Thursday, 3 October 2013

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Though at the time a surprising flop, not least because critics were even then trying to treat Carroll’s work as haughtily sophisticated rather than as accessible children’s books, Alice in Wonderland is something of a keystone of the original Walt Disney studio. Disney’s first big break was based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as after the very young animator’s first, chiefly local, project Newman Laugh-o-Grams caused his first animation company to collapse under its own weight, he took the last of their works – a never-screened live-action/animation mix called Alice’s Wonderland – and set off for Hollywood. On the strength of this reel, he got funding from Winkler Pictures, and so began the Alice Comedies…and with them, Disney Bros. Studios, soon to become Walt Disney Studios. Without Alice, it’s quite possible there would be no Disney.

So unsurprisingly, Disney pushed to make an Alice feature, initially imagining the same sort of live action/animation mix. The timing was never right, though – when their first feature was being developed, a live-action version of Alice’s Adventures was being made, so they went with Snow White instead, and that changed the world. After Mickey Mouse had an Alice-themed adventure, work continued throughout the 30s and 40s on Alice, but scripts were too dark or too literal (even from a legend like Aldous Huxley) and with war already making things tough with extant productions, the project was only realised in 1951.

Rewatching Alice, I realised that my memory had been unkind to it, and it is actually a much better, more technically accomplished and far more enjoyable adaptation than I remembered. Despite contemporary cries of an ‘Americanization’, this is a very English production, with only key Disney voice acting stalwarts really standing out as American, which is a long way from cute American King Arthur in The Sword in the Stone, and a remarkable number of regional British accents to be heard – this re-watch was certainly the first time I noticed Tweedledum and Tweedledee were from Lancashire. Burnley, in fact. And though the film picks and chooses from the two Alice books, looking at extra features and art books, one soon learns that sequences with the Duchess, the White Knight and even the Jabberwocky were toyed with but ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Why was my memory unkind, then? Well, I took issue with the plotlessness, the lack of variety and the sometimes ugly redesigns. But while plotless, the episodes flow neatly and contrast well, there’s a change of pace as Alice loses hope that actually would have been just what the film’s pacing needed if not coming after a rather redundant bit about various different weird bird-creatures. As for ugliness, really it’s just the Cheshire Cat I think was a bit of a mis-fire, as well as those irritating singing flowers – and I really don’t see how they got through the auditing process while the Duchess was cut.

There’s also that ending – the one that you really can’t get away with any more – but it’s part of the nature of the piece, and was at least somewhat more original when Mr. Dodgson did it.

The fact is that Disney were in their prime at this point. They had made several classics, and honed their craft. Ub Iwerks was back at the studio and the Nine Old Men were having the time of their lives – just look at Frank Thomas’ work on the Queen of Hearts. The film’s surreal content allows for great technical sequences, from Alice’s extended fall down the rabbithole to the simple ways of making Alice look vast when she’s inside the White Rabbit’s house, and especially the scenes with all the card soldiers. Though occasionally some animation is overwrought and distracting – particularly with the March Hare – nobody in the world could achieve what Disney were achieving in 1951 and animation of this quality has been very rare since.

The cast is also stellar. There are the aforementioned Disney stalwarts with their American accents – Sterling Holloway (Ka, Pooh) as the Cheshire Cat, Jimmy McDonald (Chip, the second actor for Mickey Mouse) as the Dormouse, Verna Felton (The Fairy Godmother, Mrs. Jumbo) as the Queen of Hearts, Bill Thompson (Mr. Smee, Jock – and in Tex Avery cartoons, the original Droopy) as the White Rabbit and even Mel Blanc doing cat noises (uncredited). But English actors are equally prominent, with frequent Disney bit-part actor J.Pat O’Malley doing all the roles for the deeply distressing Walrus and Carpenter segment, Richard Haydn doing one of the best ever cameo roles in animation with his turn as the Caterpillar and of course the main character, Alice, charmingly played by Kathryn Beaumont, who is remarkably still voicing Alice in the Kingdom Hearts games (and Wendy) over 60 years later. Disney himself reportedly thought the film underperformed because they didn’t give Alice enough ‘heart’, but that has little to do with the expressive and likeable central little girl.

And let us not forget the legend that is Ed Wynn, doing his ‘Perfect Fool’ voice as the Mad Hatter. I hadn’t realised until I rewatched just how close the king in Wreck-it Ralph is to this performance, or indeed the Choose Goose in Adventure Time or Thanatos in Kid Icarus. There’s a vocal performance that has really become legendary – to the extent it’s now archetypal.

There’s an odd decision to make the songs very in-character and very short, though. As such, they lose universality. 

Only with the rise of psychedelia did the film become rehabilitated, unsurprisingly given 60s drug culture. And it is harmed somewhat by its lack of a central quest, or real lessons learned, or any kind of triumph. But it’s a celebration of nonsense and whimsy – and even if there are numerous academic reasons not to be all that impressed by Alice, it remains a whole lot of fun. 


  1. It's been several years since I watched Alice in Wonderland (though I have seen it a few times throughout my life) and it never was a favorite of mine because, as you summed up well in your last paragraph, there's a stark lack of a central goal and conflict. I remember finding the meandering parts hard to sit through as a kid, especially that one sad song Alice sings when she's lost in the forest with all those weird birds. But as you said, the movie is still enjoyable even if it's nothing spectacular. I think if I watched it now I'd probably like it better than before actually.

  2. That's certainly what happened with me! Plus, I think, a degree of appreciation for the technical accomplishments of what was really the only animation studio capable of something like this in the early 50s.