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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Kathryn Beaumont (Disney's Peter Pan, 1953) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Walt Disney (through RKO Radio Pictures) finally brought J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to audiences in 1953, the 14th animated feature film from the studio. The story of the boy who never grew up, and the adventure of Wendy and brothers on their trip to Neverland, was received warmly by critics and audiences, and the film has become one of the most treasured in Disney’s impressive library of animated classics.

A young Kathryn Beaumont, who just a couple of years earlier had successfully voiced the character of Alice in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, was brought in to help bring the character of Wendy to life. Providing not only the voice, but, as was common practice, live-performing sequences to allow the animators and others to get a more realistic sense of movement and action, Kathryn brought the charm, maturity, and sense of wonder and adventure out of Wendy wonderfully.

HTF had the chance to speak to Kathryn Beaumont, as well as Disney historian Mindy Johnson, about Peter Pan, ahead of the film’s re-release on Blu-ray as part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection.

The Peter Pan Signature Collection Blu-ray and DVD is available to own on June 5, 2018, and the Digital HD is available now from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

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HTF: Peter Pan holds a very special place in the hearts of so many people around the world. And a number of my fellow writers on Home Theater Forum are huge fans, some who were able to catch it in the cinema during its initial run, and others who fell in love with it during its many theatrical re-releases. Do you think the timeless magic in films like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland comes from the right blend of the fanciful story, in this case, James M Barrie's classic, "The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up," and Disney's keen understanding of what children find magical, and then from how they interpret and present those stories in ways that spark the imagination in children?

“[Walt] was a master at timeless storytelling and really truly knew what…he could address and cultivate the imagination in pretty marvelous ways…”
Kathryn Beaumont: Well, storytelling has always been just so special. Of the wonderful books from our childhood, these were two of the very special ones. But there were many, many wonderful fairy tales and stories growing up that the fantasies were just very special and things that you remembered all through your adulthood. And [Walt] Disney was such a talented person, he was able to take some of these wonderful stories and create some marvelous films from them that we have enjoyed all the way up to today, which I think is just great.

HTF: Right

Mindy Johnson: He was a master at timeless storytelling and really truly knew what, as you mentioned, he could address and cultivate the imagination in pretty marvelous ways, and these, as Kathy said, were stories that in and of themselves piqued imagination. But with Walt's added magic, they're timeless.

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HTF: I also think it's fascinating that in many of the stories Disney has adapted, even when they're quite different from the source material, as Peter Pan is, it is Disney's presentation that becomes what we associate most closely with that story. It almost replaces-- and I don't mean this in a mean way at all-- but it almost becomes the dominant way we remember those stories even if there are fairly sizable changes from the source material. Do you think that's another part of Disney's gift is knowing the right tweaks to make to really spark that imagination?

“[Walt] surrounded himself with very talented artists and writers. Dorothy Ann Blank did some of the earliest story explorations on this and was part of a group of ideas to help bring some of these stories to contemporary audiences. But he also was very careful of going through J. M. Barrie's work…”

Kathryn Beaumont: Well, he was very talented as a storywriter and he would know how to do some of the tweaking but not change the actual wonderful fairy tale it started out to be. So that's what I see.

Mindy Johnson: Yeah. He surrounded himself with very talented artists and writers. Dorothy Ann Blank did some of the earliest story explorations on this and was part of a group of ideas to help bring some of these stories to contemporary audiences. But he also was very careful of going through J. M. Barrie's work and really getting to the essence of what the story entailed and what Barrie's message was. So I think that's part of the magic of what Walt Disney brought to it was he wasn't about to overdo or remake entirely. He respected and knew these stories had a timeless quality to them, and he stayed true to that but also giving it a palatable quality for contemporary audiences and for the medium of animation.

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HTF: The Wendy character, [which you voiced] is quite fanciful, but she's a very sensible young girl and responsible, too. She is yearning for that sense of adventure, and appealingly, she's most adept at handling herself as she whisks off to Neverland in the story along with her brothers. What have you learned about the audience reactions to the Wendy character over the years? I mean, Peter is the magical character, and he's really the central character. He's mischievous, he's fun, but I always saw Wendy as the catalyst for the film's heroic core. She does it not by changing but rather by affirming who we saw her to be right from the very outset of the film-- very loving, very caring, very responsible, but not-so-much that she's as stuck in the mud as her father is. How did you view her at the time you were recording her voice and the performance, and has your view of her changed over the years?

Kathryn Beaumont: My view probably has not changed about Wendy as a character. She was on the brink of adolescence and just very typical of her age and had to think about things differently as she was growing up. And I think that's what the film was representing, too.

HTF: And of course, before you became Wendy in Peter Pan, you'd voiced Alice in the what is now treasured adaptation of Lewis Carroll's work, Alice in Wonderland. The film was not embraced upon its initial release, particularly by British critics…

“Even before I started working for Disney, I so admired all the films that he had made and saw every one of them and just loved them.”

Kathryn Beaumont: I really wasn't terribly aware of all of that at the time. I was so star-struck with just being part of it all that the results of what were happening after it was released were not part of it. It was just the wonderful experiences I had in getting to know Walt Disney and the wonderful, talented people that worked along with him to create these wonderful stories that all the children just loved and I did. Even before I started working for Disney, I so admired all the films that he had made and saw every one of them and just loved them.

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HTF: Of course. What I find interesting is that Alice may not have had the warmest reaction when it was released, but like great films, it came into its own over the years and now by many is considered one of the very finest of Disney's productions. So, take me back to when you first came aboard, when you first met Walt and what you learned from him upon meeting him and as you were working on these two very classic characters.

“I was rather nervous about meeting [Walt] because here was this very well-known person and such a star in my eyes that I was very nervous to actually meet him for the first time. But the meeting turned out to be just wonderful…”

Kathryn Beaumont: Well, because he was so iconic, I was rather nervous about meeting him because here was this very well-known person and such a star in my eyes that I was very nervous to actually meet him for the first time. But the meeting turned out to be just wonderful because he was so welcoming, and he had a little group with him in his office. I knocked on the door with my mum standing there, and I'm very nervous to walk in and start talking to him. But he opened the door and said, "Oh, come in, Kathryn. Let's just sit over here on this chair, and we'll just get to know each other." And he started asking a few general questions. And I began to feel more comfortable because I forgot my feelings of fear that he was this iconic person that I was meeting for the first time. And it turned out that he was just a lovely person and a nice man to talk to, and I felt very comfortable with him.

He used to come down on the set several times just to see what was happening and see how things were progressing, maybe offer a suggestion here or there that he was sort of part of that creative team. And that was what was so wonderful about working at the studio because everybody seemed to be working together as a wonderful team to create something very special.

HTF: And the Wendy character with other characters resembled those who were voicing those parts. You also provided some performance reference for the animators. Now that's something very commonplace today with performance capture suits and the very highly special effects in James Cameron's Avatar, and so on, and so forth. But back then, did you find it unusual or did you really embrace the opportunity to add another layer to the performance in giving those visual references?

“…live action reference was a standard part of the animation process and had been part of virtually every film even prior to ‘Snow White’ and the early ‘Silly Symphonies’. But, by the time we get to ‘Peter Pan’, it really was a crucial, key part of the process.”

Kathryn Beaumont: When I was in the thick of it, I was very young at the time, and so all of these experiences were new for me. So I was walking into a situation where yes, there was the voice part, and then I was told that there would be live action and explained something about what the purpose for that was. I just followed along with what they needed me to do. So it became an exciting time because I hadn't had that kind of experience before. It was all brand new to me, and it was lovely because the directors, the people who worked together to put the film together, were just wonderful to me and made me feel comfortable and able to do what they asked me to work on to get the character alive. So it was just lovely working with them.

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Mindy Johnson: And live action reference was a standard part of the animation process and had been part of virtually every film even prior to Snow White and the early Silly Symphonies. But, by the time we get to Peter Pan, it really was a crucial, key part of the process. Particularly in the discovery of many of the characters and this idea of Neverland, the look and feel of some of the characters, particularly Tinker Bell, that had only been a flash of light prior to this. So it was a crucial part that it had been well established. And I think it was also an important part for many of the characters and the animators to bring actors and the animators to evolve the character they were working on. Ideas, suggestions, and little offshoots and mannerisms stemmed from the live action work. But, as I mentioned, with Tinker Bell, it was a key part of defining that character, and Kathy even did earlier live-action reference with Tinker Bell.

Kathryn Beaumont: Oh, yes.

Mindy Johnson: Marc Davis was designing her to be a little girl from the waist up but a woman from the waist down to give her this complex blend. And since Kathy was on…

Kathryn Beaumont: On the brink…[laughter]

Mindy Johnson: Yeah [laughter]. She could still provide some childlike qualities but knew to take the direction and to help the animators explore exactly what this little imp [would be like].

“I just felt as if I was part of the family at the time I was working there. It was just a rich, wonderful experience for me as a youngster.”

HTF: I wanted to tell you, Kathryn, that you have such a lovely voice. You have the voice that when I think of classic, charming, British girls, yours is the voice that springs to mind. And I don't know if that comes from having watched Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan so much growing up. But I imagine it's something that I will pass on to my son, who is five, and about ready to embrace some of the Disney films here. So, my final question is to ask what is perhaps the one thing that you've taken away from your experience in voicing Wendy and Alice? What is perhaps the most treasured memory or thing that you take away from all of this?

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Kathryn Beaumont: Well, thank you so much. There isn't a particular treasured memory. It's just the whole experience of getting to know Walt Disney, of being part of that team of creative people, and having such a wonderful time together with them because they welcomed me so well. I just felt as if I was part of the family at the time I was working there. It was just a rich, wonderful experience for me as a youngster.

HTF: Well, thank you both for talking with me today, it has been a real honor. Thank you so much!

Kathryn Beaumont: Thank you, it’s been a delight!

Mindy Johnson: It was nice talking to you too!
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