Originally Released: July 1951
Runtime: 75 Minutes
Directed By: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
“The Time has come, my little friends, to talk of other things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. Of cabbages and Kings. And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings. Calloo, Callay, come run away with cabbages and Kings.”
Alice in Wonderland may very well hold one of the longest production times of any film ever, if you take into account all the varying versions and times that Walt Disney Studios almost produced this film, before finally releasing it in July 1951. The film definitely saw more ups and downs of any film we’ve watched so far and the history of this one is absolutely rich with tidbits, so I’ll try to touch on everything I possibly can without writing a full out book. Suffice it to say, Alice in Wonderland manages to shove a ton of crazy sequences, catchy songs and kooky characters into a mere 75 minutes of film time and without a single dull moment. There is a reason this film is a favorite among many and a huge cult hit among many more. Alice is controlled chaos at its best and re-watching it was some of the most fun I’ve had doing this project so far.
I think we can assume Walt wanted to do a film based on the Alice books by Lewis Carroll since his childhood days. He read the books in school, like so many others, and attempted to make his first version of the film in 1923, when he was only 21 years old. This was part of the Laugh-O-Gram series but when Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt in 1923, the film never came to be. This was not all a loss though as Walt used this short in order to pitch a series around the Alice stories and was picked up by Winkler Productions as a distribution company. The series started in 1924, under the newly formed production studio “Disney Bros. Studios,” which would eventually become “Walt Disney Productions.” That’s right folks, Alice is actually responsible in many ways for the creation of Walt Disney Productions. So, you can thank your copy of the Blu-ray any time. You know what? I’ll just wait while you go do that.
Done? Good. Moving on.
This series was later cancelled in 1927. But five years later, in 1932, Walt started working on the idea of turning Alice into a full-length feature. He purchased the rights to the original story and artwork and planned out a film in which a live-action girl, at the time to be played by Mary Pickford, would interact with an animated world, similar to Uncle Remus in Song of the South. He felt that the audience would be unable to connect with Alice if she were animated. Eventually though, with time and money running short and not yet being able to find a version of the script he liked, the film was scrapped and Snow White was finished and released instead. In 1938, Walt tried again, this time hiring new artists and writers to try and come up with something better. He felt that the live action adaptations of the books which had come before were too literal of translations and that much of Carroll’s writing was only funny in the context of the book. He wanted a story that took the spirit and heart of the books, but didn’t necessarily copy the language word for word. This never came to fruition and with the financial struggles of World War II, the project was once again scrapped.
In 1945, the film took another huge turn as Walt Disney asked Aldous Huxley to re-write the script. This adaptation featured the same idea of having live action actors amidst an animated world and Lewis Carroll himself was a character. Sadly, Walt felt that Huxley’s version was too literal and set in reality and this too was scrapped. It wasn’t until 1946 that Walt finally decided that the story simply couldn’t be the way he wanted with live actors and the final version, the animated version, began production.
Watching Alice in Wonderland now, knowing that I really did love this film as a kid, is so interesting because even knowing that I’ve seen this, there are still so many sequences that my brain somehow just dropped. I seem to have forgotten the entire character of The Dodo and any scenes with him in them which made this feel all very curious to watch. Alice is nothing like our heroines before her. She’s not entirely likable. I mean, let’s be honest, this whole thing starts because she is so nosey that she simply must know where the White Rabbit is off to. Her need to know this, leads her on a wild goose chase and time and time again, she seems to come very close to learning her lesson, yet somehow misses it entirely.
In my favorite instance of this strong ignorance she seems to carry with her, Tweedledee and Tweedledum have just finished telling her the story of the Walrus and Carpenter, easily my favorite segment of the film, when they tell her that the story also has a moral. Completely missing this, Alice says “Oh yes, especially if you happen to be an oyster.” She just doesn’t get the point which is that curiosity is a very dangerous thing.
Alice also has no boundaries. She’s very childish in this way. If something says “Eat me,” she just goes for it, regardless of whether the item is hers or not. This leads her to destroying the White Rabbit’s house and uprooting a bird’s nest. She never really seems to feel bad about these things either. After all, she’s really just after the White Rabbit and she’ll do anything to find him.
I think the greatest thing about this film is that Alice starts out wanting to go to her own Wonderland where cats can talk and everything is opposite, but once she is in this world, she quickly becomes annoyed by how mad and unhelpful everyone is. A sequence that really nails this home is that of her encounter with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. She simply wants to tell them her story and ask them her questions but they keep interrupting her and can’t seem to let her speak long enough to explain the whole story. She becomes very annoyed by the fact that she can’t simply speak and have some tea like she wants too, even though this is exactly what she wished for from the start.
Sterling Holloway returns as the Cheshire Cat and really does a great job of, despite his madness, guiding the story when it strays too far. I find it interesting that the Cheshire Cat is so memorable from this film as every sequence seems to have a character that is just as crazy and mad as he is. The smoking caterpillar who consistently asks Alice, “Who are you?” The flowers who start out so nice, singing a beautiful song, before turning on Alice and calling her a weed. Even the doorknob that won’t let Alice into Wonderland because she is the wrong size. Every scene is so unique in this film and I found myself shocked at how so many amazing ideas could be shoved into such a short film and still work so perfectly together.
Another extremely memorable character in the film is our villain, the Queen of Hearts. Her screams of “Off with their heads!” is known as much as Alice’s name and she really makes an impression as the craziest of all the characters in the land. The scene where she plays croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog was almost changed by Disney animators to a game of football and I am eternally grateful to Walt for nixing this idea.
I haven’t talked a lot in this series about the things that are changed from book to animated film, as I think that this series is less about that, but I know it’s something that people worry about. Make no mistake, there are a lot of changes to the Alice books in this movie but I think that the spirit of the original work is captured very well here. Would I have loved to see a cut sequence involving the Jaberwocky? Of course. But when making a film the whole family can enjoy, sometimes things like this don’t make it to the end product and I think that as long as the end product captures the intent of the original, that’s really all that matters. Plenty of Alice films, video games and cartoons are out there that stay closer to the text and I hate to say this, but most of them are flat out bad. I’d rather have a good movie that strays from the text, than a horrible film which gets it all right any day.
Sadly, this film was not met with the praise that we give it today. Carroll purists and British literary critics agreed that the film diverged too far from the book and took away the Britishness of it. Many people felt the film was too chaotic, too aimless and this was often blamed on just how many people worked on it during its long production period. Walt felt that the failure of the film, which was not as extreme as Bambi or Dumbo, was due to the fact that Alice isn’t really a sympathetic character. She’s sort of a spoiled child that doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone, until near the end of the story of course.
Unlike many of the big flops of the early years of Disney feature films, Alice was never re-released while Walt was still alive.
However, there was hope for this little film, because as with anything ahead of its time, eventually, its time comes along. In 1968, the film started to become popular again amongst college students, mainly as a film to watch while you were high. Many adults found themselves loving the crazy over the top nature of the film. Disney tried to stay separate from this but the success of the film eventually got too big and in 1974, the film was finally re-released in theaters for the first time, receiving overwhelming praise and adoration. So successful this time around, it even got ANOTHER re-release in 1981. The film had found its time and place.
There is so much to talk about in this film that I literally don’t have enough time to do it in one article. It is wildly imaginative and even characters who appear for mere seconds like a dog with a broom for a head still manage to resonate and remain memorable. While I think one could look at the many hands that touched this film as a bad thing, I look at it as a blessing. There is so much creativity in this film. It overflows with it. It has the makings of hundreds of great ideas from even more great thinkers. It is beautifully put together and leaves you wanting more, wanting to analyze it, wanting to slow down the versus and take every word in. The film feels like a small parfait glass with eight scoops of ice cream balanced on top and spilling over the sides. Many films released this year alone are twice the length with not even half the original ideas and that’s what makes Alice in Wonderland so special.
“How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail. And pour the waters of the Nile, on every golden scale. How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws. And welcomes little fishes in, with gently smiling jaws.”
Next up: Peter Pan
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!