Some of you may be aware that the month of May is referred to as Mermay among various art communities on the internet. It’s a month to celebrate mermaids, and I thought I’d do so with a post of my own. While Ariel is the most famous Disney mermaid, I personally think the feisty mermaids from Peter Pan are very under-appreciated. This gorgeous concept painting by the famous Mary Blair does a perfect job of highlighting those vain otherworldly girls in J.M. Barrie’s tale. Although Mary Blair’s work did serve as a major influence on the art style of Peter Pan, this painting serves as a much more colorful, fantastic, and childish representation of the mermaids. than the traditionally seductive sirens in the final film.
I’ve discussed Mary Blair’s work many times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever featured a piece of artwork that captures the whimsical, childish style of her art work as well as this piece of concept art does. While the mermaids are clearly the vain creatures of J.M. Barrie’s story, Blair gave them a child-like innocence that recalls her later work on Disneyland’s It’s a Small World, a ride which ironically also features mermaids. While Mary Blair’s childish mermaids did not make it into Peter Pan, you can clearly see echos of the It’s a Small World mermaids in this concept painting. The setting of this painting also shows off the abstract modern-art inspired style Blair loved to use. Just look at the interesting lines of the sea-weed and blockey shapes of the rock-work. Walt Disney loved this element of her work, and was always disappointed that his animators found it too difficult to work with and used a more traditional style of setting and character design for Peter Pan instead. Also on display is Blair’s innovative use of bright and unusual colors. Who other than she would have thought to paint the mermaids with pastel green, pink, and blue skin? While the mermaids in the film ended up having normal human skin tones, much of Mary Blair’s unique color style can still be seen in the film. All of the vibrant and unusual colors found throughout the backgrounds in Neverland were heavily influenced by Blair’s concept paintings. Peter Pan ended up being the last animated Disney film Mary Blair worked on, and although her version of the mermaid’s did not make it into the film, Peter Pan was not without her influence.
If the mermaids in Peter Pan were not based on the designs of Mary Blair, then who’s designs were they based on? The mermaids in the final film were actually designed and animated by Fred Moore. Fred Moore is considered one of the greatest animators in Disney history. Some of his most notable work includes Mickey in Fantasia, the three little pigs, and the seven dwarfs. Moore had a reputation at the Walt Disney studios for more than just his work in animation. He was also famous for his “Freddie Moore Girls”, drawings of scantily clad and nude women. The girls in his drawings embodied an intriguing combination of innocence and seductiveness that made them coveted treasures for both his co-workers and modern day collectors. It was these drawings that motivated Walt to put Moore in charge of designing and animating some of the studios more risque characters, including the centaur women in Fantasia, the bobby-soxer girls in Make Mine Music, and the mermaids in Peter Pan. Moore designed the mermaids in his signature style, combining sensuality and innocence in a way that’s rather fitting for the childish yet dark story of Peter Pan. Moore used adult actresses and dancers June Foray, Connie Hilton, and Margaret Kerry as live models for the mermaids. Their curvaceous figures were a far cry from the short childish torsos of Blair’s mermaids. Unfortunately, Peter Pan ended up being the last film Fred Moore worked on, as he died tragically in a car crash in 1952.
While Mary Blair’s designs for the mermaids are interesting and whimsical, Fred Moore’s sultry mermaid designs ended up being a fitting final tribute to his legacy at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Personally, I can’t say whose character designs I prefer, both have their merits. Instead, I’ll leave it up to you decide which look you prefer for
Disney’s darker mermaids.