Disney’s Thirteenth Animated Feature - 1951
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland doesn’t open in the classic Disney fashion, showing the opening of an animated storybook; which is ironic, since Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is arguably the best source material Disney had worked with to date. Carroll’s fantastical novel with its magical transformations and talking animals begs to be animated. In fact, Disney made his name as an animator in 1923 with a silent, black and white Alice In Wonderland in an animation where he combined footage of a child actor as Alice cavorting in a fanciful, animated world.
Disney tried to bring this story to the big screen again in 1939, but was unable to come up with a look for the story that captured his imagination. It wasn’t until Mary Blair joined his team and created concept sketches (see them here) featuring her signature bold color palette and warped, dream-like perspectives that Disney was convinced to revive the project. This version of Alice In Wonderland has a bit in common with Disney’s package films of the WWII era: they feature star talent including the voices of Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna (as the Mad Hatter and March Hare) and features a structure that is episodic in nature—like the text—so that the entire film feels like a series of shorts instead of a long, single narrative.
Even though the story lacks a traditional narrative structure, it does have a strong narrative thread in the character of Alice herself. The story opens in a lovely garden as Alice struggles to pay attention to her very proper governess who reads aloud to her on the subject of English history. Alice yearns for a world of her own making where everything would be “nonsense,” where up would be down and her pet cat would be able to speak. Alice sits among the flowers and sings a plaintive little song of yearning, reminiscent of Dorothy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. And this film does have the interesting honor of having more songs than any other Disney feature.
In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” Alice’s dream of living in a world of “nonsense” comes true. She chases a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a magical world where none of the rules of time and space apply. This creates countless opportunities for Alice to become frustrated by her inability to easily navigate this curious world.
There’s often an odd menace afoot, and characters such as the Cheshire Cat and Caterpillar seem to enjoy toying with her. The completely silly tea party scene with the Mad Hatter and March Hare is madness itself, but everyone does get to celebrate their “un-birthday,” which occurs on the 364 days of the year that are not your birthday.
The menace comes to a head in the form of the bizarre Queen of Hearts, all bombast and easily bruised ego. Nobody’s neck is safe around this mercurial queen, and she yells “Off with their head!” enough times to create her own reign of terror. Alice is eventually brought up on charges and tried in a court of “law.” The story ends as Alice flees this bizarre woman and her coterie, and ends with the decidedly surreal moment as Alice peers at herself through a keyhole and spies herself asleep under a tree in her own peaceful little garden. She has to wake herself up to save her skin.
Disney’s script is remarkably true to Lewis Carroll’s text and the styling and animation is imaginative and innovative. It’s interesting to see main character Alice so consistently frustrated by all she meets. She has only herself to depend upon throughout her adventure. Alice is charmingly voiced by then ten-year-old British actress Kathryn Beaumont. You may also recognize the voice of Verna Felton as the Queen of Hearts, who created the voice of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella and the good fairy Flora in Sleeping Beauty. Another standout is Richard Haydn as the Caterpillar.
There’s nothing here a modern parent would find objectionable. In fact, Alice In Wonderland is a beauty; an animation that respects its original text and uses it as a springboard to a fanciful, magical, curious, often frustrating world. Alice may not be a princess, but she’s a memorable heroine who deserves her own special place of honor in the Disney archive and on your dvd shelf.
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