate ship flying in the sky. Probably. They at least see something that looks like a pirate ship flying through the sky, so let’s say it’s Peter Pan, probably to convince the adult Darlings that yes, something really did happen while they were out partying.

pan-nana

Other changes included having Nana, not Mrs. Darling, capture Peter Pan’s shadow—which explains why the Darlings are so willing to head out to a dinner party that night. In the play and the book, they are aware that someone is trying to get into the nursery, making that decision seem callous at best; this change definitely improved the parents, at least. Disney also added a rather heartbreaking moment when Michael, one of the few characters in the film with an actual heart (another reason I can’t buy the forgetfulness about his mother) attempts to bring Nana the dog along with them by sprinkling pixie dust on her—by, I must admit, using Tinker Bell as a sort of fairy salt shaker after seeing Peter Pan do the same thing. Alas, Nana is tied up, which means that she ends up rising up and and up then, well, bouncing there like a forgotten balloon, unable to go to Neverland. It’s pretty horrifying, and in retrospect it’s not surprising that it’s one of only two scenes that I remember from my first viewing.

The other: the genuinely lovely bit where the children fly over London, and Peter Pan, because he’s a jerk, changes the time on Big Ben, ensuring that no one in London will be sure of the right time until that gets fixed, like, THANKS PETER.

It’s one of many ways where Peter Pan is even more awful in the film than he is on stage or even on the book. It’s almost as if each successive incarnation gets more and more horrified by the concept, and focuses on the worst part. In the case of Disney’s Peter Pan, it’s several things: the way, for instance, he hangs around the nursery not to hear stories about Cinderella, but about himself. The way he immediately insults Wendy. Or the way he basks in the adoration of nearly every girl and woman in the play—with the exception of Mrs. Darling, who never meets him, but definitely including the mermaids, here more than willing to flirt with Peter, in stark contrast to their depiction in the book, and also in stark contrast to the bafflement over kissing and romance shown by his stage and book personas, and the firm statement in the books that Tiger Lily is just a friend. Or the way he then plays the various girls against each other.

pan-mermaids

And, of course, picking up Tinker Bell by her tiny foot and physically shaking her over things to coat them with pixie dust, like, Tinker Bell, why the hell are you hanging out with this guy? He’s awful. He’s awful to you, and that’s not even including the way he pays attention first to Wendy and then immediately ignores her the second the mermaids start flirting with him and then repeats this again with Tiger Lily (upsetting Wendy with this last one) and AUUGH PETER my toleration is rapidly vanishing.

I guess, if nothing else, this does provide a good example of just why growing up might be a good idea—which brings us to Wendy. Here, the film made several changes. Not to her benefit: her ongoing jealousy over Peter, and her striking inability to speak coherently on more than one occasion. And I really have to question her assumption during the second pirate encounter that yes, of course, Peter will save them all. But to her benefit, the film focuses more on her than on Peter: in many ways, this is the story of Wendy realizing that yes, she does have to grow up, and accept her father’s dictate that she leave the nursery for her own room. (Also, Wendy, you have only two siblings now, but your mother is still young and attractive: grab that solo bedroom while you can.) She gets an adventure, and a character arc. And in the end, she’s happy to grow up and have her own room. It’s her choice, far more than it was in the book or play.

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But that just causes more problems with the concept of Peter Pan. In the book, Peter Pan isn’t just a creature who doesn’t grow up—he’s someone who apparently can’t grow up—and who has some not at all residual anger about this. His reactions to Wendy’s stories about mothers are telling, and both play and book present the final ending as simply the way things had to be. Barrie, with no sentiments about either childhood or growing up, kept his ending bittersweet.

Disney, however, wants to suggest that Peter Pan isn’t just the boy who never grows up—he’s the boy who chooses never to grow up. Which creates all kinds of problems with the ending. It’s one thing to have the Peter Pan of the play and book return to Neverland because he must. It’s another thing to have Peter Pan gleefully decide to return to a land where he will never need to grow up in a film that’s simultaneously trying to tell us—through Wendy—that growing up is a good thing. Girls have to grow up, and that’s good, boys—might not need to, and that’s good too, I guess?

It doesn’t exactly help to remember that the child actor who voiced Peter Pan, Bobby Driscoll, did not adjust at all well to growing up, dying of drug related causes at the far too young age of 31.

So, er, now that I’ve introduced unpleasant topics, the Indians.

pan-indians

This was one aspect of the original story that Disney did not change, except to arguably make it worse. Granted, the film at least clarifies that the ongoing fights between the Lost Boys and the Indians are usually only a game, with the winners always releasing the losers in the end, before completely reversing that by having the Chief threaten to burn the Lost Boys alive if Tiger Lily isn’t returned—even though the Lost Boys had nothing to do with that. I suppose I can also give Disney credit for at least eliminating the word “pickaninny” from the screenplay (thank you for small favors) though changing this to “Algonquin” does not really help all that much. Nor does having John talk about the Indians as if they are interesting bugs, like, ouch.

It’s one thing to give a pass, to an extent, to a Scottish writer sitting in London creating an imaginary world based on children’s games that he had witnessed in London, which in turn were based on sensationalized, stereotyped accounts of pioneer encounters with various Native American groups, James Fenimore Cooper novels, and early Westerns. It’s another thing entirely for a group of animators living in California to produce something like this, with stereotyped drawings, “heap big” language, a cartoon war dance featuring a song called “What Made the Red Man Red,” and something even Barrie didn’t do: state that the Indians are not just savages, but sexist savages, who force Wendy to go fetch firewood while the other boys have fun.

Animator Marc Davis later stated that he regretted these sequences and their implications. Somewhat remarkably, however, given that the company edited out four racially stereotyped shots from Fantasia and continues to suppress the original version of Song of the South, apparently under the (so far, successful) hopes that most of us will only remember that film for “Zip-a-Dee-Dah,” Disney has left these sequences in, unedited. I’m not entirely sure what we can take from this; the song, especially, is not really necessary to the narrative, serving no real plot purpose other than to hurt Wendy’s feelings. I’ll note, however, that the sequel, Return to Neverland, leaves these characters out entirely, as does the Disney franchise spinoff, Disney Fairies.

pan-crocodile

I suppose it’s fortunate that the most memorable parts of the film have nothing to do with those scenes, or even with the blatant sexism of portions of the film, but rather the flight over London, the banter between Smee and Captain Hook, the crocodile, and the first fight between Peter Pan and Hook. That fight, by the way, rather strongly suggests that Disney animators had taken the time to study the competing works of animator Chuck Jones, with at least four shots inspired by Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. That fight also makes the second confrontation between Hook and Peter Pan pretty boring in comparison, but at least the crocodile gets to show up again and get a bit of exercise.

I found myself cheering on either Michael or the crocodile, instead of any of the main characters, which probably says a lot about me. Or perhaps it says something about the film itself, which, apart from the London flying scene and that first encounter between Hook and Pan, often feels oddly flat. Perhaps because this story had already appeared on stage, with live actors with moving faces: almost any animated version would feel flat in response, and an animated version struggling to stay on a tight budget, without the money to create the detail of Pinocchio or the slow, subtle work of Bambi, certainly felt flat.

pan-captainhook

And although Hook is definitely one of Disney’s more amusing villains, he somehow never manages to become a particularly terrifying one. In some ways, his sidekick Smee is more terrifying. Sure, Smee is mostly used for comic relief, but beneath the jokes, Smee keeps speaking wistfully about killing and pillaging. Hook is more or less content to stay on the island, hungry crocodile or nor hungry crocodile, to get his revenge on Peter Pan. Smee is not. He’s also the one pirate who does manage to injure someone during the film. Well, ok, strictly speaking, he injures a duck, but that is still more than the other pirates manage. Smee also proves fairly adept at kidnapping people and only a little less adept at manipulating Hook and the other pirates. Smee is really scary, now that I think about it.

Possibly Peter Pan should have set the crocodile on him. And vice versa.

As it turned out, however, the greatest legacy of Peter Pan had nothing to do with any of this, but rather a character treated like crap in the film: Tinker Bell.

As early as the mid 1950s, Disney was using the character as one of their iconic corporate images, a fairy who with a tap of her wand could bring magic to everything. By the 1970s, Tinker Bell introduced fireworks shows, Disney cartoons, and television shows. By the 1990s, she was a center part of a successful product line of clothing, jewelry, mugs, and other items available at Disney theme parks and stores.

And in 2005, Tinker Bell hit the really big time, when she and various new “fairy friends” became the center of a new Disney moneymaking scheme: Disney Fairies. Like them or loathe them (I tend to be on the “loathe” side), Disney Fairies almost instantly became one of Disney’s all time most successful franchises, spawning an additional cast of what seems like a thousand or so additional fairies (yes, I’m exaggerating), plus books, films, a couple of theme park attractions, numerous toys and other merchandise, their very own website, a couple of video games, and a part of Epcot’s Flower and Garden festival—a Pixie Garden, naturally.

A character literally tossed around and physically and emotionally abused in her animated film origins, turned into a center part of a multimillion franchise focused on Girl Power.

pan-tink

I love this.

You go, Tink, you go.

But in 1953, this was all in the distant future. Even with strong box office returns for Peter Pan, Walt Disney had very different thoughts: The anthology films of the 1940s had barely broken even; Alice in Wonderland had been a critical and box office failure, and now, this.

He made a momentous decision: he would pull back on the animated films, planning to release them only every few years instead of every year, focusing his studio’s storytelling talents on the live action, family friendly films that had been studio hits.

Thus, two years passed before Lady and the Tramp hit the screens, and another four years before Disney returned to fairy tales and princesses, with Sleeping Beauty.

Note: Tracking down the text source for Lady and the Tramp has been an exercise in major aggravation, so we’ll be moving on to Sleeping Beauty. Which means that next week has happy discussions of secret royal marriages, convent exiles, rape, and very questionable royal decisions. Should be entertaining.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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