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A Look at Peter Pan Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked at some of the film adaptations of Peter Pan.

The origins of Peter Pan are literary. J.M. Barrie had created the character and featured him in various fantasy stories. Barrie brought the character forward for the 1904 stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barrie later wrote a 1911 novel titled Peter and Wendy. Although there are differences between the play and the novel, both versions tell the story of the mischievous Peter Pan and his adventures in the fantasy world of Neverland which is inhabited by mermaids, fairies, Native Americans, pirates, and a band of feral children known as The Lost Boys. His nemesis is the pirate Captain Hook and Peter is joined on his adventures by Wendy Darling and her brothers John and Michael.

The character of Peter Pan was a fusion of the children in J.M. Barrie’s life and the Greek god Pan of ancient mythology. Within half a century, Peter Pan became one of the most recognizable figures in western culture. Barrie’s stories and characters have been adapted into all sorts of other media, including other stage productions and motion pictures, and the name “Peter Pan” is sometimes used derisively to describe men who refuse to mature. The persistence of the Peter Pan story suggests that it touches something profound in our personal and cultural consciousness, with Peter occupying a space between youth and adulthood.

Peter Pan’s adaptation history has been complicated by copyright issues. In 1929 J.M. Barrie gave control of the Peter Pan copyright to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in the United Kingdom, a health care center that provides services to children. Control of the copyright entitled the hospital to royalties from any performance or publication of the play and adaptations of Peter Pan have historically been an important source of funding for the hospital. However, different interpretations of copyright law in the United Kingdom and the applicability of those intellectual property rights abroad have been the source of some legal controversy.

One of the most popular adaptations of Peter Pan was the 1954 Broadway production starring Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. Most of the music of this version was composed by Moose Charlap and most of the lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh. The Broadway version of Peter Pan was broadcast on NBC in 1955 and it was the first full-length Broadway production shown on color TV. The broadcast was a huge success and the Peter Pan Broadway show was restaged in 1960. That performance became the definitive version of the stage show and it was frequently rebroadcast on television and recordings were sold on home video. This musical was restaged by NBC in 2014 as Peter Pan Live! which featured Allision Williams as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.

Perhaps the defining adaptation of Peter Pan was the 1953 animated feature produced by Disney. At the time Peter Pan was still under copyright and the license was owned by Paramount. Disney purchased the rights from Paramount in 1938 but the project remained on the shelf for decades. Production of the 1953 film was unusual in that live-action reference footage was shot with actors on soundstages and Peter Pan was the last Disney film produced by Disney’s Nine Old Men, a group of animators who had worked on the studio’s early animated features. This version of Peter Pan is particularly influential in its character design. Many subsequent adaptations borrowed the look of Peter Pan and Captain Hook as imagined by Disney. Even Link from the videogame The Legend of Zelda, has his roots in Disney’s Peter Pan.  

As part of Disney’s initiative to remake its catalog of classic animated features, the studio produced 2023’s Peter Pan & Wendy. Filmmaker David Lowery brings gritty reality to Neverland but the movie lacks the fun and fantasy usually associated with Peter Pan and it probably won’t hold the attention of children. 

Much like 2023’s Peter Pan and Wendy, the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan was based on J.M. Barrie’s original material and the 1953 Disney animated film. Directed by P.J. Hogan and written by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan is one of the most faithful film adaptations of the source material. Jeremy Sumpter was cast as Peter Pan, Rachel Hurd-Wood plays Wendy Darling, and Jason Isaacs was cast in dual roles as Captain Hook and Wendy’s father. The film was very well reviewed but unfortunately nobody went to see it. 2003’s Peter Pan opened a week after The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and it got lost.

Steven Spielberg’s 1991 feature Hook had a long and somewhat complicated production. The film plays as a sequel to the familiar Peter Pan fairytale. In Hook, Peter Pan has moved to the real world and grown up to become a lawyer and he has completely forgotten about his identity as the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. His children are kidnapped by Captain Hook and Peter must return to Neverland, recover his memory, and do battle with his archenemy. Hook was originally planned to be a musical with John Williams and Leslie Bricusse collaborating on a number of songs. The musical plans were abandoned but evidence of Hook’s musical conception can be observed in the production design and the song “When You’re Alone.” Hook starts quite well but goes off the rails by the end and Spielberg has expressed dissatisfaction with the way this film turned out. But, for viewers of a certain age, Hook was a touchstone of Millennial childhoods and it has a lot of fans.

Among the many failed attempts to create a new blockbuster fantasy franchise was 2015’s Pan. This movie was intended to be a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories and it imagines Neverland ruled by the pirate Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman, and James Hook and Peter Pan and Tiger Lily join forces against him. The movie had some bizarre artistic choices. Like a lot of Peter Pan adaptations Pan had a musical element but it featured covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Pan was a huge Hollywood studio production but it was a critical and commercial failure.

Very much the opposite of Pan was 2020’s Wendy. A modest production with big ambitions, Wendy reimagined the Peter Pan story in a way that had less to do with Disney’s 1953 film and much more in common with Beasts of the Southern Wild and Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Wendy is not necessarily a commercial or kid-friendly movie but it has some spectacular visuals and a thoughtful approach to the subject matter. This film had the misfortune of being released in February 2020 just as theaters started to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.

2004’s Finding Neverland was a historical drama about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. Adapted from the stage play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, Finding Neverland starred Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a single mother whose children inspired the characters of Barrie’s fiction. The film also starred Dustin Hoffman, who had played Captain Hook in Spielberg’s film. Finding Neverland was an exceptional dramatization that was charming and understood what had made the Peter Pan story so appealing.