Thursday, March 18, 2010

Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951 film)

Alice in Wonderland (1951) is an American animated film 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 Classics series, the film was released in New York City and London on July 26, 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 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 ("A World of My Own", as she explains and sings to her little kitten Dinah). Alice sees a White Rabbit 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 suggests Alice drink from a bottle marked "Drink me." The contents shrink her to a tiny fraction of her original size. The door is locked, and 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; 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 leads a group of animals in a futile caucus-race to get dry. Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two fat twin brothers who recite "The Walrus and the Carpenter", in a sequence that first appeared in Through the Looking-Glass. After sneaking away to the White Rabbit's house, Alice is at first mistaken by him for his maidservant; and then grows to such a large size that she gets stuck inside the house. The Dodo tries to help by first sending Bill the Lizard Chimney Sweep down the chimney, and then setting the house on fire; but Alice eats a carrot from the garden and shrinks down to three inches.

Alice sings "All in the Golden Afternoon" with a garden of talking flowers, who originally appeared in Chapter 3 of Through the Looking-GlassAlice chases after the Rabbit again, and in another example of a vignette borrowed from Through the Looking-Glass, she finds herself in a garden of talking flowers and strange insects. The flowers at first befriend Alice, but then mistake her for a weed and angrily drive her out of the flowerbed before she can "take root." She engages a hookah-smoking caterpillar who turns into a butterfly, though not before giving her cryptic advice about the mushroom she is sitting on. Alice breaks off two pieces and nibbles them alternately (first growing very large and unintentionally aggravating a Nesting Mother Bird, who accuses Alice of being a "serpent", then shrinking very small). Finally Alice manages to restore herself to her normal size and stores the pieces in her apron pockets.

Alice receives mysterious directions from the Cheshire Cat, an eerily grinning feline that can disappear and reappear at will, which lead her to the garden of the March Hare, who is celebrating his "unbirthday" with the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse. Alice, growing tired of their rudeness and wackiness, decides to go home, abandoning her pursuit of the White Rabbit. She is lost and despondent among the strange creatures (See Below) of the Tulgey Wood, until the Cheshire Cat reappears and shows 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, the diminutive King, 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. The Cheshire Cat plays a prank on the Queen, who blames Alice and orders her execution. The King suggests that Alice be put on trial instead. At the trial, Alice's nonsensical acquaintances (the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse) are of no help to her. The Cheshire Cat appears and causes 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, 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 on the other side. 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. The two of them return home for teatime; while Alice muses on her adventures in Wonderland and realizes that perhaps logic and reason exist for a purpose, her sister realizes (affectionately) that Alice is still young, but will grow-up in time.


Kathryn Beaumont as Alice
Ed Wynn as Mad Hatter
Richard Haydn as Caterpillar
Sterling Holloway as Cheshire Cat
Jerry Colonna as March Hare
Verna Felton as Queen of Hearts
J. Pat O'Malley as Tweedledum and Tweedledee; Walrus; Carpenter; Mother Oyster
Bill Thompson as White Rabbit; The Dodo
Heather Angel as Alice's sister
Joseph Kearns as Doorknob
Larry Grey as Bill the Lizard, Card Painter
Queenie Leonard as Bird In Tree, Snooty Flower
Dink Trout as King of Hearts
Doris Lloyd as Rose
Jimmy MacDonald as The Dormouse
The Mellomen as Cards
Don Barclay as Other Cards


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 twenty-one 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.

After months of trying, and failing, to find work in live-action, Disney partnered with his older brother Roy to create the Disney Brothers Studio, and they revived the idea of producing animated shorts. The independent distributor M. J. Winkler screened Walt's 1923 Alice short and found it promising, so Winkler agreed to distribute a series of Alice Comedies for the Disney brothers. Jubilant, Walt contacted his former Kansas City colleagues and brought them to Hollywood to work on the new series (a group that today reads like a who's who of American animation legends, including Ub Iwerks, Rudolph Ising, Isadore "Friz" Freleng, and Hugh Harman). From 1924 to 1926, the Disney Brothers Studio produced over fifty short Alice Comedies. The success of this silent film series established Disney as a film producer, and was probably significant for the success of the later Mickey Mouse, usually credited as the first great Disney success.

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, 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 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, Fantasia, and Bambi 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. 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 and So Dear to My Heart).

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. Indeed, Lewis Carroll's Alice books have no real plot to speak of, and because of the literary complexity of Carroll's work, they are essentially unfilmable. 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 artist 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 films 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 televisio. 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, 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. The film was released on October 15, 1981 on VHS and Betamax and May 28, 1986 on VHS, Betamax, and Laserdisc in the Walt Disney Classics, (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 Collection), 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), and on a fully restored two disc edition in 2004, which went back on moratorium in January 2009. Disney Announced a new 2-disc Special "Un-Anniversary" Edition DVD that will be released on March 30, 2010 in order to promote the new Tim Burton Film.

On the film aggregator website, Rotten Tomatoes, the overall rating of the film is a "fresh" 81%.

This motion picture received an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, but it lost to An American in Paris.


Media and merchandise

Stage version

Alice in Wonderland has been condensed into a one act stage version entitled, Alice and Wonderland, Jr. The stage version is solely meant for middle and high school productions and includes the majority of the film's songs and others including Song of the South's "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," This 60-80 minute version is owned by Musical Theatre International in the Broadway, Jr. Collection along with other Disney Theatrical shows such as Disney's Aladdin, Jr., Disney's Mulan, Jr., Beauty and the Beast, Disney's High School Musical: On Stage!, Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida, and many more.

Referenced in other Disney films

Alice and several other characters from the film were featured as guests in House of Mouse, and the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts were two of the villains featured in Mickey's House of Villains. The Mad Hatter was also featured in Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare were also featured in several episodes of Bonkers. Bill the Lizard, Tweedledum, Cheshire Cat, the doorknob, and an orange-colored version of one of the bulb-horn birds also appear in the 1988 film Disney film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Theme Parks

All five Disneyland-style theme parks feature a teacup ride based on Disney's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland is also frequently featured in many parades and shows in the Disney Theme Parks, including The Main Street Electrical Parade, SpectroMagic, Fantasmic, Dreamlights, and Walt Disney's Parade of Dreams. Additionally, two rides are based on Alice in Wonderland in Disneyland: Alice in Wonderland (a dark ride telling of Alice's tale) and the Mad Tea Party. This honor of having more than one ride in a single park was only given to one other Disney classic: Dumbo.

There is also a labyrinth at Disneyland Paris Resort based on Wonderland along with the park's Tea Cups ride. Alice's Tea Party at Tokyo Disneyland, Mad Hatter's Tea Cups at Disneyland Paris, and Mad Hatter Tea Cups at Hong Kong Disneyland. All except the Tokyo version were opening day attractions at their respective parks.

Additionally, Disneyland Paris has a maze called Alice’s Curious Labyrinth.

Video games

A video game version of the film was released on Game Boy Color by Nintendo of America on October 4, 2000 in North America. Additionally, in the video games Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Wonderland is a playable world. Alice is also a major character in the overall plot of the first game due to her role as one of seven "Princesses Of Heart". Other characters from the movie that appear include The Queen of Hearts, The Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, the Doorknob,the Caterpillar (V-cast Only), and the Deck of Cards. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare appear in portrait form as well. All except the Doorknob also appear in Chain of Memories, albeit in the form of illusions made from the main character's memory. While the world is absent in Kingdom Hearts II, it returns in Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts coded, the latter featuring a digitized version of the world originating from data in Jiminy Cricket's royal journal.

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