It’s been 65 years since the original Walt Disney animated film “Peter Pan” hit theaters and introduced audiences to the world of Never Never Land and characters like Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, the Darling children and the Lost Boys.
In celebration of the anniversary, Disney is releasing the “Signature Edition” of “Peter Pan” on June 5. The Blu-ray includes bonus clips, interviews with the cast and looks at never-before-seen footage.
Last week, I had to honor to interview Kathryn Beaumont, the actress who, during her teenage years, gave voice to Wendy, the eldest of the Darling children. The three Darling kids – Wendy, John and Michael – fly away to Never Never Land with the rambunctious title character and face off against Captain Hook and his pirate crew. Along with my chat with Beaumont, 79, I spoke with author and historian Mindy Johnson, who wrote the 2008 book “Tinker Bell – An Evolution,” which covers the history of the “Peter Pan” fairy.
What do you think it is about the original “Peter Pan” that has resonated with Disney fans all these years?
Kathryn Beaumont: It was such a delightful children’s story. We all grew up with these wonderful tales. Disney put it together and created a wonderful film based on the book. I just felt so blessed to be a part of that experience. It has maintained over the years. It’s been special to me to know I was part of that world and to contribute to that wonderful, classic tale.
Mindy Johnson: It’s a classic. There are timeless themes and adventures. Everything is centered around the lives of children as they transition from childhood to adulthood. We all experience it. It’s all something we go through.
Kathryn, when you were asked to voice Wendy Darling, you had already voiced Alice in “Alice in Wonderland.” Was it a given that you would play the new role?
KB: It was sort of an automatic thing. The [“Peter Pan”] story was already being developed when I was working on “Alice in Wonderland.” They were planning on going right into [“Peter Pan”] right after. Realizing it was another British story and that the age [of the character] was approximately the same, it turned out I was perfect for the role. I had a wonderful experience at Disney Studios and have all those wonderful memories of the work I did there and the talented people that worked there.
Over the years, do you think the focus by some animated studios to hire more celebrities to voice its film’s characters takes away from the film itself? If “Alice” was made today, Disney might hire Selena Gomez.
MJ: It’s hard to say. In some ways, it does add something. In some ways, I think filmmakers are still looking to find a quintessential voice and want to take others into consideration. It certainly doesn’t hurt [hiring celebrities] to get audiences to buy the tickets and get them into the theaters. At the same time, I think they have a sense that these actors have a quality to their voice and can push the narrative forward and advance the story.
Mindy, you’re an expert when it comes to Disney history. How have you seen female characters in Disney movies change over the years?
MJ: Walt Disney really relied on strong female heroines all throughout his animated classics, even from his first feature animated film, which was “Snow White.” Certainly, the dialogue and action and context have changed with time. We have to place things into context. It was the 1930s for “Snow White.” When we moved into the 1950s with “Peter Pan,” you can see things change. Times change. Fashion changes. Attitudes change. At the heart of it, Walt Disney focused on the story and the narrative and what would lend itself most to advance that.
What do you think Walt Disney saw in Kathryn to cast her a second time?
MJ: There’s a strong backstory for Wendy that I think is a pivotal point for her character. I think Walt wisely recognized where Kathryn was in her life and knew her abilities to understand the process and her sensibilities as an actress. I think it’s timeless in that regard because you’re dealing with a young girl.
Mindy, you’ve written about Tinker Bell in the past. She was a much different character than Wendy in terms of personality, wasn’t she?
MJ: With Tinker Bell, she is much more of a sassy little character. They had a lot of fun with [Tinker Bell]. She truly was contemporary for the time. She is sort of the instigator in many of the plot twists in the film. She also redeems herself. She has a big heart, even though she is only capable of one emotion at a time. She is a character that everyone still identifies with – male or female. Coming from the 1950s, she was very much ahead of her time.
Kathryn, do you feel characters like Wendy and Alice are even more special in the Disney canon because they aren’t considered princesses like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or the like?
KB: I really hadn’t thought about that. I mean, many of the characters were [princesses]. Disney wanted to do an interpretation of those wonderful stories.
MJ: When Walt Disney created these stories, I don’t think he was thinking, “We’re going to brand these characters.” He was really focusing on the storytelling and the circumstances and the world. Our taste as audiences has expanded. In a way, this has allowed these classics to continue to be exciting and interesting. There is a princess side to some of these stories, but I think when you look at these characters individually, there are unique traits to each of the characters. When we put them together as princesses, that is one aspect. But I think it’s important to also balance that with the individual strengths each of theses characters have. That was definitely the case with Alice and Wendy. I don’t think it lessens anything because they’re not part of the princess group. I think they’re wonderful performances and magical films.
Kathryn, I know most of your life was dedicated to children as an educator. What kind of responses have you received over they years from kids you’ve taught in the classroom who find out who you are?
KB: Yes, they knew me as their teacher and then there would be a re-release of the movie and suddenly they were wondering if the voice was the same person. I can remember one child hovering at the door and asked, “Were you the voice of Alice?” He had recognized the voice and was telling his mother, “That’s my teacher! That’s my teacher!” I remember right around the holidays, he came to me and he had something for me for Easter and it was a little rabbit. Very savvy.
Kathryn, what is it like visiting Disney World or Disney Land as an adult?
KB: It’s wonderful. When events come along, they include me. I’ve had wonderful experiences getting back to Disney Land and Disney World and seeing the special rides I was involved with. It has been a lovely experience through my adulthood. I’m truly grateful for all of that.