The Progression of Pan
Audiences never tire of Neverland and its eternal boy folk hero...
J.M. Barrie’s “boy who never grows up” has never even grown old in the eyes of Hollywood.
There are few fictional characters as immortal as Peter Pan. In fact, Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s “boy who never grows up” has never even grown old in the eyes of Hollywood. Characterized by adventures he shares with his gang, the Lost Boys, or alongside an assortment of odd fairies and pirates, Peter has set fire to the imagination of moviegoers for nearly a century — and he’s still going! In tribute, we return to Neverland to trace the cinematic roots of the family tree that is Peter Pan.
The latest movie adventure involving Peter Pan is a prequel to Barrie’s original story. Here, the classic character collaborates with Captain Hook in order to defeat a nefarious pirate named Blackbeard (played by Hugh Jackman). While Peter may be the star of the film, Jackman surely steals at least his introductory scene by wailing out the grunge-era Nirvana anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in full buccaneer mode.
Peter Pan Live! (2014)
Broadcast live on NBC, this television special adapted the 1954 stage musical version of the play and cast Allison Williams (of HBO hit show Girls) as the boy who wouldn’t grow up. The performance was an instant hit — possibly buoyed by the oddball casting of Christopher Walken as pesky pirate Captain Hook.
Peter Pan (1924)
While still in her teens, silent movie star Betty Bronson was picked by Barrie to play the role of Peter Pan in the first movie about the folk hero. Extremely rare today, the film was important enough to have been chosen in 2000 for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. Ambitious treasure hunters may be able to track down a DVD if they look hard enough.
Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)
Presenting perhaps the most iconic image of Peter Pan, the animated Disney classic still resonates with audiences and is largely responsible for the character’s likeness showing up on everything from video games to peanut butter. The hit family feature also introduced today’s popular image of Tinker Bell, who had primarily been represented by a simple beam of light in previous staged versions.
Peter Pan (2003)
The first faithful adaptation since Disney’s hit five decades earlier, this live-action adventure went against type by casting 14-year old Jeremy Sumpter in the main role. Until then, the Pan part had often been given to pixieish women. Director P.J. Hogan’s effects-heavy version also takes on a more serious tone. As the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “To never grow up is unspeakably sad, and this is the first Peter Pan where Peter’s final flight seems not like a victory but an escape.”
Once Upon a Time (2013)
Peter Pan made an auspicious debut in the third season of this hit television spin-off. Unlike most portrayals of him as being mischievous but heroic, this interpretation paints Peter as plain evil. That is, until the show’s producers decided to ensure he really becomes “the boy who never grows up” and killed him off a few episodes later.
In Steven Spielberg’s hit spin-off, the late comic Robin Williams infamously shaved his hairy arms to play Pan as an uptight adult who must return to Neverland to rescue his children from Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook. Reportedly, Spielberg originally wanted to make the film as a musical in the 1980s with pop star Michael Jackson — who declined due to the character’s more mature departure.
Tinker Bell films (2008-present)
In 2008, Disney began making a spin-off series of kid-oriented films starring popular pixie Tinker Bell. There have since been seven Tinker Bell movies, earning more than $300 million in North America alone. Holy Tink! You could buy a load of pixie dust for that kind of money!
Finding Neverland (2004)
A cousin to Peter Pan movies, this Oscar-nominated biopic aimed to show how the relationship between Barrie (played by Johnny Depp) and the family of an ill widow helped fuel the legendary story. The author himself is portrayed as a fantasizing Peter Pan figure. As director Marc Forster once explained, “It is about the transformative power of imagination — being able to transform yourself into something greater than you are, even if nobody believes in you.”
Return to Never Land (2002)
Disney briefly revisited Pan folklore in this successful sequel to its 1953 hit. While its simple plot featuring Peter as a boy who still hadn’t grown up didn’t win much love from critics, fans of the fairy tale still flocked to the film — shelling out more than $109 million globally.
*Bonus: Future Family Member*
Tink (To Be Announced)
Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon is destined to don the wings of Tinker Bell in a live-action Disney film. The spin-off may not yet have a release date, but if the film folklore is any indication, there will be more than just Tink in Hollywood’s love affair with Peter Pan.
Steve Gow is a Toronto-based entertainment writer and editor of StrictlyDocs.com.