Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Alice In Wonderland

Original 1951 theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Alice In Wonderland

Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland did not come into this world quickly or easily. He had been trying for years to get a feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic books off the ground. By the time it was finally released to indifferent reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns in July of 1951, Walt found himself wondering if it had even been worth the effort. I’m here to tell you that it absolutely was.

Walt’s history with Alice dates all the way back to 1923 when he and Ub Iwerks made a ten-minute short called Alice’s Wonderland. Inspired more by Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland than Lewis Carroll, the short follows a live-action girl named Alice (played by Virginia Davis) who takes a train to cartoon-land after a visit to Walt’s fledgling Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City.

Laugh-O-Gram went out of business shortly after the film was made and Walt headed west to join his brother Roy in California. But the short caught the eye of cartoon distributor Margaret Winkler, who commissioned the Alice Comedies. Along with the later Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons, the Alice Comedies helped launch Disney’s animation career.

By 1933, Walt had begun to tinker with the idea of making a feature-length version of Carroll’s Alice using a hybrid process similar to the Alice Comedies. Mary Pickford was to play the live-action Alice. But when Paramount released their own all-star live-action Alice In Wonderland, Walt put his idea on the shelf. In 1936, Walt got a little bit of Wonderland out of his system with the Mickey Mouse cartoon Thru The Mirror.

After the release of Snow White, Walt secured the film rights to Carroll’s books, specifically the editions with the familiar John Tenniel illustrations. David Hall created some beautiful concept art based on Tenniel’s work but Walt rejected this version as too dark and difficult to animate. The outbreak of World War II resulted in all work on Alice and several other films being put on hold.

When Walt returned to the project, he still planned on a live-action/animation hybrid. British writer Aldous Huxley, then earning a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, was hired to work on the script. He looked at a number of different potential Alices, including thirtysomething Ginger Rogers, child star Margaret O’Brien, and contract player Luana Patten (from Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart). But Walt rejected Huxley’s script as “too literary” and began to have doubts about the hybrid format.

Enter artist Mary Blair, who had joined the studio in 1940. Blair had been a part of the Good Neighbor tour of South and Central America that had produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Her eye for color and design made her an invaluable part of the Disney team. She produced some Alice concept art that moved away from the Tenniel look in favor of bright colors and abstract shapes. Her work convinced Walt to move ahead with Alice as a feature-length cartoon. Using Blair’s paintings as a guide, the story and music departments took one last crack at shaping the project.

Alice In Wonderland concept art by Mary Blair
Mary Blair, Concept art for the Walt Disney animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” c. 1950, gouache on board. (Photo Courtesy of the Hilbert Museum)

The music department played an even more important role than usual in dictating the movie’s tone. Walt wanted to maintain as much of Carroll’s language as possible, especially the verse, so songs were built around such passages as The Walrus And The Carpenter and Jabberwocky. Over two dozen songs were written for the film by such talents as Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, Oliver Wallace, and Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, who had just finished work on Cinderella.

A few songs were left on the cutting room floor. Jabberwocky was an early casualty. The only reference that remains is the Cheshire Cat’s song, “’Twas Brillig”. Two others were given new lyrics and used in Peter Pan. Even with these cuts, Alice In Wonderland still has more original songs than any other Disney film before or since.

Some of those songs have become so familiar, such as “I’m Late” and “The Un-birthday Song”, that we barely even register them as songs anymore. They’re more like common, everyday expressions that everyone just happens to say in a specific cadence. Others, like “All In A Golden Afternoon” and “Very Good Advice”, may not have become standards like other Disney songs. But they’re extremely effective in the context of the film.

Perhaps in an effort to ease concerns that he would Americanize Carroll’s book, Walt selected British actress Kathryn Beaumont to provide the voice and live-action reference modeling for Alice. While it certainly would have been interesting to see some of the other actresses Walt had considered, young Miss Beaumont turned out to be the right fit for the part. You can’t have an Alice who overreacts to the odd sights and characters she encounters. Kathryn Beaumont underplays the part beautifully, while the animators bring out subtle facial expressions and gestures from the reference footage. We relate to both her dreaminess and her eventual exasperation with Wonderland’s nonsense.

But the character of Alice was also a big part of what frustrated Disney about Carroll’s book. Unlike previous and future Disney heroes and heroines, Alice doesn’t have a story arc that touches the heart. She just wants to escape into a world of fantasy and nonsense. By design, Alice is something of an aloof blank slate. She’s reactive instead of active. Even Pinocchio is an active participant in his own downfall and redemption. Alice just pinballs from one wacky situation to the next.

But in the movie’s defense, those situations represent some absolutely first-class wackiness. Walt’s top animators all worked on Alice In Wonderland and you get the sense that they realized that, despite everyone’s best efforts, this was not going to be a particularly cohesive picture. Instead, to keep themselves engaged, they turned it into a thrilling game of one-upmanship. Each sequence is more colorful and imaginative than the last, with stunning design and kinetic movement.

In this way, Walt’s team managed to find a visual equivalent to Carroll’s brilliant use of language and wordplay. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass, are overflowing with puns, nonsense words and hidden meanings. Even the layout of the text on the page is significant.

None of that can ever be truly replicated in a movie. But the animation finds countless opportunities for visual gags and details that would be equally impossible in a book. Think of the March Hare’s request for just “half a cup” of tea, whereupon he slices the cup in half. Or the countless ways the animators find for the Cheshire Cat to disappear and reappear. Or the smoke letters blown by the Caterpillar.

The picture also benefits from its stellar vocal cast, one of the best ensembles Disney ever assembled. Vaudeville star Ed Wynn became forever linked to the Mad Hatter after this. It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect match between actor and character. Shockingly, this was one of Wynn’s only vocal performances. It only seems like he did a million of them because so many other cartoon actors went on to do an “Ed Wynn voice”. But we’ll see him again in this column when he starts to appear in Disney’s live-action films.

Bill Thompson had become famous on radio, voicing a character named Wallace Wimple. That character helped inspire Tex Avery’s creation of Droopy for MGM, which Thompson also voiced for many years. The White Rabbit is basically just Thompson’s Wimple/Droopy voice on speed but it works like gangbusters. But he was no one-trick pony. Thompson also provides the voice of the Dodo. It adds a little something to the scene where the Dodo decides to burn down the White Rabbit’s house when you realize Thompson is doing both voices. We’ll hear the vocal stylings of Bill Thompson many more times in this column.

Richard Haydn, on the other hand, never did another cartoon voice after Alice In Wonderland but his one role for Disney was a keeper. As the Caterpillar, Haydn finds the exact note of haughty superiority. One of the few things Tim Burton’s live-action remake got right was casting Alan Rickman, who frequently seemed to be channeling Haydn’s Caterpillar in his performances anyway, in the role.

For many of the other roles, Disney stuck with actors he’d come to be familiar with. Sterling Holloway finds subtle layers of lunacy in his performance as the Cheshire Cat. Radio star Jerry Colonna, who had previously narrated Casey At The Bat in Make Mine Music, is perfectly paired with Wynn’s Mad Hatter as the March Hare. And Verna Felton, who had most recently provided the voice of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, goes to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum with her unhinged take on the Queen of Hearts.

Despite all this, Walt never felt like he had been able to crack Alice In Wonderland. At one point, he was so frustrated by the project that he was ready to cancel the whole thing. But Peter Pan wasn’t far enough along, so shelving Alice would have left the studio with nothing to release in 1951.

When audiences and critics alike failed to show much enthusiasm for Alice, Walt chalked it up as a disappointment. He never re-released the film theatrically in his lifetime. In 1954, he aired a severely truncated version on the television series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, then in its second season. Walt would continue to air it on TV for years.

1974 theatrical re-release poster for Alice In Wonderland

But in the early 1970s, a funny thing happened. Film societies on college campuses around the country, eager to program anything that could even remotely be described as “psychedelic”, started screening Alice In Wonderland. As it developed a cult following, Disney decided it might be worth giving it a general re-release. In 1974, Alice In Wonderland finally returned to theatres with a new marketing campaign that leaned into the whole trippy vibe, although they drew the line at featuring the hookah-puffing Caterpillar on the poster.

It was here that 5-year-old Adam Jahnke’s mother took him to see his very first movie. Because of that association, I have a very hard time looking at Alice In Wonderland objectively. To me, it was a magical, transformative experience. I can understand Walt Disney’s disappointment in the final product. I can sympathize with the Lewis Carroll purists who object to the liberties taken with the books. I can even acknowledge criticisms that the film is too episodic, too cold, and lacks a sympathetic main character.

But that’s not the way I view Alice In Wonderland. I just see a very funny, dazzlingly colorful entertainment that blew the eyes right out of my head as a child. It was my gateway drug to the wider world of cinema. It was as impossible to resist as a mysterious bottle labeled “Drink Me”. I drank every drop and I’ve never looked back.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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