Film Review: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Heather Angel – Alice’s sister (what a gorgeous name, Heather Angel)

Kathryn Beaumont – Alice

Mel Blanc – Dinah

Lucille Bliss – Sunflower and Tulip

Jerry Colonna – March Hare

Pinto Colvig – Flamingo

Verna Felton – Queen of Hearts

Larry Grey – Bill the Lizard

Bob Hamlin – Card Painter

Richard Haydn – Caterpillar

Sterling Holloway – Cheshire Cat

Joseph Kearns – Doorknob

Bill Lee – Card Painter

Queenie Leonard – Nesting mother bird

Doris Lloyd – Red Rose

Tommy Luske – Young Pansy

James MacDonald – Dormouse

Marni Nixon – Singing Flowers

J. Pat O’Malley – Walrus, Carpenter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Thurl Ravenscroft – Card Painter

Max Smith – Card Painter

Bill Thompson – White Rabbit and the Dodo

Dink Trout – King of Hearts

Ed Wynn – Mad Hatter

Norma Zimmer – White Rose

Sources of InspirationAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, British novels by Lewis Carroll, 1865 and 1871

Release Dates

July 26th, 1951 in London, UK and USA (premiere)

July 28th, 1951 in New York City, USA (general release)

Run-time – 75 minutes

Directors – Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske

Composers – Oliver Wallace

Worldwide Gross – $5.2 million

Accolades – 2 nominations, including 1 Oscar nomination


1951 in History

The UK Government abandons their costly and futile Tanganyika groundnut scheme in Tanzania

Gertrude Levandowski undergoes a 96 hour operation in Chicago, to remove a huge ovarian cyst

The 1951 New Zealand waterfront dispute occurs, lasting 151 days

Jean Lee becomes the last woman to be hanged in Australia

The first NBA All-Star Game is held in the Boston Garden

The Festival of Britain is opened by King George VI and is attended by millions over the summer

The US conducts Operation Greenhouse, the first thermonuclear weapons test, in the Marshall Islands

The controversial Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet is signed

The Great Flood of 1951 peaks in Kansas; it is the worst flood the American Midwest has seen

The first Volkswagen Beetle is created in Uitenhage, South Africa

The Treaty of San Francisco, formally ending the Pacific War, is signed by 48 representatives

One of the greatest moments in Major League Baseball, the “Shot Heard Around the World,” occurs

Winston Churchill is re-elected as the British Prime Minister (his second time in the position)

LEO runs the world’s first commerical computer program, Bakery Valuations, in the UK

The world’s first (experimental) nuclear power plant opens in Idaho, US

Births of Phil Collins, Gordon Brown, Bonnie Tyler, Tress MacNeille, Robin Williams, Sting and Mark Hamill


 

The Alice in Wonderland project had been close to Walt’s heart for a long time when Disney finally got around to creating this film. He had grown up with the story and longed to make an adaptation of it himself one day. As far back as 1923, Walt produced a short silent version called Alice’s Wonderland for his old Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas, but the film was never shown theatrically due to the studio’s closure. Instead, Walt used it to get potential distributors interested, which worked: Margaret J. Winkler, the first woman to produce and distribute animated films, saw it and liked it enough to offer a deal, so Walt and his brother Roy set up the Disney Bros. Studios… and the rest is history.

Walt bought the rights to the original John Tenniel illustrations in 1932, but the studio was discouraged from proceeding further at the time by the release of Paramount’s 1933 version of the story (funnily enough, that one featured Sterling Holloway as well). That film would ultimately prove a flop, so Disney held on to his idea of adapting the famous Carroll novels – in 1936 he created a popular Mickey Mouse cartoon using the basic elements of them called Thru the Mirror.

Production of the film we know today officially began in 1938, when the film’s title was registered with the MPA. The first story treatments and concept art began to be produced, but after a disappointing test screening in 1939, followed by the financial difficulties of the war years, production was halted once again.

In 1945, following the end of WWII, things got back on track for good with Aldous Huxley (of all people) assigned to rewrite the story. Huxley’s mother, Julia Arnold, had known Lewis Carroll personally and had had the stories read to her as a child, so the project was close to Huxley’s heart, but unfortunately his treatment of it was deemed too intellectual and was not used.

Disney had considered a live-action/animation blend again in the vein of his Alice Comedies of the 1920s, with the title role going to Ginger Rogers, Mary Pickford, Lisa Davis or even Luana Patten (her again!). Thankfully, Walt realised he could only do the books justice by making the entire thing in animation – thank goodness for that, we’ve had quite enough live-action segments in the package films – so in 1946, work finally began on the animated film we know today.

How does it hold up? Well… It’s debatable. Suffice to say the film wasn’t received with rapture back in the 1950s, but its reputation over the years since has been variable. Personally, I don’t like this one much at all, but it does have its good points all the same. Let’s take a look at one of Disney’s truly weirdest creations.

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

One of the problems with this film is that it has an avalanche of characters stuffed into it, far more than any Disney film up to that point and probably more than most of the ones since. I sympathise with the writer’s struggle; the books are crammed with characters too, so they were obviously trying to pack in as many as possible to please the purists.

Alice herself is a kind of “everygirl” character, a basically blank slate who has to react to the things that happen to her. Saying that, she’s not some passive little doll – she does as much as she can to maintain some control throughout the madness, and she’s perhaps the first Disney heroine to have a temper, snapping angrily at some of the characters who push her too far. She’s very British, a proper little Victorian lady-in-the-making, with her reactions sometimes coming across as incredibly blasé – as she tumbles into Wonderland, she merely calls out “Goodbye, Dinah!” as though she were leaving for a trip to the seaside. Ah, that stiff upper lip, jolly good and all that sort of thing! Although she does an admirable job in keeping her head amidst the madness, you do start to feel for her as time goes by and she begins to make comments like “No, no, please – no more nonsense.” Walt considered the character too “cold” and largely blamed her for the film’s disappointing returns, but I feel this is a bit harsh. Animator Ward Kimball had a better handle on it when he commented that there was nothing to anchor Alice in any kind of context or logic. She just has to keep stumbling along through the film from one bizarre scene to the next, reacting and moving on without really connecting with any of the other characters. Although she starts out merely curious about the White Rabbit, her need to find out where he’s going starts to feel obsessive, as she latches on to that goal in an effort to stay sane. Whatever Walt thought about her, I found her a pretty enjoyable heroine, if a little bland. Kathryn Beaumont, her voice actress, also happens to be the last surviving cast member from the film!

Alice and Dinah in the sun

Discussing the other characters from Alice in Wonderland is quite a challenge, due to the unconventional nature of the film’s structure. The characters all seem to lack real relationships – friends will turn on each other for the slightest reason, while raging enemies will happily spare you for a compliment. There are also far, far too many to look at in detail, so I’ll just talk about some of the better-known ones with the most screen time.

Alice’s sister is the only other “real” character in the film, making brief appearances in the opening and closing scenes and helping to set the story into its historical context (the fashions suggest the 1860s, the time of the original novel’s publication). I mistook her for a governess at first, as she looks to be a good eight-to-ten years older than Alice and is acting as her tutor; I only found out her relationship to Alice from the credits. Shame she didn’t warrant an actual name, as she’s the only glimpse we have into Alice’s life outside of Wonderland and I was curious to know more.

Alice's older sister

The Doorknob Alice meets is the only original character in the film – he wasn’t in the novels. I have to say, he’s a welcome addition, because he’s much less mean-spirited and impatient than most of the other characters. He actually feels like a sort of stereotypical dad in doorknob form, laughing at his own bad jokes and trying to help Alice out when he sees her in distress.

The Alice doorknob

The Dodo is likeable, if a bit forgettable, but I do enjoy his appearance during the Caucus Race scene, conducting the other animals as they run pointlessly around a rock while the sea washes over them. He also pops up in the scene where Alice gets stuck in the White Rabbit’s house, trying in his own random way to help out (by getting someone else, Bill the Lizard, to do it). There’s really not a lot to say about him; the animators don’t seem to have enjoyed working with him, as he’s not given much to do. I was interested to learn that the inclusion of a dodo character in the original novel was what brought the Mauritian bird into popular consciousness, and made it an icon of conservation – it had been made extinct two centuries earlier, around 1662, by the arrival of man on its island.

The dodo and his Caucus race

Tweedledum and Tweedledee have good voices (some more of that delightfully atrocious Cockney stuff from J. Pat O’Malley, who also did Cyril in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), but other than that they’re just obnoxious and only make the one appearance. I prefer the characters in their story, The Walrus and the Carpenter. The Walrus in particular is a rascally devil with some great facial expressions, and the Carpenter has a hilarious switch from naïve and affable to boiling mad when he realises the Walrus has duped him. The death of the baby oysters at the end of the segment seemed amazingly dark for such a bouncy film, though!

The famous White Rabbit is done well here, reminding me a lot of Doc from Snow White with his stammering and blustering. He serves as more of a MacGuffin than a character; he is simply a goal for Alice to chase after, the only thing to anchor the tattered remains of the plot and keep it moving forward. His best scenes are at his house with Alice, where we see a more pompous side to his character as he mistakes her for his housemaid, and during the tea party when he turns up and gets his watch smashed by the inept Mad Hatter. He also appears to hold a position as some kind of royal courtier, as he conducts Alice’s trial near the end.

The White Rabbit

The flower characters are a lot of fun, some of the better characters I thought, like gossipy old women but with less spite than the elephants in Dumbo. Their sequence features some of the more artistic shots of the film and the Red Rose stands out for being unusually sane and polite, treating Alice pleasantly and allowing her a moment to relax. There is one rather snooty-looking purple flower who doesn’t take to Alice, however, and soon kicks up a fuss by accusing her of being a “weed,” which sadly gets her thrown out of one of the film’s nicer scenes.

The beautiful white rose

The caterpillar I can’t stand, so I don’t want to spend too much time on him. I get that his high-strung nature is kind of the point of his character, but I just hate him – he’s rude, infuriating, touchy and impatient for no good reason, treating Alice with outright disdain and screaming at her when she doesn’t understand his vague comments. I have no idea why other viewers like him so much (although the Hookah smoking undoubtedly endeared him to the drug users of the 1960s), but I’m just glad that he doesn’t crop up again, except for a brief appearance at the trial. His scene is followed by another of Alice’s size-changing gags, featuring a fussy mother bird who mistakes her for a serpent out to steal her eggs – she’s every bit as angry as the caterpillar, although not without reason in her case.

The Alice caterpillar

The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are probably the most successfully adapted characters, getting lots of Carroll-style dialogue filled with wordplay and wacky logic. Of the two, the Hatter is slightly more of a loony, with the Hare often serving as his sidekick in his zany schemes (like the destruction of the poor Rabbit’s watch). They engage Alice in some songs and riddles and are excited to celebrate with her once they realise it’s her unbirthday too. For the most part, they’re quite agreeable sorts and not too antagonistic, but as Alice soon discovers, it’s impossible to hold a proper conversation with them. I felt like the energetic duo really encapsulated the spirit of the original novels, more so than any other character. The tea party also includes the little Dormouse, who is honestly one of my favourite characters in spite of his small role. It’s the voice – he’s so cute and knackered (or stoned, depending on the way you see view it!) and I love how he freaks out over the word cat, but is quickly calmed by getting some jam put on his nose.  All things considered, the tea party scene is definitely one of the film’s highlights.

The hatter, hare and dormouse at party

The Cheshire cat is probably one of the film’s most recognisable characters, with his loud pink and purple design and half-moon grin. Interestingly, he was not well liked by readers of the novels; the Disney film is largely credited with boosting his popularity, although what your individual opinion of him will be is anyone’s guess as he seems to polarise viewers, with some finding him a nuisance and others a joy. He’s certainly memorable, whatever you think of him, and makes for another great role for Sterling Holloway. (For any Americans out there, by the way, it’s “Chesh-urr,” not “Chesh-shire” – they do pronounce it right in the film, thankfully.)

The Cheshire cat

Of course, we can’t end a discussion of the characters without looking at the good old Queen of Hearts (and the King). The Queen is the closest thing Alice in Wonderland has to a villain, with the threat of her menace after the mock trial serving as the motivation for Alice to leave Wonderland at last. She’s very hammy, so naturally she’s a lot of fun – versatile Verna Felton is back in the role, fresh from playing the Fairy Godmother in the last film, and she does a marvellous job livening up every scene she’s in with her killer deliveries. Her mood swings are violent and sudden, swinging like a pendulum from sugary sweet to flaming rage in a split second; with her fondness for executing her subjects it’s a wonder the monarchy hasn’t been overthrown by now! One of my favourite scenes of hers is at the trial, when she’s interrogating the Dormouse and begins by bellowing into his teapot, only to be hastily shushed by her guards. For whatever reason, she actually listens to them and drops her voice to a comical whisper – it really tickles me. The only real criticism I have of her is that for all her bluster, she’s also a bit ridiculous and difficult to take seriously as a threat – she lacks the presence of Lady Tremaine or the Evil Queen, as she’s too one-sided. This could have been resolved by having her appear in the film more, but as it is she’s introduced very late in the film’s final act and only gets a few scenes.

Her hubby, the King, had me in stitches – he’s a teeny-weeny little henpecked husband stereotype, who’s been caricatured practically into a different species. His main role is to try and offset the effects of his mountainous wife’s temper, seemingly the only person who can calm her down. I always get a chuckle out of the lacklustre way the White Rabbit introduces him, almost like an afterthought, with his tone making it clear that everyone knows who really wears the trousers in this relationship. His voice actor, Dink Trout, sadly passed away long before the film’s release, in 1950, so this would be his last film role – I can certainly think of worse ways to end a career than in a Disney film.

The Queen of Hearts with high blood pressureAlice the king of hearts

 

Animation

Once again, we have here all of the Nine Old Men working on the film, and the animation is just as crisp and bright as you’d expect. The lead animators, by character, were:

  • Marc Davis (Alice)
  • Milt Kahl (The Dodo, Alice, Flamingo)
  • Eric Larson (Alice, Caterpillar, Queen of Hearts)
  • Frank Thomas (Doorknob, Queen of Hearts, Wonderland Creatures)
  • Ollie Johnston (Alice, King of Hearts)
  • Ward Kimball (Tweedledee and Tweedledum, The Walrus and The Carpenter, Oysters, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse)
  • John Lounsbery (Flowers, Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Wonderland creatures)
  • Wolfgang Reitherman (White Rabbit, The Carpenter, The Dodo, Mad Hatter, March Hare)
  • Les Clark (Alice, Wonderland creatures)
  • Norm Ferguson (The Walrus and The Carpenter)

As beautiful as the animation is here, it’s also easily some of the strangest we’ve seen since the days of The Three Caballeros; at times, it’s bordering on hallucinogenic. I can certainly see why it became such a hit in the psychedelic days of the 1960s!

Some of the best scenes include the Caucus Race, which is random but delightfully funny, largely thanks to the animation of the animals as they jog endlessly around their rock, and the garden scene with the flowers has plenty of fun visual gags hidden in the background, including that one white rose that looks like a reincarnation of Snow White. A whole mass of minor characters are introduced in the Tulgey Woods, letting the animators go wild with the bread-and-butterfly and the mome-raths (I love those things). The Queen’s playing card minions have become staples of most Alice adaptations since this film and make for some very distinctive imagery in the final act. Perhaps my favourite scene from an animation standpoint is Milt Kahl’s fantastic sham croquet match, where Alice battles gamely to get her idiotic flamingo to cooperate. We see a lot of her personality in this sequence as she struggles to prevent the dozy bird from jeopardising their lives, even tricking him into coming closer so she can throttle him!

Alice being mischievous
Alice is such a rascal sometimes

Mention must also be made of the Cheshire cat, who has some of the best character animation in the film courtesy of John Lounsbery – his entrances and exits are especially creative, with his body disappearing before his stripes, or his smile appearing before the rest of him.

Apparently, for the scene with Alice stuck in the White Rabbit’s house, the stage technicians had to build a scale model house for Kathryn Beaumont (who was also helping with the live-action reference footage) to sit inside. Animator Eric Larson noted that they had to be able to see how Alice’s body would move while she was trapped inside, so the house was rebuilt as a “frame house” with transparent walls to allow the animators to better study Beaumont’s movements while inside it. It was a worthwhile exercise; the end result is comically creative and one of the film’s standout scenes.

Things get really freaky towards the end of the film with all the characters forming an angry mob and chasing after Alice from out of what looks like a pink whirlpool, while she struggles to escape in a flood of tea… Honestly, I don’t know how to write about this cohesively, it’s too random to talk about. It’s easy to see the improvements in the artists’ technique over the years; by the time of Alice in Wonderland the human anatomy was being depicted with grace and ease (at least in the less caricatured characters). Alice may have a lot of problems, but the animation certainly isn’t one of them.

 

Plot

This is where the film struggles – and I mean really struggles. There’s not much plot to speak of; the original novels’ appeal was in their wordplay and logic puzzles, rather than in their stories. Due to this, adapting Alice to film has always proved a challenge to every director who’s attempted it and the Disney directors would prove to be no exceptions. The pacing of the film is one of its weakest elements, opening slowly and then relentlessly rushing from one wacky set piece to the next once Alice is in Wonderland, culminating in an abrupt dead stop at the end – it was all a dream! Back home for tea now, Alice.

The lack of a conventional narrative is what makes it hard to relate to any of the characters. They’re simply not given any real time to develop relationships with one another, or when they are given that time they’re too insane to do so. When the film attempts to recreate the “rock bottom” moment used so well in Cinderella, with Alice despairing in the midst of the forest, the weak story robs the scene of its emotional impact because we haven’t been given much reason to care about Alice’s plight. There’s no real sense of threat – again, the Queen of Hearts feels underused and hasn’t even been introduced yet at this point in the film – so we don’t worry about Alice’s fate because there doesn’t seem to be anything at stake (except perhaps her sanity). A good villain introduced earlier in the film could have provided much needed conflict to drive the plot forwards, but I understand that they needed to try and be faithful to the source material.

Alice alone in Tulgey Wood

Unsurprisingly, the many revisions of this difficult script left a lot of scenes on the cutting room floor. Characters, too, were axed by the handful: the Mock Turtle, the Gryphon and the Jabberwock were all dropped for pacing reasons, while others were amalgamated into one, with the Queen of Hearts being a combination of four queens and a duchess. The Tulgey Wood scene was originally going to feature the famous White Knight, who would have been a sort of caricature of Walt and would offer Alice his help and advice during the film. Walt liked the scene, but ultimately felt it would be better if Alice learned her lessons by herself, so it was reworked to include the Very Good Advice number.

The Walrus and the Carpenter section (which seems to take inspiration from the Pied Piper of Hamelin) brings the already sluggish story to a complete halt – but in spite of that, it’s one of the film’s more enjoyable parts and functions almost like a solid short on its own terms. As I mentioned above, the tea party and trial scenes both stand out as highlights, too, mainly because they star some of the film’s (relatively) better developed characters.

An early idea involved Alice’s cat, Dinah getting lost in Wonderland with her. She would end up being turned into the Cheshire cat (no idea how that would have worked!) and Alice, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare would have to go on a journey together to save her, ending with Alice’s arrest. The Cheshire cat would then redeem himself (or herself, I suppose) and be turned back into Dinah, escaping with Alice in a happy ending. I would have liked to see Dinah included on the adventure, but turning her into another character would have been a bit too weird even by this film’s standards! The Cheshire cat must have been pretty problematic to work with, as there were a few other deleted scenes featuring him. In one, he was originally supposed to deliver the opening lines of the Jabberwocky poem in the lead-up to an encounter with the actual creature (who would have been voiced by Stan Freberg, apparently), but that was dropped for pacing and because it was deemed too scary.

Overall, the plot of Alice in Wonderland seems to have been one of the most frustrating and unworkable projects Walt ever tackled, and I suppose all we can do today is admire his attempt as one of the successful. Having read the first novel myself, I’m not sure if a truly good film adaptation of it is even possible – it’s just too uniquely literary.

 

Cinematography

When Alice was first being prepared back in the 1930s, the intention had been to utilise John Tenniel’s beloved illustrations in the film’s style, hence Walt’s purchasing of the rights to them. A series of storyboards were prepared by British artist David Hall, but as it turned out the images were too complex and time-consuming to animate, so the look of the film was ultimately dictated by the work of Mary Blair. You’ve probably noticed her name cropping up a lot already, throughout the package film years and in Cinderella – she worked on Peter Pan too, but Alice in Wonderland is the film which best showcases her spare and colourful modernist style. Much like Pocahontas, the artwork of this film is one of most compelling reasons to watch it, as it’s filled with bright hues, angular shapes and kooky scenery, which lends it a distinctly 1950s flavour. There are several “connecting” scenes in which Alice is seen hurrying through Wonderland between adventures, and these really show off Blair’s work in the designs of the plant life.

Alice looking out at the Rabbit's house

The opening credits are some of the prettiest we’ve seen yet, and this was the first Disney film to have the voice actors’ names shown onscreen beside the characters they play (for some reason, this wasn’t done again until The Jungle Book {1967}). We’re treated to some gorgeous scenery in the opening and closing scenes, set as they are in the real world, but they feel like they’re from a different film when you stand them next to the Wonderland parts. Alice’s fall into Wonderland is really trippy, featuring a variety of distorted furniture and bathed with insipid pink and yellow lighting as she uses her skirt like a parachute to gently float down. The White Rabbit’s house and the flower garden were some of my favourite set pieces, but the best is definitely the Queen’s garden with its maze and the playing card motifs everywhere – the scenes have greatly influenced subsequent adaptations of the story and you can scarcely think of Alice’s story now without picturing the cards and flamingos.

Opening scenery of Alice

The staging of the film is perhaps a bit less grandiose than in Cinderella, which featured a lot of Hitchcockian overtones. There are a few creative shots of Alice now and then, such as when she is framed by the handle of a teapot as she approaches the tea party, and she’s often shown peering out of the shadows at some crazy thing she’s found. The use of lighting is generally not very imaginative, with a lot of flat simple light of the sort seen throughout the package films, apart from a few scenes like that in Tulgey Woods where an increasingly despondent Alice wanders about under the darkened canopy. The lighting there reflects her mood, the only sad point in an otherwise deliriously happy film, and reminds me vaguely of Snow White’s terrified flight through a similarly enchanted forest.

Hatter and Hare framed by handles

The exploding watch at the tea party is a standout scene for the cinematography, where we get some tight editing and exaggeratedly dramatic lighting to build the moment up, followed by a washed out shot in black and white after the watch is smashed. It’s a rare example of the cinematography of the film being used to provide comedy, rather than the characters themselves.

Watch in black and white

Alice’s clothes have become one of the most famous Disney outfits; you don’t have to have seen the film to recognise her distinctive bell-shaped blue dress and white apron, with the black “Alice band,” Mary Janes, white tights and blonde hair. Disney knows how to create an iconic outfit; keep the shapes in the design simple, and don’t use too many colours. Snow White had her red, yellow and blue theme, Cinderella had the silvery ball gown, and now Alice gets the blue and white colour palette which is seen in costume shops and Disney theme parks around the world today. The other character’s outfits are no less interesting, but different adaptations tend to feature new versions of their costumes as there’s so much more room for imagination with them.

 

Soundtrack

The soundtrack of Alice in Wonderland was very ambitious, with Disney commissioning several top songwriters in an effort to incorporate Carroll’s imaginative verses and poems into the music, but like the film itself the soundtrack is only partially successful. A record number of songs were written for the film, more than thirty, but most are only featured for a few brief moments which prevents any of them from really sticking in your memory. In the end, the songs actually used are the following:

  • Alice in Wonderland – The Jud Conlon Chorus and The Mellomen

The title song was composed by Sammy Fain and surprisingly ended up becoming a jazz standard, first used by Dave Brubeck in 1952 and then featuring on his 1957 album Dave Digs Disney. For the Japanese release of the film, Izumi Yukimura sang her own theme song. It’s very of its time, but stands as one of the film’s better songs.

  • In a World of My Own – Alice

Alice’s big number was originally going to be called Beyond the Laughing Sky and she was going to perform many other songs throughout the film. But then the studio realised that Kathryn Beaumont couldn’t sing that well, so she got this livelier, easier number instead. (The composition for Beyond the Laughing Sky was given new lyrics and a new title, becoming The Second Star to the Right in Peter Pan two years later). She may not have the vocals of Ilene Woods or Mary Costa, but this lack of ability and her transatlantic accent combine to create a sort of down-to-earth charm, a relatability which makes the song an enjoyable one.

Alice with Dinah in daisies

  • I’m Late – White Rabbit

Not really a full song, more of a character motif. Nice enough, though, for what it is.

  • The Sailor’s Hornpipe – Dodo

Enjoyable with a familiar sailing melody, but again, very short.

  • The Caucus Race – Dodo and Animals

I love this one, if only it were longer! It goes very well with the jaunty animation of the scene.

  • How Do You Do and Shake Hands? – Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Very annoying and thankfully very short.

  • The Walrus and the Carpenter – Tweedledee and Tweedledum

One of the longer songs, told in a sort of half-narrated style. It’s jaunty, nonsensical and fun.

  • Old Father William – Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Sung as Alice departs the scene, I had to look this one up on YouTube – very forgettable.

  • Smoke the Blighter Out – Dodo and White Rabbit

Not much to this one, either; this too could have been much better if it were longer.

  • All in the Golden Afternoon – The Flowers and Alice

Probably the best song from a technical standpoint, even with Beaumont’s charmingly off-key part! She was clearly a good sport about it, allowing the filmmakers to include a voice crack on the high note, which earns a self-aware smile from the Red Rose.

  • A-E-I-O-U – Caterpillar

Another microscopic little song sung by the Caterpillar as Alice approaches him.

  • Twas Brillig – Cheshire Cat

Fits the character well but it’s too, damn, short! Very Carroll-esqe with its wordplay.

  • The Unbirthday Song – Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Alice

Probably the film’s most famous song. I’m not a fan; it’s very grating and silly, but then that’s the point of course.

  • Very Good Advice – Alice

Halfway between a song and a monologue, to accommodate Beaumont’s vocal troubles. This is the only remotely sad song in the whole film, a nice change of pace.

  • Painting the Roses Red – The Playing Cards (The Jud Conlon Chorus) and Alice

I think this one’s my favourite – it has a great tune and I like the interaction between Alice and the card player painters, who are friendly and not particularly insane. It’s good to see Alice enjoying herself briefly!

Alice with the cards painting

  • Who’s Been Painting My Roses Red? (Reprise) – Queen of Hearts and The Playing Cards

Short, but a welcome addition because it gives the Queen a moment in the spotlight (as if she needed another).

  • The Unbirthday Song (Reprise) – Mad Hatter, March Hare, The Queen of Hearts, and The Playing Cards

Reprises are always short, but this is barely a song – it’s just a few lines, but admittedly they’re funny ones as the Queen delightedly gets into the (un)birthday spirit.

  • The Caucus Race (Reprise) – The Entire Cast Minus Alice

I’m glad this one got a reprise as it’s one of my favourites.

There were numerous other songs which were cut along with the characters who would have sung them, but I think we got more than enough to be getting on with! With no big ballads, villain songs or sweeping romantic numbers the music is largely forgettable, which is a real shame given how much work went into it.

The dialogue is generally quite good, but it does depend on the characters – naturally, the ones with more screen time tend to get the best lines. During the filming of the live-action reference footage for the tea party, Ed Wynn (the Mad Hatter) improvised some lines instead of sticking to the script. Walt liked the resulting performance so much that he asked the soundmen to work the dialogue into the finished film. They protested that it was far too poor quality due to the background noise, but Walt simply told them “That’s your problem” and left them to figure it out. Somehow, they solved their problem, so the dialogue heard at the tea party in the finished film is from that session!

The Queen’s lines are my favourites, especially her more genial ones: when Alice tries to speak with her, the Queen interrupts sweetly to tell her, “Curtsey while you’re thinking; it saves time!” Then, during the trial, she cuts off the White Rabbit’s long-winded introductions (thankfully not his head) to say excitedly, “Get to the part where I lose my temper!” She’s like a petulant child and I can’t get enough of Verna Felton’s performance here.

 

Final Verdict

This messy production ended up a domestic failure, earning back an estimated $2.4 million from its $3 million budget at the US box office in 1951. (Other sources seem to suggest that it made $5 million, but presumably this was its worldwide gross, or maybe the total gross to date). Critics weren’t too kind; Americans didn’t like the surrealism, Brits didn’t care for the “Americanising” of the story, Carroll purists thought the story had been butchered completely… There was even a legal dispute between Disney and British director Dallas Bower, whose 1949 French version of the story was set to be released in American theatres around the same time. Disney tried to sue to prevent it being shown while their film was playing, with Time magazine covering the case extensively, but in the end both versions flopped anyway!

According to critic Bob Thomas, Walt told him “I never wanted to make it in the first place, but everybody said I should.” It is certainly apparent that neither he nor the animators really enjoyed making this one; apparently, all of the individual sequence directors were trying to top one another in terms of pure craziness, but the lack of a proper story left everyone feeling frustrated with it.

The film was never rereleased in Walt’s lifetime, although it was used on TV several times, even serving as the second episode of the Disneyland show in 1955, albeit in a severely edited form. It eventually found new life in a new age – following the successful release of George Dunning’s 1968 Beatles vehicle Yellow Submarine, psychedelic animation of this style was in vogue and people began to rediscover Alice by viewing it through a different (often drug-fuelled) lens. The story of Alice in Wonderland had already long been associated with the drug culture, so it was almost inevitable that it would end up as a popular “head film” of the 1960s and ‘70s. Prints of the film were shown in colleges across the US, which Disney initially resisted, not wanting to be associated with such a scandalous peripheral demographic. By 1974, though, they had a change of heart, and they gave Alice its first theatrical rerelease that year, even using the hit song White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane to promote it! The release was a huge success, enough so that they released it again in the UK in 1979, followed by another general rerelease in 1981.

That year also saw its debut on home media with a very early VHS release, and it has received numerous other VHS, DVD and Blu-ray releases in the years since. A stage adaptation called Alice in Wonderland, Jr., intended for performance by school students, was licensed by Music Theatre International and Alice herself even proved popular enough to be briefly included in the Disney Princess line-up when it debuted in 2000 (although she isn’t in it now). Kathryn Beaumont continued to lend her voice as the character (as well as Wendy, whom she also voiced) until her retirement in 2005, and she narrates the Alice in Wonderland ride at Disneyland.

Bill the Lizard, Tweedledum, Cheshire cat and the doorknob all make cameo appearances in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Bill was popular enough to appear as one of Ratigan’s henchmen in The Great Mouse Detective (1986), too!

The film itself, like so many others these days, received a live-action remake back in 2010, done by Tim Burton (sounds like a good choice, at least on paper). I have to admit, I haven’t seen it as I never much liked the original, never mind a remake, but I would imagine Helena Bonham Carter is better suited to the Queen of Hearts role than the bloody Fairy Godmother (I’ll never understand that casting decision in Cinderella {2015}). At least it didn’t suffer the indignity of a direct-to-video sequel.

My final opinion on this is pretty negative; I just don’t enjoy it as a whole, although it does have plenty of fun moments. It feels like a package film in some ways with its disjointed, episodic nature – and just like those films, the quality of it varies wildly from scene to scene. Even with hammy delights like the Queen, none of the characters are especially likeable, and the music is largely a let-down too. Still, I do feel bad for being harsh with it, as the material is notoriously difficult to adapt to film. To date, there hasn’t really been an Alice film that is widely considered to be good – this one is the most successful and the most iconic of them all, so far. Christopher Finch summed it up neatly when he described it as “a confusing hodgepodge of disparate story elements and stylistic inconsistencies.” I couldn’t quite give it a 2 out of 5 (it gets an extra star for sheer ambition), but it’s definitely the weakest of the 1950s features.

My Rating – 3/5

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney (2007) edited by Bruno Girveau

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3891819 – credit for poster

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_in_Wonderland_(1951_film) – wiki article

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043274/ – IMDB page

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