Let’s get this out of the way early: Alice has a severely short attention span. The setup for the film, which combines Lewis Carroll’s two classics Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass is essentially summarized thusly:
“Do your homework.”
“No! In my world there is no homework.”
“Pay attention to this book.”
“No! It has no pictures in it!”
“Recite after me.”
“Oooh! Pretty rabbit! Let’s go chase it!”
And so she crawls into a rabbit hole and tumbles head over heels into the rest of the story. The film, as far as adaptations of classic literature go, is remarkably faithful to its source material. Only one character (the doorknob who first teaches her about the “drink me” and “eat me” magic) is an invention that doesn’t appear in the books. Much of the dialogue is drawn straight from Carroll’s text and the gleeful violence of the Queen of Hearts beheading her subjects left-and-right is not softened by Disney’s idealist brush.
Alice in Wonderland, though, was a colossal flop upon its release. The New York Times, in its verbose condemnation, declared:
Mr. Disney has plunged into those works, which have rapturously charmed the imaginations of generations of kids, has snatched favorite characters from them, whipped them up as colorful cartoons, thrown them together willy-nilly with small regard for sequence of episodes, expanded and worked up new business, scattered a batch of songs throughout and brought it all forth in Technicolor as a whopping-big Disney cartoon.
Had it not been for the fantastic success of Cinderella the previous year, Alice may have been enough to bankrupt the studio. The Times declared that the picture was mere snack food compared the epic feasts Disney had previously delivered, snorting that “watching this picture is something like nibbling those wafers that Alice eats.”
Fortunately for Disney, it was kids eating “wafers” that brought the film back into popularity. The bright colours, fantastic caricatures and whimsical tone became a hit with potheads and acid heads in the 1960s, even inspiring a certain hit song.
Small side note: from Jefferson Airplane to Marilyn Manson, Alice in Wonderland has had an enormous impact on popular culture. The Matrix relied on its indelible imagery for a key plot point. In Jurassic Park, the piece of code that Dennis Nedry uses to shutdown all the security systems is called whte_rbt.obj. Even a 1966 episode of Star Trek themed around a planet that resembles Alice’s Wonderland includes the white rabbit character.
So while Alice was a flop at the box office, it had one miracle on its side: television. And it was the first Disney film to take advantage of the budding medium.
Television didn’t become commercially promising until the late 1940s. Full-scale commercial broadcasting of television signals began in the U.S. in 1947, but it was several more years before TVs were cheap enough and widely available enough to be in every home. By the time Alice was released in 1951, there were more than 12 million TVs in homes across the U.S., which had a total population of about 154 million. 1951 was also the year that colour television was introduced, ramping up gadget-lust in a pre-Apple age. Disney was ready to take advantage of the new outlet.
Disney studios first began experiment with television in 1950. In 1954, with Disney’s “Wonderful World of Colour” production, he showcased the film (edited down to fit the hour-long time slot). Suddenly the full colour, trippy images were beamed into millions of homes around the country. With prints eventually circulating in a kind of black market across university towns, Disney officially re-released the film to theatres in 1974. It had a follow-up release in the U.K. in 1979 and another release in North American in 1981. In 1986, the film was released on VHS as part of the “classics” collection. Some magic takes a little time, Alice only took a quarter century to come of age.
The studio’s early days were marked with labour unrest that eventually resulted in a very public strike so disastrous to the studio it was even referenced in Dumbo. By the time Alice was released, though, those days were behind them. Alice in Wonderland is the first film where voice actors received on-screen credit and the film showcases many of Disney’s most loyal recurring voice actors. Stirling Holloway, who voiced the Cheshire Cat, also narrated Peter and the Wolf, would be the voice of Kaa the Snake in 1967’s The Jungle Book, was the stork in Dumbo and adult Flower in Bambi, and would frequently voice Winnie the Pooh. Kathryn Beaumont, who voiced Alice, later returned to voice Wendy Darling in Peter Pan, too. Ed Wynne, who voiced the Mad Hatter, returned to play Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins. Verna Felton, who voiced the Queen of Hearts, also returned to lend her voice in Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp, after previously voicing Dumbo’s mother and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. Then, the White Rabbit himself, Bill Thompson, was also the voice of Mr. Smee in Peter Pan and my own all-time favourite cartoon character, Droopy.
Alice took a long time to make. In Pinocchio, 11 years earlier, Jiminy Cricket leans against two books as he sings “When you Wish Upon a Star.” They are Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, the two films Disney was most eager to produce after Pinocchio. But with the war, financial difficulties and labour unrest all hitting the studio in quick succession, they had to wait. Having the film lambasted after that long a wait couldn’t have been easy. But with literally dozens of versions of the film being produced by any number of studios in the intervening years, it is still the 1951 animated classic that shines most brightly.
Follow the white rabbit.