Although Walt Disney's Peter Pan wasn't released until 1953, Walt Disney had been trying to buy the right's to the original book by James M. Barrie since 1935, eighteen years earlier. His desire to adapt it possibly stems back to his own childhood when he played Peter in a school play. He got the rights in 1939 and his team of artists immediately started drawing up storyboards and character designs. They even got as far as making maquettes, clay models of characters for animation reference. These figures were seen by audiences in 1941 in Disney's The Reluctant Dragon. However, production on Peter Pan ended when the U.S. entered World War II. After the war, Walt was back to making full length animated features and among the first put into production was Peter Pan.
For the voice cast, Walt relied heavily on actors he had previously worked with. Peter was voiced by Bobby Driscoll, star of Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and Treasure Island. This was his last film for Disney and the end of his contract. Wendy was voiced by Katharine Beaumont, who had previously voiced Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Screen star Hans Conried was cast in the double role of George Darling and Captain Hook, which is a nod to the original play in which the same actor played both roles. Conried went on to star in a few other Disney films as well.
Peter Pan opens with an explanation that "All this has happened before and it will all happen again, but this time it happened in London." Wendy Darling has been telling stories about Peter Pan to her brothers, John and Michael, but when they get in trouble for reenacting the tale, Mr. Darling tells Wendy that this is her last night in the nursery and that she must grow up tomorrow. That night while the parents are out, Peter Pan comes to the house looking for his shadow, which he left while eaves dropping on one of Wendy's stories. Wendy finds him and helps sew it back on. In return, he teaches the Darlings how to fly and takes them to Nerveland with him where they never have to grow up. Peter's Pixie, Tinker Bell, flies ahead to tell the lost boys to shoot down Wendy, who she feels threatened by because another girl is now in Peter's life. Wendy is unharmed, but Peter banishes Tinker Bell for a week. Peter takes Wendy to the mermaid lagoon, where they find that Captain Hook has kidnapped Tiger Lilly, the indian chief's daughter, and is going to drown her if she doesn't tell him where Peter Pan's hideout is. Captain Hook seeks revenge on Peter for cutting off his hand and feeding it to the crocodile. Meanwhile, Michael, John and the lost boys have been kidnapped by the indians, who believe they have Tiger Lilly. Peter returns her safely and all is forgiven, but Captain Hook captures Tinker Bell and tricks her into telling him the location of Pan's hideout. Wendy and the boys are homesick and the lost boys decided to go home with them, but as they plan to leave they are kidnapped by the pirates and a trap is set to kill Peter Pan. He overcomes it, defeats the pirates, and sails the Darling children home in the pirate ship.
Disney's version of Peter Pan was the first time that a male actor had ever played Peter on screen. The role was previously played exclusively by women. This was also the first time that Tinker Bell was more than just a ball of light, but had an actual physical form. The crocodile was in the original play, but was only heard, never seen. The animated medium allowed for the crocodile to have quite a bit of screen time. Another major change from the original story is that Disney shortened "Never Never Land" to simply "Neverland." But perhaps the most monumental changed that Disney made to the story is that in Disney's version, Peter doesn't ask the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies.
The film premiered on February 5, 1953. Critics adored it because it stayed true to the original story while still being fresh and new. Audiences responded favorably to it as well and the film was a big success. It was re-released 5 times in theaters and was an event every time. The last release was in 1989, which is when I first saw Peter Pan. I was 4-years old and quickly became obsessed with it.
It may be as a result of my childhood obsession that Peter Pan is my favorite film, but it has all of the quintessential elements that make a great Disney film. The characters are memorable and fun, even the villains. The story is adventurous and magical. In addition, it is everything that a Disney animated film should be, with some of the finest animation in any film. It was the last time that Mary Blaire would have a significant impact on a Disney film, but the design and color schemes are perfect. Peter Pan also features my favorite Disney song, "The Second Star to the Right." That song, along with "You Can Fly, You Can Fly, You Can Fly" and "Following the Leader" have become classic songs that are frequently found on Disney compilations.
Peter Pan was released on Blu-Ray as a Diamond Edition in 2013 and went into the vault in 2014. Bonus features include a documentary on the children of the nine old men, deleted scenes and songs, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and Disney View, which adds artwork to the sides of the screen. The film is presented in its original fullscreen aspect ratio. The Diamond Edition DVD is a single-disc set, but the previous Platinum Edition was a 2-disc set and had much better bonus features, with a similar picture presentation. If DVD is your preferred format, I would recommend the out-of-print Platinum Edition. It is also available on iTunes, where it is available in HD and comes it iTunes Extras bonus features.