Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice and the Caterpillar

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

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.

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6 thoughts on “Alice in Wonderland (1951)

  1. Torgo25 says:

    Alice is my all-time favorite Disney heroine. She’s so charming and adorable, and Kathryn Beaumont portrayed her perfectly. Also, her bloomers (long frilly underwear) are very cute, and I just love the way her dress poofs up like a parachute. I love the part where she flips over as she waves goodbye to Dinah. And “In a World of My Own” is a very beautiful song I could listen to all day.

  2. I loved this film so much more after I re-watched it for my Disney Canon project.

  3. […] voiced Roquefort the Mouse in The Aristocats, Kaa the Snake in The Jungle Book, the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, the adult version of Flower in Bambi and was the Stork in Dumbo all the way back in 1941. He took […]

  4. […] company. He had previously lent his voice to Prince Hubert in Sleeping Beauty, The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and the long-standing voice of my personal favourite character: Droopy the dog. He died of a heart […]

  5. Ryan W Isenor says:

    It is really quite a shame that the original release of Alice in Wonderland was met with such criticism. Like the book itself, I feel as though the movie was a bit ahead of its time. This proves correct when you look at the success it had in the 60’s and 70’s. Even today as we look at its live-action counterpart that shattered expectations.

    I never thought the story of Alice could be confined. It needed to leap out at you in order for you to get it. With the new medium of television and Disney’s decision to play Alice in Wonderland as part of their segments, they took advantage of a whole new world (pun intended) of entertainment. I don’t doubt that TV was what helped Alice along.

    I love that you took some time to talk about the voices in Alice in Wonderland. I do feel like they help tie the movie to all the other wonderful works of magic. I frequently will close my eyes watching other movies and pretend that it is the characters’ Alice in Wonderland counterparts talking instead. Try it, quite an interesting experience.

    As you two are more than well aware, this movie is very close to my heart and I am sure it is what roots my love of everything Disney so much. This movie represented the fullest extent of the imagination in my opinion, just as its book did before it.

    Fantastic guys!!!

    Also, had NO idea that the books in Pinocchio were Alice and Peter! WOW!

  6. Ryan W Isenor says:

    I will be back to post my reply. It needs time to build! ha-ha!

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