An Intriguing Failure: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland

Years later, Walt Disney tried to avoid responsibility for Alice in Wonderland (1951) by claiming he’d never wanted to make it. This was at best disingenuous: Disney had actually started development of the film back in 1933, and before that, he had made two short films inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic. (My previous review of the book here.) Clearly, the idea of a child falling into Wonderland had a strong hold on him. So after his firm’s fortunes slowly began to climb back from the nadir of the postwar years, he set his animators on Alice in Wonderland, developing the film right along with Cinderella, creating a race to see which could be completed first.

Alice in Wonderland lost, on more than one level.

A significant problem for the film’s development turned out to be the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. By the 1940s, those illustrations had reached iconic status, and animating Alice without referencing the illustrations seemed impossible. But basing an animated Alice on those illustrations seemed even more impossible. Tenniel, after all, had not been concerned with the issues involved in making drawings move across a screen, but rather how to make illustrations pop out from a newspaper page. As a result, his illustrations followed the classic British newspaper cartoon tradition, which meant, simply, that his images have a lot of lines. That’s great for illustrations in books, which only needed to reproduce the lines once per printing, but a disaster for an animated film, which had to reproduce those lines, with subtle variations, multiple times in order to make the drawings seem to move on the screen. Even in the computer animated age, this is difficult. In Frozen, for instance, most of the characters wear relatively simple costumes, and the side characters include a white snowman (very few lines) and a brown reindeer (ditto). In the hand-drawn, hand-inked era of Alice in Wonderland, it was prohibitively expensive. Disney faced a conundrum: the studio needed simple clean animated work that could be done swiftly and still resemble the Tenniel illustrations—a puzzle no one could solve.

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It did not help, of course, that Disney had set all nine of his major animators on Cinderella, ordering them to direct most of their attentions to that film. Ward Kimball took the skills he’d used to create Lucifer the Cat to help bring the Cheshire Cat to life in this film, which perhaps explains why the Cheshire Cat in Alice looks a bit more like Lucifer than the Tenniel illustrations in most shots. Les Clark animated both Cinderella and Alice; Marc Davis animated both the stepsisters and Alice; Ollie Johnston animated the stepsisters in a couple of scenes—and Alice; and so on. What you should be getting from this is that a number of animators took turns with the film’s main character of Alice. This was hardly uncommon in Disney animation, but prevented anyone from developing a distinct, individual take on Alice—with the result that she became one of the blandest of Disney heroines.

Story development raised another issue. As with Bambi, the Disney animators were developing a story that did not, strictly speaking, have a real plot. In the book, Alice simply falls down the rabbit hole and wanders from linguistic joke to mathematics joke to linguistic joke again. Her goal, such as it isn’t, is to reach a lovely garden that she catches glimpses of here and there, but this goal is frequently forgotten for pages and pages, even by Alice herself. By the time she does reach the garden, she’s mostly forgotten that she even wanted to get there, and once she is inside, the book continues for five more chapters, never really acknowledging that Alice achieved her goal. The sequel, Through the Looking Glass, has a slightly tighter plot, in that Alice is moving across a chessboard in order to become a queen, but only slightly tighter.

Lacking a unifying plot, the animators went for a moral instead: “Be careful what you wish for.” Not a bad moral, as morals go, but establishing this concept meant that instead of starting the film with a time-obsessed White Rabbit, the film instead started with Alice singing a song, immediately slowing the film. This also meant that Alice had to actually suffer from time to time, forcing tweaks to the storyline—most notably in the Tulgey Wood sequence where Alice, finally attempting to get home, finds herself lost and terrified by bizarre creatures—who never speak. If that sounds odd for something written by the wordplay, conversation obsessed Lewis Carroll, well, it’s not from Carroll, but Disney, and probably not coincidentally, it’s one of the weaker parts of the film.

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The animators also added other bits and characters to the original story. Alice’s first arrival in Wonderland, for instance, originally marked with silence and items ominously labelled “Drink Me” and “Eat Me,” was augmented by the addition of a talking doorknob who wants to tell door jokes. Several characters were brought over from Through the Looking Glass—most, granted, as replacements for other characters. Tweedledum and Tweedledee largely took over the roles of the Mock Turtle and the Griffin (and to a lesser extent the Duchess and the Red Queen), for instance, this in part because Disney didn’t find the original characters all that amusing when transferred to the screen. Other characters were combined, not always to anyone’s benefit—the decision to give the Queen of Hearts some of the mannerisms and speeches of the White Queen, for instance, was just not a wise move.

Disney also chose to fill the film with various musical numbers, partly because the original Carroll books did contain several pauses for nonsense poetry, and partly because by now this was a Disney film trademark. One or two of the songs do work well, particularly those based on Carroll’s original poems. Others, especially “The Walrus and the Carpenter” number, not only do unwarranted things to Carroll’s lyrics, but genuinely feel as if they are separate cartoon shorts, just tossed into the Alice film. That is, in a way, a nice throwback to the books, which move from disconnected incident to disconnected incident, in the matter of dreams, but works a little less well in an animated film.

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And, as they had been in Bambi, the original Disney songs were complete flops, particularly Alice’s solo “In a World of My Own.”

In part this was because of Kathryn Beaumont, only thirteen when she voiced Alice, audibly struggled with the singing parts—something she did rather too much in this film. But mostly, this is because they are just not very good songs.

I can’t blame the other problems with Alice on Beaumont’s voicing either. (Nor did Disney, who happily hired Beaumont again to voice Wendy in Peter Pan.) In the books, Alice is an intelligent, if easily frustrated and irritated child. Then again, she does seem to have quite a lot to get frustrated and irritated about—I cannot see a grownup responding any better to the tea party with the Mad Hatter and March Hare. But, even frustrated and irritated, Alice manages to reason her way through at least some of Wonderland’s logistical impossibilities, and occasionally even hold her own against the linguistic wordplay of some of the creatures she encounters. More so, granted, in the sequel Through the Looking Glass, but I can’t help but think that if the film could borrow characters from that sequel, it could borrow characteristics, too.

But in the film, Alice is continually bested by the characters she encounters. Even one of her most triumphant moments—rapidly growing to a grand size that allows her to dominate the Queen of Hearts—is undercut when she suddenly shrinks again and finds herself terrorized again. She spends much of the film begging the White Rabbit to talk to her (he ignores her.) And her dream, rather than ending on a victorious note as it does in the book, ends with her fleeing in tears, needing to get told by a doorknob that she’s only dreaming, and screaming at herself to wake up. She does—only to have her dreams dismissed by her sister. In the book, the sister listens, and for a moment, dreams of going to Wonderland herself. It’s a validation, instead of a dismissal. Arguably worse is Alice yawning during one of the musical numbers—a chorus of singing flowers—not to mention her occasional expressions of boredom and irritation during her trial.

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If the main character is bored by events on the screen….well.

And yet, sprinkled throughout all this are some delightfully trippy—for want of a better word—moments. The initial fall down the rabbit hole, for instance, with Dinah the cat waving a rather stunned goodbye; the arrival of the Queen of Hearts and her army of playing cards; and the final chase scene, featuring nearly every character from the film. The Tea Party with the March Hare is arguably one of the best, if not the best, filmed adaptations of that scene. And if I’m not exactly satisfied with the character of the Queen of Hearts, every scene involving her remains delightfully weird, and the expressions on the faces of the poor flamingos forced to be croquet mallets are marvelous. Portions of the film are marvelously surreal, which possibly explains why so many people later chose to watch it while totally stoned.

Plus, for all of the difficulties involved with animating the film, Alice in Wonderland features some of the best animation the studio had offered since Bambi. The backgrounds are still simple, but unlike in Cinderella and many the anthology features, most of the scenes contain several animated characters, not just one. Nothing approaches the complexity of Pinocchio or Fantasia, but a few scenes—notably the ones with the Queen of Hearts and her walking, fighting playing cards—give a sense that the studio was starting to climb to animated heights again.

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My guess is these were the right animators at the wrong time. What Disney needed in the early 1950s were films that focused on stability, on reassurance, on good winning out over evil—all elements found in Cinderella. Alice in Wonderland isn’t that film. Had it been finished in the 1930s, or even the 1940s, and allowed to exploit the weirdness inherent in the original text, and allowed to reach its imaginative heights, this easily could have been another Pinocchio. Instead, it’s a film with odd moments, odd pacing, a moral that hampers the film, and a sense that it could have been so much more.

One other small change: in this 1951 film, only one character—the Caterpillar—is seen smoking. (Perhaps tobacco, but given his dialogue, it might be something rather less legal in the period and still not all that legal in some areas where Disney animators currently work.) And in a major change, that cigarette smoke has an immediate effect on Alice, who is seen choking on it. At least three other characters in the film could presumably smoke cigarettes, but don’t. It’s not quite an anti-smoking message, but it is a distinct change from the casual smoking that pervaded Pinocchio and Dumbo.

To sum up, it’s a bizarre little film, probably worth at least one look. But “bizarre” and “little” were not what Disney films were going for, then and now, and for years the company regarded the film as a failure. Corporate legend claims that Walt Disney didn’t even want the film mentioned in his presence, although he was willing enough to discuss its failures in interviews.

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The turnaround for Alice in Wonderland came in the late 1960s, when several college students discovered that the film played very well if the audience ate illegally enhanced brownies just before and during the film. Disney understandably resisted this connection, but after Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the drug-enhanced viewings raised the film’s status and popularity just enough that the company began to occasionally rerelease the film, eventually allowing it to earn back the money it lost in its original release, and even earn a profit. In another positive impact, the film also inspired the Mad Tea Ride, one of the few rides that appears in all five Disney parks, thanks to its (to me, inexplicable) popularity.

But to keep the company going, and to let Disney build those parks, the company needed something far more popular. Another British adaptation, perhaps, but something with fairies, and a bit more plot. Something like, say, Peter Pan.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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