Many of the Disney animated features have proven to stand the test of time, and one excellent example of such celebrates its 65th anniversary this week – Peter Pan. The film first arrived in theaters on February 5, 1953, and is easily the best-known adaptation of the original work by J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
The story takes place in early 20th century London, and follows the adventures of the Darling children. Wendy Darling and her two younger brothers, John and Michael, enjoy reading the stories about Peter Pan and the pirates, but their parents are less enthused and want them to stop playing around with such fanciful things. The children are treated that night to a visit by Peter himself, who, using the pixie dust from his fairy friend Tinker Bell, teaches them to fly and travels with them to Neverland.
Peter is pursued by the villainous Captain Hook, who seeks revenge after losing his hand. The Darling boys venture out to find Neverland’s native tribe, who mistakenly capture them, believing them to be responsible for the disappearance of the Chief’s daughter, Tiger Lily. Peter and Wendy get up to their own trouble, with the island’s mermaid ladies taking great joy in tormenting Wendy. However, the two discover that Hook had been the one to capture Tiger Lily, and free her, helping to free John and Michael in the process.
Hook manages to come up with one last plan – take advantage of Tinker Bell’s jealousy about Wendy (as Peter has been paying far more attention to Wendy than to Tink) in order to find Peter’s hideout and destroy it. Hook and his pirates are able to capture the Darlings as well as the Lost Boys and hold them captive, luring Peter out as well. Eventually, Peter is able to defeat Hook in a swordfight, free his friends and reconcile with Tinker Bell, and the Darlings are returned to London.
Peter Pan was actually in development since the 1930s, and was intended to be the second theatrical film for Walt Disney after Snow White. However, the live-action rights were held by Paramount Pictures, and Disney was unable to come to an agreement with them regarding animation. It wasn’t until 1939 that Disney was able to secure the animation rights to Peter Pan, when they outbid Fleischer Studios for them. The film immediately entered preproduction, with a story reel being completed by early that same year.
However, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Walt Disney Studios was commissioned by the U.S. military to produce propaganda films instead, forcing the company to shelve Peter Pan (as well as Alice in Wonderland, which was also being worked on). Work resumed following the conclusion of the war, with Jack Kinney directing, but production stalled out for much of the ’40s due to delays from Kinney’s directing methods as well as overall financial struggles at Disney. Eventually, it was Cinderella that got the green light while Peter Pan didn’t reenter full production until 1949.
When Peter Pan finally released in 1953, it was subject to quite a lot of criticism, most of it aimed at the film’s lack of faithfulness to the original material. Many reviewers felt that, while the animation was good, the music was “only so-so” and otherwise not as impressive as other previous Disney releases. Contemporary reviews have been much more positive, and Peter Pan has long been considered a classic and a standout of the Disney animated canon. However, contemporary reviewers are also far more quick to point out the less-than-stellar portrayal of Native Americans in the film; Peter Pan plays up a lot of the unsavory racial stereotypes for laughs, and at one point Hook even refers to them by the slur “redskins.” Supervising animator Marc Davis was quoted years after the film’s initial release about this issue, saying, “I’m not sure we would have done the Indians if we were making this movie now. And if we had we wouldn’t do them the way we did back then.”
Peter Pan initially took in about $7 million at the box office, and that has since increased to more than $87 million thanks to theatrical rereleases and home video. The film has proven to be remarkably popular over the years, with many of the characters appearing in other forms of media; Neverland also appears as a land in the Kingdom Hearts franchise of video games. Disney theme parks have long been home to Peter Pan’s Flight – it was actually an opening day attraction for Disneyland in California in 1955.
Tinker Bell especially has seen incredible longevity. She’s the focus of the Disney Fairies line, which includes a number of different books for children as well as seven computer-animated films. Tinker Bell is also essentially a secondary mascot for Disney as a whole, with the character appearing often as a hostess for the company’s live-action shows.
A sequel to the original, Return to Never Land, released in 2002, focusing on Wendy’s daughter Jane and her own adventures with Peter. Meanwhile, Jake and the Never Land Pirates proved to be a popular spinoff of the franchise aimed at much smaller children. Like many other classic Disney animated properties, Peter Pan is also in discussion for a live-action reimagining. It may have been 65 years since he first flew into theaters, but Peter Pan clearly hasn’t slowed down whatsoever.