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The film's voice-cast list is preceded by the phrase "With the talents of." The picture opens with an offscreen narrator describing the Darling family, whom "Peter Pan" chose to visit because they believed in him. The opening credits include the written statement: "Walt Disney Productions is grateful to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London, to which Sir James M. Barrie gave his copyright of Peter Pan." Barrie's story about a boy who refused to grow up originated as nursery tales he told to the five grandsons (including Peter and Michael) of novelist George du Maurier. Peter Pan opened in London in December 1904, and Barrie's novelization, entitled Peter and Wendy, was first published in 1911.
According to studio press materials, Disney considered producing an animated version of Barrie's play as early as 1935, and in 1939 arranged to secure screen rights from the hospital. A November 13, 1940 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the film was beginning production, while a May 15, 1942 Hollywood Reporter article reported that the studio "was nearing completion" of preliminary work. At that point, however, a few months after the United States's entry into World War II, Disney shelved all fiction efforts in order to focus on the production of war films for the government.
Production on Peter Pan resumed in early May 1949, at which point Daily Variety reported that the studio planned to release the film in 1951. The studio produced a live-action version of the story, or a working model, for the use of the animators. This version, as discussed in an August 1952 Los Angeles Times article, featured the actors and actresses who were the models for each character, including Margaret Kerry as "Tinker Bell" and a mermaid, Roland Dupree as Peter Pan, and June Foray and Connie Hilton as mermaids. Although some contemporary sources, including the February 1953 New Yorker review, assumed that Tinker Bell was modeled after Marilyn Monroe, studio materials refute this. In a February 2002 Los Angeles Times article, Kerry stated that the resemblance to Monroe arose from animator Marc Davis' decision to depict the bottom half of Tinker Bell as "womanly" while maintaining a more girlish appearance to the upper half. Tinker Bell has since become an iconographic symbol for the studio as well as part of the animated logo that introduces Disney's television program, The Wonderful World of Disney.
In a June 1952 Los Angeles Examiner article, Disney asserted that he had taken pains to stay true to Barrie's play while making the story more cinematic. Disney retained many of the stage traditions, including casting the same the actor as both "Mr. Darling" and "Captain Hook." Most changes were received favorably by critics, particularly the fairy-girl appearance of Tinker Bell, who had always been represented by a beam of light in staged versions of the play. In addition, in the past Peter Pan had always been played by a female actor. Many critics expressed disappointment, however, with the omission of the scene in the play in which audience members save Tinker Bell by clapping if they believe in fairies.
Although Disney stated in the June 1952 Los Angeles Examiner article that the film cost $3 million, all other sources estimate the final cost at $4 million. According to studio press materials, the final film used 500,000 separate drawings. On June 14, 1951, Hollywood Reporter asserted that the picture would be released for Christmas 1952, and on October 24, 1951, Daily Variety reported that CBS and NBC were in discussions with Disney for the rights to show portions of the touring stage show, which starred Veronica Lake and Lawrence Tibbett, on their Christmas day broadcast. At the time of Peter Pan's release, in February 1953, the reviews were universally laudatory.
According to an April 8, 1953 Daily Variety news item, the studio prepared a radio version of the film to be broadcast in Korea and China, with original songs and dialogue to be dubbed into each country's languages. Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a version of the film on December 21, 1953, starring Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont and John Carradine. In October 1955, as noted in a August 3, 1955 Daily Variety news item, Disney's in-house distribution arm, Buena Vista, officially took over distribution of the film from RKO. The article also stated that the film had earned $7 million at that point. After six theatrical re-releases, the studio made Peter Pan available on videotape in May 1990, at which point The Wall Street Journal reported the picture's profits as $145 million.
A staging of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard, opened on Broadway on October 20, 1954. That version was filmed for broadcast on NBC on March 1955, and was re-broadcast annually for many years after. Other film adaptations of Peter Pan include the 1925 Paramount feature Peter Pan, directed by Herbert Brenon and starring Betty Bronson (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30), and a 2002 Disney straight-to-video sequel to the feature, entitled Return to Never Land. Animators for that film, according to a February 19, 2002 Los Angeles Times article, used the original Peter Pan working model to illustrate characters. Steven Spielberg directed a 1991 version for TriStar Pictures called Hook, which envisioned Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams, as an adult. Universal, Columbia and Revolution produced a live-action version of Peter Pan in 2003, directed by P. J. Hogan and starring Jeremy Sumpter and Jason Isaacs. In 2004's biographical feature film Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp portrayed Barrie during the years in which he conceived and wrote Peter Pan. That film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Film and Best Actor, and won the Oscar for Best Original Score (Jan A. P. Kaczmarek).