All children grow up, except one: Peter Pan (voiced by Bobby Driscoll) who flies into the Darling house one night with his flirty fairy companion Tinkerbell to retrieve his lost shadow. Here he meets lovely young Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont) whom, he is aghast to learn, is about to grow up now her parents have decided she can no longer share a bedroom with her little brothers. So with the aid of some fairy dust supplied by a reluctant, extremely jealous Tinkerbell, Peter flies Wendy, John (Paul Collins) and Michael (Tommy Luske, who unlike his siblings has an American accent) off to Never Land for boisterous adventures with mermaids, Indians, pirates, a ticking crocodile and of course, his sworn enemy the dastardly Captain Hook (Hans Conreid).
Walt Disney's desire to animate Peter Pan, one of his favourite stories, began way back in the mid-Thirties when he had hoped to mount this as his follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). However it took four years before he reached an arrangement with the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital to whom author J.M. Barrie bequeathed the rights to his original play. Although pre-production and story meetings began in 1940, Peter Pan became one of several notable projects Walt put on hiatus in the wake of financial troubles, the animators' strike and, oh yes, a little thing called World War Two. More than a decade later when the film finally went into production the Disney studio was in a far healthier state albeit significantly different than before following the departure of some of its more experimentally inclined talent. As a result the style and tone of Peter Pan lies midway between the fairytale elegance of Disney's golden age and the zanier humour that characterized the studio's post-war output of short cartoons that were influenced by their rivals at Warner Brothers.
In adapting J.M. Barrie's timeless tale for the animated medium Disney re-contextualized the story for the baby boom generation. As portrayed by Bobby Driscoll, Disney's Peter Pan is a virile young rascal quite unlike the ladies in tights that played him on the British stage. He embodies the promise of post-war America: a Never Land of bright colours, loud music, carefree adventure and brash, unrepentant hedonism. Is it any wonder Kathryn Beaumont's winsome English rose grows instantly enamoured? As the first boy to portray Peter Pan, Disney veteran Driscoll (in his final role for the studio) provided more besides exuberant vocals. He gave a full physical performance that was rotoscoped for reference by Disney's animators led by the legendary team Walt himself dubbed the Nine Old Men. This proved the last instance all nine worked together on a single film. As a result both the boisterous Peter Peter and flighty, flirty Tinkerbell rank as high points in the art of character animation. These two have never seemed more vibrant or alive.
Popular myth has it Tink was part-inspired by Marilyn Monroe although it was Margaret Kerry that served as their live-action reference model. Nonetheless, Disney's animators delivered arguably the screen's sexiest Tinkerbell. Ludivine Sagnier in Peter Pan (2003) comes a close second. Tink's self-aware sensuality proved highly controversial for Pan purists at the time and was derided as vulgar by stuffy British critics. Yet through the years as Tink was embraced as a family friendly figure the flightier aspects of her personality gave way to a sappier sort of sweetness paving the way for more sanitized CGI efforts like Tinkerbell and the Pirate Fairy (2014). Here however she cuts quite a figure as indeed do the alluring mermaids more than three decades before Ariel fuelled a whole host of adolescent fantasies in The Little Mermaid (1990). Sticking to the topic of character animation, also especially delightful is Hook's nemesis the ticking crocodile. Forever licking his chops at the prospect of a second bite of the panicky pirate, he is full of personality as one of cinema's most charismatic reptiles.
Set to the glorious song-scape of "You Can Fly", Peter's flight over London en route to Never Land with Tinkerbell and the Darling children is the film's magical highlight. To be honest nothing else comes as close. Disney left out a wealth of worthy material from Barrie's book including much of its melancholy undertones and psychological complexity, but then so do other adaptations. Disney opted not to include the famous scene with a dying Tinkerbell revived by an audience shouting "I do believe in fairies", feeling there was no way to translate this cinematically. Yet Steven Spielberg proved able to do so with a Tinkerbell-inspired sequence in E.T. - The Extraterrestrial (1982) and P.J. Hogan pulled off Barrie's conceit marvellously in his film. By contrast Disney's substitute comes across far weaker dramatically. To the Disney film's credit though the script takes a fair stab at some of Barrie's philosophical themes. Opening with the line “All this has happened before and it will all happen again” it comments on the cyclical nature of time with Pan embodying the irrepressible spirit of childhood that endures in defiance of time itself. All children grow up, except one. Too often Barrie's story is misinterpreted as endorsing a retreat into infantilism when, more often than not, Peter Pan paves the way for Wendy and her brothers to grow up. Adventure proves the pathway to responsibility and thus maturity.
On the downside the film's attitude to women remains stuck in the Fifties. All the female characters are obsessed with Peter Pan, insanely jealous and incapable of setting petty squabbles aside. When an Indian woman tells Wendy "Squaw no dance. Squaw get 'em firewood!" one can completely understand why P.J. Hogan took a revisionist tack with his version of Barrie's heroine. Still, Wendy proves the one character strong-willed enough to stick to her principles. More often she talks the fickle boys out of bad decisions. The broadly comic portrayal of the Indians has drawn considerable criticism down the years. In fact several veteran Disney animators expressed regret over this though it is worth noting Princess Tiger-Lily is accorded greater dignity. One area where the film undeniably succeeds is in the high quality of its songs composed by the likes of Oliver Wallace, Sammy Fain, Sammy Cahn and others. From the gentle lilting lullaby of "Second Star to the Right" to the jaunty "Following the Leader”, playfully macabre "Never Smile at a Crocodile" (though those priceless lyrics are sadly not heard in the film!) and sheer joy encapsulated in "You Can Fly", Peter Pan plays like an animated jukebox of timeless tunes. Also worth singling out is Hans Conried's superlative vocals as Captain Hook. The animators match them perfectly with some priceless facial contortions that render the sequences where Hook frantically flees the crocodile the funniest in the movie. If the absence of Tinkerbell's big scene remains unfortunate at least the finale fuses swashbuckling excitement with slapstick mayhem and the flying pirate ship proves a wonder to behold, ending the film on an aptly lyrical note.