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Reimagining Never Land

Mindy Johnson Explores Walt Disney’s Peter Pan

Mindy Johnson
Above: Peter and the Darling children are off on their Never Land adventures in this promotional art piece. Peter Pan (1953) Copyright: Copyright © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Mindy Johnson

Above: Peter and the Darling children are off on their Never Land adventures in this promotional art piece. Peter Pan (1953) Copyright: Copyright © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
By Mindy Johnson

“The world of make-believe has always delighted and absorbed me, ever since I was a little boy,” Walt Disney once wrote. In 1913, when the American touring company of Peter Pan traveled through Marceline, Missouri, the promise of adventure quickly sparked the young Walt’s imagination. “It took most of the contents of two toy saving banks to buy our tickets, but my brother Roy and I didn’t care,” Disney noted in a studio release. “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 after their theater experience, young Walt’s vision became reality as he “flew” to Never Land by portraying Peter Pan in his school play. As Disney declared, “No one ever identified himself with the part he was playing more than I.” Sparked by his own firsthand experiences in Never Land, stories of magic, adventure, and make-believe later became consistent themes throughout Walt Disney’s extraordinary career as an animation storyteller. But, just as J. M. Barrie experienced, the illusive magic of Peter Pan required many years of adjustments, changes, and growth before Walt Disney’s own telling came to fruition.

By 1937, Walt was a successful storyteller whose animated shorts were a worldwide phenomenon. The success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs assured financial stability and Disney quickly placed a number of possible story concepts into development. “Of all the characters in the fairy tales . . . next to Snow White, I cared most for Peter Pan,” Disney noted. Initially intending for Peter Pan to be his second full-length feature, he recalled, “When I began producing cartoons, Peter Pan was high on my list of subjects.” Walt began exploring the elusive story rights as early as 1935, but it would be another 10 years before Walt could begin to shape his vision of Never Land.

Peter Pan is a work of sheer magic,” Disney wrote, “and you do not create magic to order.” Mindful of the importance of the story of Peter Pan’s adventures to multiple generations, Disney noted, “We had, somehow, to recreate the essence of make-believe, and do it in such a way that millions of people who have known and loved Barrie’s play since it was first performed in 1904, would recognize it and approve of what we had done.” Yet more important to Walt was that his telling of Peter Pan would adhere faithfully to the intent, spirit, and story line of the original author, J. M. Barrie: “We had to get into the mind of the man who wrote it, as well as the entertainment elements of the creation itself. We had to get at Barrie’s motivation, for no distinguished story teller ever has more closely identified himself with his works than this Scottish-born, British-knighted novelist, poet, playwright.”

Animation was the perfect medium, Disney declared: “There is no miracle the mind can conceive that the cartoon animation technique cannot create.” Unlimited freedoms beyond the stage could now be granted to Barrie’s characters — Peter could fly through the air without pulleys and rope; Tinker Bell could become a fully embodied pixie; her pixie dust could induce potent magic wherever it was cast; and the ever-doting Nana could truly be a dog while believably retaining her unique anthropomorphic tendencies. Disney recognized the integral link between fantasy and animation, noting, “We had one great advantage over the author . . . We could define 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.”

Dorothy Ann Blank, the woman who developed the classic fairy-tale story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for Walt’s animated telling, did the earliest story research for Disney’s adaptation of Barrie’s Peter Pan. She analyzed characters, studied scenario options, and explored the feasibility of various elements in translating Barrie’s classic stage production and novelizations of Peter Pan into an animated feature film. Blank worked extensively to unlock the essence of Barrie’s timeless story.

With the film rights finally obtained in 1939, early conceptualizations of Peter Pan’s epic adventures continued as story artists started to storyboard their interpretations. By 1941, the basic story structure was defined, a script was drafted, and songs were being written while model sheets and maquette sculptures of the primary characters were formed. Peter took shape as a dark-haired boy, tiny Tinker Bell became a sprightly redhead, and young Wendy’s brunette pigtails framed a much more girlish form to match the younger form of Peter. Animators were assigned to particular characters and production was about to get under way. Yet with Europe engulfed in war, the animated adventures of Peter Pan were soon in jeopardy. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States became fully embroiled in the Second World War and all feature-length productions at the studio were shelved, including Peter Pan. To remain open, the studio shifted to the production of military training films. Years passed before feature-length production finally returned to the studio’s storyboards.

Following the box-office success of Cinderella, Walt Disney was once again able to return to feature-length animated productions. He quickly placed Peter Pan back into development and assigned the studio’s leading concept artist, Mary Blair, to explore Barrie’s scenario. Working with Claude Coats, John Hench, and Don DaGradi, Blair would inspire the color palette and stylization of many of Disney’s classic films and eventual theme-park attractions. Legendary animator Marc Davis placed Blair’s use of color on par with Matisse’s, recalling, “She brought modern art to Walt in a way that no one else did. He was so excited about her work.”

Mary Blair’s adventurous and vibrant style signals a journey to a world held only in the imagination. Her color choices were well suited to define a place “past the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.” With Blair’s vision, each unique corner of Never Land featured a palette unlike any other sequence in the overall film. Through the strong inspiration of Blair’s conceptual work, Disney made a concerted effort to create a Never Land as rich, vivid, and colorful as the inhabitants of this far-off place.

The lively hues of the Indian encampment reflect the brilliance of a western sunset, while the muted pastels of Mermaid Lagoon provide a vibrant contrast to the dense foliage surrounding the tropical regions of Never Land. Early concept sketches of Cannibal Cove take on a dark and foreboding tone; earth tones dominate the palette of the Lost Boys’ tree house and Peter’s famed hideout; while Captain Hook’s sturdy pirate ship — the Jolly Roger — is envisioned in simple studies of regal reds, purples, and golds.

Additional adjustments were still being made to the story before the studio moved on to animation. In one of the final narrative decisions approved by Disney in 1948, George Darling was added to the Never Land adventures to provide a fatherly presence. With a healthy application of Tinker Bell’s magical pixie dust, Ken O’Connor’s storyboards captured the thrilling excitement of flight as Wendy, Michael, and John soar to new heights. Sweeping past the Tower Bridge and perched high on the large hand of Big Ben, Peter and the Darling children were finally off to Never Land.

Mindy Johnson is an award-winning author, animation and film historian, musician, and educator. Her books include the critically acclaimed Tinker Bell: An Evolution and the upcoming Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation.