Each week, THN takes a look back at one of the Walt Disney Animated Classics. The ones that the Walt Disney Company showed in cinemas, the ones they’re most proud of, the ones that still cost a bloody fortune no matter how old they are.
This week we’re down the rabbit hole with ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Walt Disney’s connection to Alice in Wonderland stretches back to his childhood; like so many others he was raised on the stories and had read them as a child.
It took him almost twenty years to bring an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s works to the screen; he originally intended it to be his first feature, but Paramount Pictures’ live-action version put a dampener on that plan, so he went with SNOW WHITE instead. After Snow proved a success, Walt revived the Wonderland project, officially registering the title with the Motion Picture Association of America, and hired artist Al Perkins and art director David Hall to develop it. Whilst a storyreel was completed by 1939, Walt wasn’t happy with the results. The project was shelved again shortly afterwards.
In 1945, shortly after the war ended, Disney once again revived ALICE IN WONDERLAND and brought in British author Aldous Huxley (author of ‘Brave New World’ and co-screenplay writer on 1940’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE) to re-write the script, only to throw that out for being too much of a literal adaptation of the original book…
Around this point, artist Mary Blair, who had accompanied Walt on the Good Will trip to South America which gave us SALUDOS AMIGOS and THE THREE CABELLEROS, submitted some concept work for the film, and that’s where things took off. By moving away from the sketchy, grotesque caricatures of classic Alice illustrations, she took a much more modernist stance, pushing the look of the film into FANTASIA levels of surrealism. Walt was impressed, and ordered the script be rewritten to focus on the comic whimsy of the book.
For a while, Disney toyed with the idea of making ALICE IN WONDERLAND a ROGER RABBIT-styled live-action/animated version with Ginger Rogers in the lead, but later settled on an all-animated film.
As an adaptation of the book it’s… hit and miss. Characters and elements from both Alice books are present in the film, and some aren’t in it at all; characters like the Duchess and the Jabberwock were intended to be present, as were the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, but they were all cut for one reason or another.
Unfortunately, after all that, the film didn’t do as well as everyone had hoped. It was met with a lot of criticism from fans of Lewis Carroll, as well as British film and literary critics who accused them of “Americanising” a great English work. Disney retorted by claiming his version was intended for a family audience rather than the critics, but conceded that it was a disappointment. At the time it was met with a lukewarm response.
It took the film another two decades to find its audience, and even then the Disney Company weren’t too happy about it: After the Stateside success of YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968), ALICE IN WONDERLAND became something of a “head film”, along with FANTASIA and THE THREE CABALLEROS. Basically, the stoners loved it.
SYNOPSIS: An idyllic English riverbank in 1890; young Alice grows bored of her sister’s attempt to educate her and tells her pet cat Dinah that she’d rather live in Wonderland, a place where animals can speak and nothing is as it should be. Catching sight of a white rabbit in a waistcoat and loudly complaining about being late, Alice chases after the fleet-footed rodent into a rabbit hole, through which she tumbles into Wonderland.
Much like the book, the film is basically Alice stumbling from one scene to another and being confused, confounded and abused by the characters she encounters; from a Dodo made out like a sea captain, to a pair of identical twins who ‘adapt’ rather than recite “The Walrus and the Carpenter”; a garden of talking flowers who first invite her to join their song recital, then throw her out thinking she’s a weed; she then a smoking Caterpillar who shouts at her a lot before leaving her with a piece of magic mushroom. (Yeah, I know).
After a chance meeting with the Cheshire Cat, Alice is directed to visit the Mad Hatter, who is taking tea with the March Hare and Dormouse to celebrate their mutual “UN-birthdays”. After five minutes of pure insanity, Alice walks off in a huff and gets lost in the Tulgey Wood. As she sits and cries, lamenting her plight, the Cat reappears – and disappears, then bits of him reappear, you get the idea – and shows her the way to the kingdom of the Queen of Hearts, who strongly encourages young Alice to join her in a game of croquet.
The Cat reappears, disappears, et cetera and causes the Queen to make even more of a fool of herself; she immediately pins the blame on Alice, but the King manages to convince his draconian consort to put the girl on trial, rather than just taking off her head. The trial is just as messed up as everything else in Wonderland, and ends with Alice being chased by pretty much everyone and everything she’s encountered. She then comes to realise this whole thing has been a dream, and manages to wake herself up. Alice and her sister head home for tea.
1. Nothing is impossible.
2. Everything has a logic to it, if you look hard enough.
3. When something says “Eat me”… think twice.
Alice, voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, who also provided live action reference for the animators. Portrayed as being a little older than most “straight” adaptations, the daydreaming Alice is well mannered and courteous, surprisingly mature and a rather elegant young woman. She’s also fiercely determined and occasionally overpowered by her temper, which doesn’t really help her situation.
Considering the crap she goes through, she’s a rather strong heroine.
The nearest thing to a “hero”, per se, is the Cheshire Cat, brilliantly voiced by Sterling Holloway. Inasmuch as he actually tries to help Alice, in his way. Of course, he also goes out of his way to make things worse for Alice by incurring the wrath of the Queen of Hearts, so knock a few points off for that.
Verna Felton as the Queen of Hearts (integrating elements of the Duchess and Red Queen from the original story) is a fierce and formidable woman, a “fat, pompous, bad tempered old tyrant” with a sadistic streak as wide as she is. Felton’s performance of her is quite remarkable, hitting on the Queen’s grace, pleasantness and nobility, as well as her volcanic temperament. She’s a woman with power who gets her own way, mostly through sheer terror. And damn scary to boot.
There is no real sidekick here; Alice is effectively alone through her adventures in Wonderland as characters come and go. One could argue that the King of Hearts is a henchman of the Queen, but most of her forces are anonymous, identical guardsmen.
Not so much a coherent plot than a series of episodic misadventures; the only constant is Alice and her dealing with whatever Wonderland throws at her. Having said that, it is a (fairly) faithful adaptation of the original story.
I admit that humour has changed a lot in sixty years, but I have to say I didn’t find a lot of it laugh-out-loud funny. Aside from a few forgettable sight gags and the wordplay, there wasn’t much to tickle my funnybone. Most of that was Ed Wynn’s performance as the Mad Hatter, but even that becomes tiresome.
Likewise, aside from the odd moment, there wasn’t much by way of scares. The umbrella-vulture things are quite intimidating, and there’s one shot of an enraged Carpenter that chilled me somewhat, but (dare I say this…) much of it was the intimidation of the Queen, who somewhat reminds me of my mother…
MORAL/ EDUCATIONAL VALUE
The script is a little light on life lessons but it does make you think; a lot of Carroll’s wordplay remains and some of the lyrics are quite witty, but for me it’s the strength of character in Alice that sticks; her determination to see things through is admirable, though even she falls into despair when it all gets too much for her. Bless the girl, she does try.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND has the highest number of musical numbers for a Disney feature, and even more were written. About thirty songs were written for the film, and most of them appear, if only as a line or two in passing. Much more of a ‘musical’ than most other Disney films, most of the numbers stick in your head for one reason or another.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND has gone on to become one of the mainstays of the Disney Corporation; its characters frequently appear in one form or another on screen or in person (as it were) at Disney theme parks and resorts. Several rides feature across the Disneyland resorts, and the film has spawned one (going on two) live action sequels directed by Tim Burton. Various versions of Disney’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND have also appeared in computer games, most notably the KINGDOM HEARTS series (which is basically a Disney crossover with Final Fantasy, and is a lot better than that sounds).
And I daresay numerous subsequent versions of Alice in Wonderland have taken the odd element from Walt Disney’s version.
FINAL SCORE: 36/53
Sources: Wikipedia, Disney Wiki, IMDb.