The film begins in the London nursery of Wendy, John, and Michael Darling, where the three children are visited by Peter Pan. With the help of his tiny friend, the fairy Tinkerbell, Peter takes the three children on a magical flight to Never Land. This enchanted island is home to Peter, Tink, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and her Native American nation, and the scheming Captain Hook who is as intent on defeating Peter Pan as he is from escaping a tick-tocking crocodile.
Peter Pan was originally intended to be Disney’s second film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However he could not get the rights until four years later, after he came to an arrangement with Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, to whom Barrie had bequeathed the rights to the play. The studio started the story development and character designs in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and intended it to be his fourth film, after Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio.
During this time Disney explored many possibilities of how the story could be interpreted. In the earliest version of the story, the film started by telling Peter Pan’s back story. Walt also explored opening the film in Neverland and Peter Pan coming to Wendy’s house to kidnap her as a mother for the Lost Boys. Eventually, Disney decided that the kidnapping was too dark. In another version of the film, Nana went to Neverland with Pan and the Darling children, and the story was told through her eyes. In other interpretations of the story John Darling was left behind for being too serious, practical and boring.
It was not until 1947, as the studio’s financial health started to improve again after WWII, that the actual production of Peter Pan commenced, even though Roy O. Disney did not think that Peter Pan would have much box office appeal.\
Milt Kahl, the supervising animator of Peter Pan and The Darling Children, claimed that the hardest thing to animate was a character floating in mid air.
Rumor has it that Tinker Bell’s design was based on Marilyn Monroe, but in reality her design was based on Tinker Bell’s live-action reference model, Margaret Kerry. Margaret Kerry posed for reference film shots on a sound stage; the footage was later used by supervising Tinker Bell animator Marc Davis and his team when they drew the character. Like Kerry, Bobby Driscoll was both the live-action reference model, mainly used for the close-up scenes, and the voice actor for Peter Pan. Peter’s flying and action reference shots, however, were provided by dancer and choreographer Roland Dupree. Similarly, Hans Conried, the voice of both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, also performed the live-action reference footage for those characters (it was one of the few elements left over from the play, that Hook and Mr. Darling were played by the same actor).
The film was a commercial success and was also the highest-grossing film of 1953. In 1955, it was reported that the film had earned $7 million against its budget of $4 million. Peter Pan was praised by most critics during its initial release. The New York Times gave the film a mixed review, praising the animation itself, but also declaring that the film was not really true to the spirit of the original Barrie play. Walt Disney himself was dissatisfied with the finished product, feeling that the character of Peter Pan was cold and unlikable. However, experts on J.M. Barrie praise this as a success, as they insist that Pan was originally written to be a heartless sociopath.
Peter Pan has been seen as racist in recent years due to the way Disney portrayed the Native American “Indians” in the film. They are displayed as wild, savage, violent and speak in a stereotypical way. These stereotypes are present in J. M. Barrie’s play. Marc Davis, one of the supervising animators of the film, said in an interview years after the production that ‘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.’”