One of my favorite stories of all time is the tale of Alice and her journey down the rabbit hole. I’ve read the Lewis Carroll Alice books (1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There) more times than I can remember over the years, and every time I pick them up, it’s like greeting old friends. And I never fail to find something new every single time, whether noticing something I never seemed to catch before, or simply recalling a moment that I had forgotten I’d enjoyed as a child.
There have been more adaptations of the Alice stories–on film, television, the stage–than I could even hope to list here. Having seen quite a few of them myself, however, I can honestly say that my favorite version of the story is Walt Disney’s 1951 version–and, in fact, this film is probably my favorite entry in the classic Disney canon.
My opinion is not a popular one, I know. There are many who say that the story, after being Disney-fied, loses some of its satirical sharpness; others accuse Disney of failing to pay homage to the source material by overly Americanizing it. But for all its faults–and yes, I acknowledge that they exist–Disney’s Alice remains faithful to the anarchic spirit of the original, reveling in the nonsensical and heightening the delirium to almost euphoric levels. The animation and musicality of the film only serve to elevate this sense–along with Fantasia, this is one of Walt’s most musically diverse films, and in fact features the most songs of any Disney picture (though that number is generally ignored, as most of the songs within the film are mere snippets of a whole).
Disney himself had a long history with Alice, which is thoroughly detailed in an excellent featurette from this year’s Special Un-Anniversary Edition of the film (which, yes, I own and love). As a struggling filmmaker in 1923, he produced a live-action Alice short featuring the titular character interacting with crude animation; this led to a series of Alice comedic shorts in the 1920s. Disney’s signature character, Mickey Mouse, even took a trip “Thru the Mirror” in 1936!
Disney cherished the idea of making a full-length animated Alice for years–even before the decision was made to adapt Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, plans had been discussed to bring Alice to the big screen first. But when the Disney studios disbanded the full-length feature department in the midst of World War II, channeling their efforts into package films and patriotic propaganda, plans for an Alice film were put aside.
In the late 1940s, as the studio geared up to move back into feature-length pictures with Cinderella (1950), Disney moved his pet project back to the front-burner, and the film was completed and released in 1951. Initially, as with several of its predecessors (Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo), the movie was a box-office disappointment. Not to mention, critics roundly disliked the film, as did many fans of Carroll’s work, who felt that Disney had been too liberal with the original material. As New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote at the time:
“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.”
The movie would not find an audience until the early 1970s, when its modernist animation, loony characters, and nonsensical plot found new life from enthusiasts of the psychedelic; it was subsequently re-released in theaters in 1974 to capitalize on this.
Crowther and other critics who chastise Disney for the episodic nature of the film do not understand that this was precisely Disney’s point. Removing the sense of narrative and focusing instead on the singular episodes throughout the story–a tea party here, a croquet game there–only exacerbates the gleeful anarchy that permeates the entire movie. In a world where nothing makes sense, are we even meant to expect a coherent story?
Furthermore, the film has faced derision over the years from literary purists who claim that it takes too much from both Alice stories without retaining the satirical notes of the original. And it is true–Disney’s version is unapologetically intended as entertainment, not as a social statement of any kind. In truth, though, would general audiences even be able to recognize Carroll’s pointed criticisms of nineteenth-century social stratification? Or the biting references to so-called “modern” mathematics? Why is it important to purists that a “good” adaptation include these things? The beauty of Carroll’s work is that it lends itself to multiple interpretations–and this is why it has survived as a classic of children’s literature for so long (let me tell you, I wasn’t thinking about class differences or … ugh … math when I was reading these books as a kid!).
More importantly, Disney embraces the surrealistic nature of the stories, reflecting Carroll’s innate playfulness in both the artwork and the musical numbers. The brightly-colored animation pops off the screen, engrossing viewers immediately–it’s one of the most brilliant bits of eye candy in the history of pop culture. This is due in large part to the influence of Mary Blair, a noted member of the Disney animation stable, whose gift with color is reflected in the explosion of shades on the screen. And the many tuneful snippets throughout the film retain the sing-song sensibility of Carroll’s verse-riddled dialogue, adding a sense of true delight to the happenings on screen.
The actors behind these characters comprise one of the better vocal casts in the early Disney repertoire. Kathryn Beaumont, who was only twelve at the time, is a marvelous Alice–hesitant yet strong-willed, curious and indignant in turns (Beaumont would go on to play another Disney heroine, Wendy Darling, in the 1953 production of Peter Pan). Disney stalwarts Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton bring their respective talents to the film: the former voices the Cheshire Cat in a suitably whimsical performance, and the latter voices the decapitation-loving Queen of Hearts with gusto. Ed Wynn is immediately recognizable as the Mad Hatter (which can be a bit distracting–Disney films have always loved their notable vocalists, haven’t they?), and the deliberate-voiced Richard Haydn (so wonderful in 1941’s Ball of Fire and 1965’s The Sound of Music, among other roles) is the perfect embodiment of the snooty Caterpillar.
Yes, there are weaknesses in Disney’s version of events. If you are a strict lover of plot and narrative, you will not enjoy the meandering movement of the film’s progression. And those of you who long for an Alice that follows the books to the letter will be sadly disappointed. In a way, though, I don’t blame you–as a lover of Carroll’s stories, I find myself saddened at the omission of certain scenarios from each of the books. Not that this is entirely unexpected; the novels are so intricately drawn, and so filled with memorable moments and characters, that it would be nigh on impossible to film all of them. Still, in cobbling together vignettes from each Carroll narrative, Disney’s version leaves out some particularly notable scenes from the books:
- The “Pig and Pepper” scene from Chapter Six of Alice was planned as part of the film, but was ultimately not included in the final product. However, the DVD extras of the Un-Anniversary Edition feature the storyboards of the scene as originally conceived.
- Both chapters from Alice featuring the Mock Turtle and his compatriot, the Gryphon, are missing (fun fact: in the live-action 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle was played by none other than True Classics’ fave Cary Grant).
- The tale of the Jabberwocky, which Alice finds in Looking-Glass, is left out, though the poem’s first stanza, “‘Twas brilling, and the slithy toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe:/All mimsy were the borogoves,/and the mome raths outgrabe,” is sung in the film by the Cheshire Cat.
Regardless of these exclusions, the overall product is a masterpiece. You may agree or disagree, but in my mind, it’s difficult to beat the sheer artistry of the animation and the joyous spirit of Disney’s adaptation of the story. It’s evident that Walt was a big fan of Carroll, and his homage to the man and his Wonderland is a fitting and endearing one. It may not be perfect, but–as this movie virtually screams at us–who, or what, ever is?
We’re ALL mad here, after all.