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My ‘Peter Pan’ Experience

[IMG:L]Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan—a re-telling of J.M. Barrie’s classic story about the boy who refused to grow up—is one of those timeless treasures which has enchanted generations of children.

Of course, I am one of them, just slightly more grown up. I remember reading the story as a small tyke, mesmerized, especially when I had to clap and say I believe in fairies to bring Tinkerbell back to life. When the Disney movie was re-released in theaters, I watched with pure delight, wishing I, too, could fly to Neverland with Peter Pan.

Needless to say, I have yet to visit Neverland, but I can now say I have flown over London via a helicopter, courtesy of those clever folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment. They have recently released a two-disc Platinum DVD Edition of Peter Pan, complete with fun-filled games for the kids and fascinating bonus features for us adults, including a rare article in which Walt Disney himself lays out exactly why he made Peter Pan.

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Buena Vista offers a few of us lowly journalists a chance to experience the setting and very essence of Barrie’s tale, with a sort of childlike wonderment, much they way Peter Pan might have wanted us to. Along with the helicopter ride, we also visit Big Ben in the Great Westminster Clock, take a stroll through Kensington Gardens—where J.M. Barrie was first inspired to write his seminal play—and get to talk with the women who brought to life two of literature’s most endearing characters: Kathryn Beaumont, who was the voice of Wendy, and Margaret Kerry, the dancer/model on whom the fully-formed Tinkerbell was based.

Here’s a recount of my very own Peter Pan experience:

Happy Thoughts
After being on a plane all night, flying across the pond for some eight hours, you’d think the last thing I would have wanted to do is to immediately climb into a helicopter. To be honest, a nap would have been more restorative, but the helicopter flight is the very first thing on our itinerary—and I’m not about to pass it up for some sleep.

I am with a group of five journalists, all Americans—the Yank contingency as it were—as they load us into a mini bus and take us to the heliport. It is later in the afternoon, but the weather couldn’t be more beautiful—sunny, chilly, a little breezy with high visibility. I am told by our British guide that we are extremely lucky because London weather in March can be “spotty” at best. Again, another reason to fight off travel exhaustion, buck up and take the ride.

I admit I am a little nervous since I’ve never been in a helicopter before, but once I am in, I quickly get caught up in the sensation. As we take off, someone says, “Think happy thoughts!” Oh right, because that’s what Peter Pan tells Wendy and her brothers to do to help them lift off the ground. I add, “And a little pixie dust!” since that seems to be the key ingredient to the whole Peter Pan flight arrangement. There’s some nervous laughter.

The fear is for naught, however. Our pilot is a seasoned fellow, who clearly knows what he is doing as we soar high over the sludgy Thames River and the glorious sprawling city of London. He points out all the landmarks: Buckingham Palace (the Queen is in residence); the Parliament Building; Big Ben; the Tower Bridge; the Eye (a glorified Ferris wheel, if you ask me); a very modern-looking building shaped like a bullet, which apparently is featured in Basic Instinct 2. Interesting.

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If we could have only made it to that second star to the right, but alas, our pilot safely lands us on solid ground. I’m much too wired to get some sleep now, a condition that unfortunately affects me the next day…

A Big Ben History Lesson
[IMG:R]…Which starts bright and early, another abnormally sunny day for the notoriously gray and rainy London (hey, I’ll take it). The helicopter experience has somewhat bonded me with my happy band of Yanks, as we gather in the hotel lobby. I’d like to say we cheerily greeted each other this fine morning, but it’s obvious no one else has gotten enough sleep either. We’re all a tad weary but seemingly up for the day’s adventures.

The first stop is the Great Westminster Clock, which looms in one corner of the Parliament building and houses the Big Ben bell. It’s an impressive structure, to say the least. In fact, I’m one of the lucky ones who has a view of the clock from my hotel room window and can hear it chime—every hour on the hour. A neat trick at 5:00 in the morning.

Since the clock tower is connected to a governmental institution, security measures are strict and touring the London landmark, established in the mid-1800s, isn’t common practice. It could also have something to do with the fact visitors have to climb 292 steps, in a spiral motion, to get to the top of this 169 year-old tower. After stopping to catch my breath on the 176th stair, trying to shake that dizzy nauseated feeling, I begin to think Peter Pan had the right idea of just flying up to the clock face and landing on the hands. Still, gotta give the old tick tock some credit—surviving WWII bombs, river floods and even the time the Thames actually fermented. Yikes.

Kensington Gardens: Where It All Began
After our Big Ben adventure, we are off to the Darling’s residence. Mind you, this isn’t the real Darling house from the movie—where John and Mary Darling raised their three children, Wendy, John and Michael—but it’s a close enough approximation.

The house serves as the main headquarters for all the day’s festivities and an excellent place for me and my colleagues to relax a little. These are charming, ornate rooms, filled with Victorian furniture and many drawings and paintings of Disney’s Peter Pan scattered about. They are also playing the Peter Pan soundtrack through loud speakers. Certainly puts one in the mood. Lounging on a divan, I am served fish and chips, bangers (sausages) and mash (mashed potatoes), and other such British delicacies by girls dressed as English maids. And tea. Lots of tea. It is all quite proper, I assure you.

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[IMG:L]After a nice respite, we are gathered up again for a tour of Kensington Gardens, where J.M. Barrie was supposed to have met the Llewelyn-Davies boys (so vividly played out in Finding Neverland) and thus became motivated to write Peter Pan as a play. Our tour guide tells us we have to move quickly because he doesn’t have much time, so, as he darts ahead of the group at record speed, pointing to this and that, we struggle to keep up.

Finally, we end up in front of Barrie’s home—at least that’s what the plaque above the little brownstone tells us. I let my mind wonder a bit to what it must have been like at the turn of the century, when Barrie lived there—how the streets looked, the park across the street. I’m also fascinated with Barrie’s thought processes on creating such an iconic story. I’ve seen Finding Neverland (which apparently isn’t entirely accurate, biographically speaking), but being in the man’s actual surroundings puts it into perspective.

Brian Sibley, a Disney historian who has written several books on Walt Disney, tells us later, “Peter Pan is one of those characters in literature who escapes from the author. He’s been created and written in a book or play but then runs free…a string of characters or stories so unique, so remarkable, that somehow it’s as so nobody had ever written them. They somehow become like myth, like legend. But it’s important to remember these stories DO come from somewhere.”

And we are standing right in front of where it all began.

Wendy and Tinkerbell Revisited
Back at the Darlings, it’s time to sit down and talk with the two ladies who made Peter Pan so very memorable.

Kathryn Beaumont, 69, is a lovely woman, very regal. Our group walks into the room, and she greets us as if she was the hostess of the house, shaking hands, asking our names. Beaumont was only 10 years old when she first enter into the world of Disney, acting as the model and voice of Alice in Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland. A perky little blonde, when she was then asked to do Wendy two years later, the animators wanted to make sure Wendy was different from Alice.

“Because I just came off the Alice role, there was some concern,” Beaumont explains. “They didn’t want another Alice. Physically, they decided to make the hair a lot darker, put the hair up, so physically it doesn’t look like an Alice. Wendy is also the older sister helping the younger ones, motherly and she took that responsibility. And then she would forget and babble, babble, babble when she got excited. We thought from that stand point, it would be totally different from the practical Alice, ‘Oh, how very curious!’ So, it just sort of flowed well from one to the other.”

Back then, voicing an animated feature was far more collaborative than it is today. Beaumont tells us the actors would stand in a room, with various microphones around, and act out the story right there. This way they were all able to react with one another.

The one thing Beaumont didn’t enjoy in making Peter Pan, however, was having to simulate flight. “[The flying scenes] were a challenge for the artists,” she says, “that feeling of weightlessness and floating look. They needed to see that. So, yes, I was hoisted up—and in varying degrees. Most children probably think, ‘Oh, what fun!’ to get to be hung up there and swing around. But I was thinking, ‘Oh my! That’s a long way down.’”

[IMG:R]Meeting Margaret Kerry, the model for the feisty sprite Tinkerbell, is a new experience in itself. “Kathryn told you about flying? You can’t imagine the contraption,” Kerry exclaims. “It was about as safe as sticking your head into an oven with the gas on, as far as I was concerned.” Thankfully, she tells us she didn’t have to spend much time in the contraption, since the animators decided Tinkberbell doesn’t glide, she darts.

Of course, up until this point in the Peter Pan lore, Tinkerbell had only been known as a ball of light, dancing around on stage. For his film, however, Disney wanted a fully fleshed out fairy and hired 19-year-old dancer Kerry to be the role model—and even now, at 78, the adorably free-spirited woman doesn’t seem to be much different from her alter ego.

“I can truthful say Tinkerbell is a lot like me and I’m a lot like Tinkerbell. I live in the now and Tinkerbell lives in the now,” Kerry says with a twinkle in her eye. “I’m writing a book that I swear to you I’ve been writing for five decades called Tinkerbell Talks. And I can’t remember dates, they aren’t that important to me—and isn’t that Tinkerbell? She’s all about what’s the next adventure. I looked at her as a 13-year-old girl, so naïve but ready for the world. Like when she lands on the mirror. I thought she’s probably never seen a mirror before. And if she’s never seen a mirror, she’s never seen herself before. And isn’t THAT fascinating? Seeing the world through childlike eyes.”

“But being a 13 year-old—and ladies, some of you may remember—your emotions change like THAT! In a nano-second.” Laughter in the room, since most of us are women. Kerry continues, “She’s got this big, ugly girl getting the attention so to Tinkerbell, get rid of her! Makes sense to me. But the other thing that’s lovely about Tinkerbell is that once she realizes she’s made a mistake and put people in jeopardy, especially Peter, she does something about it. And that takes courage, it really does. I came up with a word for her: beguiling. You can beguile when you’re naughty and you can beguile when you’re good. And that’s Tinkerbell.”

Kerry credits animator Marc Davis, who created Tinkerbell, for the fairy’s true essence. “At first, Marc had pictures of her standing like this [puts her hands on her hips]. But I didn’t think of Tinkerbell as a tomboy. I think she’s a feminine little thing and doesn’t know it. So he made her very feminine, much to the consternation of many people. How he got by with all the curves he put in is…if you notice [Tinkerbell] is really not curved on top. She’s like a little girl from the waist up. But from the hips down, she’s a woman. He also drew very often from the back, looking over her shoulder. So you didn’t see a lot of the curves.”

Kerry still pinches herself over the experience. “I was told by a studio executive a few years ago that there are three blonde icons in the world: Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe and Tinkerbell. I said, ‘Dang, I’m an icon!’”

For Our Viewing Pleasure
And finally, we come to the real reason Peter Pan is still an animated classic: Watching the movie on the big screen with a theater full of children. British children, no less, yelling at the screen with adorable little British accents: “Look, Mummy, Peter Pan!” Seeing the film with its primary demographics is almost like watching it for the first time again.

Brian Sibley actually puts it into words: “The quintessential story, the message remains the same: It’s important not to lose touch with the innocence and imagination of childhood and of being young. We ought to think it’s tragic that Peter doesn’t grow up. Peter, we would say, doesn’t lead a fulfilled life because he doesn’t become a full-grown human and have emotional interactions with people.”

“But of course, what Barrie is saying is that Peter keeps the spirit of youth, the spirit of imagination alive,” Sibley continues. “He keeps all those things we tend to lose when we reach adulthood. And I think for Barrie that was very important, and I think for Disney, too. I think there was a sense about both men. It’s very tempting to say, ‘Oh, it’s something that’s childish…’ as opposed to childlike–the ability to remember what it’s like to be a child and enjoy those childish emotions and childish sensations and to revel in them. And I think that’s something both Barrie and Disney, in their distinct way, understood.”

And so I say goodbye to London for now, taking with me memories of a truly exhilarating Peter Pan adventure, along with a copy of the DVD I plan to watch again with my own little girl.

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