Alice in Wonderland is a 1951 American animated feature produced by Walt Disney and based primarily on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with a few additional elements from Through the Looking-Glass. Thirteenth in the Walt Disney Animated Classic series, the film was released in New York City and London on July 29, 1951 by RKO Radio Pictures. The film features the voices of Kathryn Beaumont as Alice (also voice of Wendy Darling in the later Disney feature film, Peter Pan) and Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter.
Made under the supervision of Walt Disney himself, this film and its animation are often regarded as some of the finest work in Disney Studio history, despite the lackluster, even hostile, reviews it originally received, especially in the United Kingdom.
On the bank of a tranquil river, Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) grows bored listening to her older sister, read aloud from a history book about William I of England. Alice's sister scolds her, gently but firmly, for her lack of attention. At that moment, Alice dreams of living in a world of nonsense and wonders aloud to her kitten Dinah what it would be like. Just then, Alice sees a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) wearing a waistcoat and carrying a large pocket watch. She and Dinah follow him into a rabbit hole, where Alice suddenly falls down into a deep well, leaving Dinah behind.
At the bottom, she follows the Rabbit into a large chamber-like hall, but he escapes through a tiny door. The Doorknob (Joseph Kearns) suggests Alice drink from a bottle marked "Drink me" on a table which has magically appeared. The contents shrink her to a tiny fraction of her original size. The door is locked, but the key appears on the table, which she can not reach. The Doorknob directs her to a cookie marked "Eat me." The cookie makes her grow so large that her head hits the ceiling. She begins to cry when she realizes she can't get out, and her massive tears flood the room. The Doorknob points out that the "Drink me" bottle still has some fluid left inside, so she finishes the last drop. She becomes so small that she drops inside the bottle. Both she and the bottle drift through the doorknob's keyhole mouth and out to a sea made from Alice's tears.
On shore, a Dodo bird (Thompson) leads a group of animals in a futile caucus-race to get dry. Alice proceeds to run inland from the seashore, finding herself lost in a lonely, dark, ominous forest where she encounters Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. They rambunctiously suggest numerous games for her to play with them, but Alice courteously declines their offers. They ask her why, and she states indignantly " I'm looking for the white rabbit ". " Why " they ponder again, and Alice responds " because I'm curious as to where he's going". The pair then slyly remark " oh, she's curious......tsk,tsk - the oysters were curious too..". This suddenly diverts Alice's attention, and she ploys them eagerly to tell the rest of the story. The dastardly duo then satisfyingly proceed to recite the narrative poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter, which originally appeared in Caroll's related book Through the Looking Glass. After sneaking away to the White Rabbit's house, Alice is mistaken by him for his maidservant, Mary Ann, and forced to fetch his gloves inside. She helps herself to another cookie and then grows to such a large size that she gets stuck inside the house and this sends the White rabbit into a panic as he mistakes her for a monster. The Dodo tries to help by first sending Bill the Lizard Chimney Sweep down the chimney, but Alice sneezes and sends him flying back up. The Dodo then decides the best solution would be setting the house on fire so they can "smoke the monster out", much to the White Rabbit's dismay. Alice eats a carrot from the garden and shrinks down to three inches, allowing her to escape and pursue the White Rabbit once more.
Alice encounters a garden of talking flowers who at first befriend her but kick her out when an iris convinces the others that she is a weed. She then follows a trail of smoke letters created by a Caterpillar (Richard Haydn) sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah. Alice asks him for some help but accidentally insults him when she says she hates being three inches high. The caterpillar disappears in a cocoon of smoke, transforming into a butterfly. Before he flies away he tells Alice that eating one side of the mushroom will make her grow taller, and the other side will make her shorter. Alice attempts this and after becoming a giant and scaring a mother bird and then briefly becoming three inches tall again, licks the one side of the mushroom that makes her grow taller, and returns to her normal height.
Alice receives mysterious directions from the Cheshire Cat (Sterling Hollowy), an eerily grinning feline that can disappear and reappear at will, which lead her to the home of the March Hare (Jerry Colonna), who is celebrating his "unbirthday" with the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) and the Dormouse. Alice decides to join in on the celebration, much to their delight. The Mad Hatter and March Hare keep interrupting and changing the subject and angering Alice. The White Rabbit runs through the garden exclaiming that he's late; the Mad Hatter attempts to fix his watch, saying that it is "two days slow!". The watch then goes haywire and the March Hare smashes it with a mallet. Upon lamenting that it was an unbirthday present, the Mad Hatter and March Hare toss the White Rabbit up in the air and out into the woods. When Alice grows tired of their rudeness and wackiness as well as all the kinds of nonsense in Wonderland, she decides to go home, abandoning her pursuit of the White Rabbit. She becomes lost and despondent in the Tulgey Wood until the Cheshire Cat reappears and cheers her up by showing her a short-cut out of the forest and into the garden of the Queen (and King) of Hearts.
In the hedge maze garden, Alice meets some playing cards painting white roses red. The White Rabbit heralds the arrival of the bellicose Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), the diminutive King (Dink Trout), and a card army. She invites Alice to a strange game of croquet using flamingos as mallets, hedgehogs as balls, and card soldiers as wickets. Of course, the game is manipulated in the Queen's favor, as to not upset her temper. The Cheshire Cat plays a prank on the Queen, who blames Alice and orders her execution. The King suggests that Alice is to be put on trial instead. At the trial, Alice's nonsensical acquaintances (the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse and the White Rabbit) are of no help to her. After the King of Hearts and the Mad Hatter realize that today is also the Queen's unbirthday, they and the Cheshire Cat create enough distraction to allow Alice to eat the remaining portions of mushroom, causing her to grow to gigantic proportions. At this size, Alice scolds the terrified Queen for her rash behavior, calling her a "Fat, Pompous, Bad tempered old tyrant!", but then starts shrinking back to her normal size all too soon. At the Queen's command of "Off with her head!" all the crazy inhabitants of Wonderland give chase.
Coming back to the Doorknob, Alice is told by him that he is still locked, but that she is already outside. Looking through the keyhole, Alice sees herself asleep in the park. As the mob draws nearer, she calls, "Alice, wake up!" to her sleeping self until she gradually awakens from the dream to the sound of her sister's voice. Alice cannot remember her history lesson but begins to recite doggerel from her dream. Her sister chastises Alice, and the two of them return home for teatime.
The history of Walt Disney's association with Lewis Carroll's Alice books (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass) stretches all the way back to 1923, when Disney was still a 21-year-old filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in Kansas City. When his first series of short cartoons, the Newman Laugh-O-Grams, failed to recoup production costs, the struggling young producer tried to create other short films hoping that one of them would point the way forward. The last of these Kansas City works was called Alice's Wonderland, featuring a live action girl (Virginia Davis) interacting with cartoon characters. While charming, the short failed to receive much notice, and so Walt Disney decided to abandon producing animated films, and left Kansas City to become a live-action film director in Hollywood.
Walt Disney had a long-standing affection for Alice in Wonderland. For instance, as soon as he began discussing making feature-length films, he returned repeatedly to the idea of making a feature-length version of Alice, but for various reasons, these attempts were never realized. Prior to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney planned on making Alice in Wonderland his first feature-length film instead. Like the early Alice Comedies, he planned on using a combination of live-action and animation for the "wonderland" sequences, and in early 1933, a Technicolor screen test was shot with Mary Pickford as Alice. This first attempt by Disney at producing an Alice feature was eventually tabled when Paramount released their own 1933 live-action version, with a script by Cleopatra director Joseph Mankiewicz (brother of Citizen Kane (1941) scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz) and a cast that included Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, and W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty.
Disney did not abandon the idea of making an Alice feature. After the enormous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – as Leonard Maltin writes in his history of Walt Disney's film career, The Disney Films, Walt Disney officially recorded the title Alice in Wonderland with the MPAA in 1938. As preparatory work began on this possible "Alice" feature, the economic devastation of the Second World War as well as the demands of the productions of Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942) pushed the "Alice" project aside. After the war, in 1945, Disney proposed a live-action/animated version of Alice in Wonderland that would star Ginger Rogers and would utilize the techniques seen in Disney's The Three Caballeros (1944). This, too, fell through, and in 1946, work began on an all-animated version of Alice in Wonderland that would feature art direction heavily based on the famous illustrations of Sir John Tenniel. This version was storyboarded, but was ultimately rejected by Walt, as was yet another proposed live-action/animated version of Alice that would star Luanna Patten (seen in Disney's Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948)).
The film cost $3,000,000, $21 million in 2010, so Alice in wonderland was a slightly low budget film. In the late 1940s, work resumed on an all-animated Alice with a focus on comedy, music and spectacle as opposed to rigid fidelity to the books, and finally, in 1951, Walt Disney released a feature-length version of Alice in Wonderland to theaters, eighteen years after first discussing ideas for the project and almost thirty years after making his first Alice Comedy. Disney's final version of Alice in Wonderland followed in the traditions of his feature films like Fantasia and The Three Caballeros in that Walt Disney intended for the visuals and the music to be the chief source of entertainment, as opposed to a tightly-constructed narrative like Snow White or Cinderella (1950). Instead of trying to produce an animated "staged reading" of Carroll's books, Disney chose to focus on their whimsy and fantasy, using Carroll's prose as a beginning, not as an end unto itself.
Another choice was decided upon for the look of the film. Rather than faithfully reproducing the famous illustrations of Sir John Tenniel, a more streamlined and less complicated approach was used for the design of the main characters. Background artiest Mary Blair took a Modernist approach to her design of Wonderland, creating a world that was recognizable, and yet was decidedly "unreal." Indeed, Blair's bold use of color is one of the film's most notable features.
Finally, in an effort to retain some of Carroll's imaginative verses and poems, Disney commissioned top songwriters to compose songs built around them for use in the film. A record number of potential songs were written for the film, based on Carroll's verses—over 30—and many of them found a way into the film, if only for a few brief moments. Alice in Wonderland would boast the greatest number of songs included in any Disney film, but because some of them last for mere seconds (like "How Do You Do and Shake Hands," "We'll Smoke the Monster Out," "Twas Brillig," "The Caucus Race," and others), this fact is frequently overlooked. The original song that Alice was to sing in the beginning was titled "Beyond the Laughing Sky". The song, like so many other dropped songs, was not used by the producers. However, the composition was kept and the lyrics were changed. It later became the title song for Peter Pan (which was in production at the same time), "The Second Star to the Right".
The title song, composed by Sammy Fain, was later adopted by jazz pianist Bill Evans and featured on his Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Release and Reception:
All of these creative decisions were met with great criticism from fans of Lewis Carroll, as well as from British film and literary critics who accused Disney of "Americanizing" a great work of English literature. Disney was not surprised by the critical reception to Alice in Wonderland - his version of Alice was intended for large family audiences, not literary critics - but despite all the long years of thought and effort, the film met with a lukewarm response at the box office and was a sharp disappointment in its initial release. Though not an outright disaster, the film was never re-released theatrically in Walt Disney's lifetime, airing instead every so often on network television. Alice in Wonderland aired as the second episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland TV series on ABC in 1954, in a severely edited version cut down to less than an hour. In The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin relates animator Ward Kimball felt the film failed because, "it suffered from too many cooks - directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product."
Almost two decades after its original release, after the North American success of George Dunning's animated feature Yellow Submarine (1968), Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland suddenly found itself in vogue with the times. In fact, because of Mary Blair's art direction and the long-standing association of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland with the drug culture, the feature was re-discovered as something of a "head film" (along with Fantasia and The Three Caballeros) among the college-aged and was shown in various college towns across the country. The Disney company resisted this association, and even withdrew prints of the film from universities, but then, in 1974, the Disney company gave Alice in Wonderland its first theatrical re-release ever, and the company even promoted it as a film in tune with the "psychedelic" times (mostly from the hit song "White Rabbit" performed by Jefferson Airplane). This re-release was successful enough to warrant a subsequent re-release in 1981.
Later, with the advent of the home video market, the Disney company chose to make Alice in Wonderland one of the first titles available for the rental market on VHS and Beta and for retail sale on RCA's short-lived CED Videodisc format. The film was released on October 15, 1981 on VHS, CED Videodisk, and Betamax and May 28, 1986 on VHS, Betamax, and Laserdisc in the Walt Disney Classic, (though it was mastered for tape in 1985), staying in general release ever since, with a 40th Anniversary video release in 1991 (this and the 1986 video release were in Disney's Classics Collections), and again on October 28, 1994 on VHS and Laserdisc in the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection, and finally in 1999 (these two were in the Walt disney Masterpiece Collection.) It was released on DVD in Region 2 on July 13, 1999 and in Region 1 on July 4, 2000 (under the Gold Classic Collection DVD series). A fully restored 1.33:1 ratio two-disc "Masterpiece Edition" was released in 2004, including the full hour-long episode of the Disney television show with Kathryn Beaumont, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, Bobby Driscoll and others that promoted the film, computer games, deleted scenes, songs and related materials, which went back on moratorium in January 2009. Disney released a 2-disc Special "Un-Anniversary" Edition DVD on March 30, 2010 in order to promote the new Tim Burton. The movie was released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo on February 1, 2011 to celebrate its 60th Anniversary.
On the film aggregator website, Rotten Tomatoes, the overall rating of the film is a "fresh" 80% from 25 critical reviews.
This motion picture received an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but it lost to An American in Paris.
American Film Institute Lists: