The Big Picture
- Peter Pan was originally planned to be Disney’s second feature-length production after Snow White, but rights issues and World War II delayed its development.
- The rights to Peter Pan were held by the Great Ormond Street Hospital and Paramount Pictures, causing negotiations and delays for Disney.
- Disney initially thought Peter Pan was too risky to adapt and shelved the project multiple times before finally beginning production in 1949.
1953’s Peter Pan is one of the true classics of the studio — a beautifully animated adaptation of the 1904 play that canonized the story for generations. The movie is not without faults — the depiction of the story’s Native American characters, controversial in most iterations, is incredibly offensive in the film, and the segments including them have aged incredibly poorly — but the movie is largely well remembered despite this, and remains an interesting watch even 70 years after its initial release. However, despite sitting as Disney’s 18th animated release, it was originally planned to be the second feature-length production by the company, immediately after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The long tale of development hell that caused this shift is one of rights tussles, changes in creative direction, and even war. The fact that the movie was ever made at all is something of a miracle worthy of some fairy dust of its own.
Is ‘Peter Pan’ Public Domain?
Peter Pan stands out among Disney animation of the time because it’s not based on a public-domain fairy tale as opposed to other films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Disney has had some great releases in that vein, but working on a story with a set author produces a big problem: rights. While stories like Little Red Riding Hood are often attributed to certain writers who popularized the tales, as folk stories, they don’t have a known original author and thus can’t be copyrighted. Disney itself has influenced copyright laws in the United States significantly to allow themselves to hold onto stories for far longer — but eventually, creative properties and stories do return to the public domain, with recent examples including the Sherlock Holmes stories and the original Winnie the Pooh books (the latter of which has lead to some “interesting” results). Unfortunately for Disney, at the time that the company wanted to adapt Peter Pan, it was still in private hands — though interestingly, it wasn’t in the hands of the original creator.
The original creator of Peter Pan was Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie who (similar to Alice in Wonderland’s creator Lewis Carroll) conceived of the character to entertain two young boys that he was acquainted with. He would later use the character in a play he wrote and in 1911, would then turn that play into the book Peter and Wendy. One might assume then that Disney would only need to purchase the rights from Barrie to produce the film, but a few years before they sought to begin production, Barrie had bequeathed these rights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London to ensure that the hospital would always have funding. One might next assume that Disney could simply purchase the rights from the hospital, but unfortunately, they were a few years too late; the rights were also held by Paramount Pictures, who had released the original silent film version of Peter Pan in 1924 (which fun fact: remains the highest rated Peter Pan adaptation according to Rotten Tomatoes). With the rights up in the air, the studio began a lengthy series of negotiations that finally ended in 1939, four years after Disney had first expressed interest in developing the property.
However, now that Disney had permission from the hospital and had purchased the rights from Paramount, surely development could begin immediately, right? Well, unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that happened in 1939.
World War II Delayed Production of ‘Peter Pan’
In September of 1939, World War II officially began, and two years later in December 1941, the United States officially entered the conflict. Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Burbank Walt Disney Studios lot became occupied by over 500 soldiers — not by enemy combatants, but by American GIs. The Disney Burbank studio was nearby an aircraft development plant, and the soldiers stationed to guard it took up residence in the studio. Much of the studio’s space was repurposed, with sound stages and parking lots converted into refueling stations and ammo depots. This remains the only time an American military force has occupied a Hollywood film studio. Despite the occupation, the studio continued its pre-production on various film projects, including Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Soon after the occupation began, however, Walt Disney was approached by the US government with a request: for the studio to use its animation force to produce propaganda films for the war effort.
Walt took the deal, not only because of his self-proclaimed staunch patriotism but because the studio was already in dire financial straits. Their previous films Fantasia and Pinocchio had significantly increased budgets compared to Snow White and, despite relative critical acclaim, were immense box office bombs (partially due to the inability to market overseas for the latter). Shortly before the US entered the war, the studio had also been going through intense internal strife, with animators going on strike for months over lack of credit and pay disputes. The US government paid well for the propaganda shorts, which allowed for the studio to remain open – without the payment from these pieces, the studio might not have survived this period of financial free fall. While other films’ development continued on during this period, pre-production on both Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan was mostly shelved, only restarting proper development once the war had ceased.
Disney Thought ‘Peter Pan’ Was Too Risky to Adapt
By 1947, Disney was finally financially sound enough to start work on major new projects. During this time, three projects were floating around as to possibly be chosen for development: the previously shelved Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Cinderella. The problem was that after some of their more unusual films had produced excellent critical responses but poor commercial results, the studio trended towards projects that could be considered safe bets. In a situation that feels strangely similar to the current status of modern-day Disney, rather than put money towards new projects, they instead wanted to recapture the success of their earlier days.
Of the three projects, Cinderella had the most in common with the studio’s biggest financial success ever, Snow White. As such, the new project was greenlit and Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were shelved — for the third time. This would be the final roadblock for the project, finally taken off the shelves in 1949 to officially begin production where, thankfully, no major shake-ups in the company would threaten it again. The film would finally be released in 1953, 18 years after Walt Disney had originally expressed interest in adapting the story. Thankfully despite worries about the film being a financial failure à la Pinnochio, Peter Pan was a financial success, producing an $84 million box office on a $4 million budget.
Peter Pan’s legacy as a classic has been sealed thanks to its position in Disney’s golden age of animation. Those who have never seen a performance of the original play or read the original novel are most likely familiar with the characters through this original animated adaptation. However, if there’s anything that can be learned from this film’s rocky development, it’s that no movie’s fate is a sure thing — any disaster can come along and toss even the most promising projects in a dust-covered “backlog” pile, or worse: the garbage bin. The history of Disney, after all, is one full of canceled and unseen projects. However, despite a dozen chances to fail, this movie remarkably still managed to release. The boy who never grew up is apparently also the boy who never gave up.