Revisiting 'Nine Old Men' with new 'Peter Pan' doc
05:00 AM, Feb 04, 2013
The making of a classic movie about a boy who wouldn’t grow up involved a group of similarly minded guys.
A new Blu-ray release of the 1953 Disney animated movie Peter Pan (out Tuesday) includes a new documentary short Growing Up with Nine Old Men, a look at the nine artists and animators who contributed to many of Walt Disney’s most famous films, as well as their offspring.
The movie is directed by Ted Thomas, the son of Peter Pan lead animator Frank Thomas. The younger Thomas had also directed the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie, which chronicled the friendship between his father and fellow Disney animator Ollie Johnston and also sewed the seeds for the new doc.
“At the heart of Peter Pan was this idea of family, much more so really than growing up or not growing up,” Ted Thomas says. “That led to, ‘What was it like growing up as a Disney brat?’ “
For many of the sons and daughters Thomas talks to for Growing Up, “a charmed life” is a frequent answer to that question. And in the Thomas household, Walt Disney himself was a daily presence.
“My father would come home from work with stories about what Walt was doing and what Walt wanted to do. They were always incredible or funny or inspiring or revealing,” says Thomas, whose father died in 2004 at the age of 92.
“He was a very good boss for my dad. He was a very good boss for anybody who was on his wavelength, and he was a pretty hard boss to be around for anybody who wasn’t. You look at the Nine Old Men, they were all incredibly talented but they also had the ability to be on Walt’s wavelength more often than not.”
Thomas started working at the company in 1934 and had a hand in many of the timeless cartoons released in the next 40-plus years.
On the whole, Thomas recalls that his father preferred the pictures they did pre-World War II the best, movies such as Dumbo and Pinocchio, but he liked his own individual work on Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland and other fare from the 1950s and ’60s.
“He felt that more and more post-war, they were left on their own as Walt got more and more interested in other things like Disneyland and eventually his ideas for city planning and Epcot,” says Thomas, a former Disney employee himself who is working on a re-release of his father and Johnston’s book Bambi: The Story and the Film.
He remembers that his father took pride in solving “animation problems,” like bouncing Pinocchio around in a birdcage in Stromboli’s caravan in Pinocchio and making it look somewhat believable for Tramp to lovingly push a meatball Lady’s way in the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp.
Peter Pan’s Captain Hook was a conundrum for Frank Thomas, too, but mainly because he wasn’t given very strong direction on what kind of personality the one-armed Neverland villain should have.
The voice work of Hans Conried ultimately became the inspiration for Thomas to craft him as an amalgam of black-hearted bad guy and “a dandy” who’d have a snuff box and a handkerchief handy, says Ted Thomas, “which actually I think makes Captain Hook a fascinating character.
“He’s this chameleon who thinks he’s a very grand fellow but actually has a pretty callow heart. He’s not as big or as bad as he’d like to think he is.”
As society grows further and further away from those who watched The Ed Sullivan Show and The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights of yesteryear, Thomas notes that he finds some children astonished that there was actually a man named Walt Disney and that it’s not just a company, plus a distinct lack of knowledge of the cultural significance of his father and the rest of the Nine Old Men (a term coined by Disney).
“That’s one of the reasons why I feel it’s still worthwhile to tell these stories,” Thomas says. “The climate that they worked together in and their output, it’s still unique. It’s pretty remarkable that you keep watching anything 50 or 60 or, in the case of Snow White, 70 years after it was made.”
While he doesn’t have kids of his own, Thomas does boast a bevy of nieces and nephews, including one 12-year-old grand niece who’s a big fan of Tinkerbell and Peter Pan.
“Even though she’s removed from it,” Thomas says, “she can appreciate the artistry and is a little bit awestruck that she’s got a relative who was involved in the making of it.”