ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Directed By: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, & Hamilton Luske
Produced By: Walt Disney
Based On: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through The Looking Glass
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Distributed By: RKO Radio Pictures
Contrary to past film reviews this “review” alongside any and all future reviews about classic Disney films made before the end of the Renaissance will be more about the history of the films themselves rather than the film itself because really, if any one of you haven’t seen these movies yet then nothing I can say about them will change your mind. History on the other hand might just open your minds to new possibilities… That being said, let’s get this started shall we?
Hands down, Alice in Wonderland is my favorite Disney animated film of all time bar none. Oh yes, there are some that ride close on its coattails but none can truly compare to the first Disney film I had seen as a child and had re-watched to such a degree that I can quote, word-for-word, a majority of the film. I say a majority only because I’m not one to sing and remember the lyrics to most songs but still, my point stands!
Alice in Wonderland, out of the majority of Disney films, has one of the most interesting of history to it strictly because this film had been on Walt Disney’s mind since he was but a boy. In point of fact, the story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland was actually the inspiration and reason for one of Walt Disney’s earliest successes prior to the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. Known simply as the Alice Comedies, this series of short films featured a live action girl having adventures in an animated world with cartoon critters of all shapes and sizes.
Think about that for a moment ladies and gentlemen.
Live action characters in an animated world in 1924. The first, truly successful, animated cartoon anything was Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay in 1914! What makes this is even more amazing is that a total of fifty-seven shorts were made within three years!
Of course, only the initial short, aptly titled Alice’s Wonderland, was the source of this series’ creation and even then it was only very loosely based on the original story insomuch that the girl was named Alice and she happens upon a world quite contrary to our own.
Following the rise, fall, and rise again that was his cartoon shorts, Walt Disney pondered the idea of a motion picture film of Alice and her adventures to the same style as his Alice Comedies. Basically, a real life girl in a world of cartoons set to theatrical length. That’s right, ladies and gents, he actually toyed with the idea of doing Alice in Wonderland first before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and was all set to go with it too! He had managed to procure the rights to the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, which was under copyright at the time, and had even gotten Mary Pickford for the role of Alice.
A little side note here but I thought this an interesting piece of history here. Mary Pickford is one of the thirty-six original founders to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (otherwise known as the people responsible for the freaking OSCARS!) and was coined as “America’s Sweetheart.” She was also a popular and incredibly well known actress for her time such as the year 1909 where she starred in 51 films. That’s close to having one film out and ready for theaters a week people!
Unfortunately, Walt Disney’s initial idea for a theatrical Alice would not be made quite yet as Paramount Pictures released their own film in 1933 and he didn’t want to risk comparisons between the two. That and he was rather put off by the film too but then who hadn’t… Seriously, check out this trailer if you don’t believe me. Walt didn’t let the idea of an Alice cartoon go away entirely though as he later released a Mickey Mouse short entitled Thru the Mirror in 1936.
Following the smash success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, Walt tried again for fully animated film of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and had gotten storyboard artist Al Perkins to write out the story and David S. Hall, an art director, to storyboard it. Misfortune struck again as Walt felt that Hall’s drawings resembled Tenniel’s to a frightening degree and would make duplicating in animation incredibly difficult never mind that Perkins’ script was rather… grotesque and dark.
How dark and grotesque? Here are a few samples of David S. Hall’s storyboard, specifically the scene where Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole…
With the economic hardships that was World War II, Walt Disney shelved the idea of an Alice film until 1945 where he assigned a British author by name of Aldous Huxley but found the man’s attempt to be too much of a mirror copy to the original book. It wasn’t until background artist Mary Blair showed Walt some of her concept pieces that he was inspired to take a more whimsical approach to Carroll’s book and Walt decided that only a fully animated film could do it justice and began work on it in 1946.
During production, a few scenes came and went for reasons of pacing or because some songs just didn’t feel right but would later on be rewritten and readapted to other films. In the case of songs, some examples include a song entitled “Beyond the Laughing Sky” whose melody would later be used for “The Second Star to the Right” whereas another song, aptly named “I’m Odd” was replaced by a musical rendition of “Twas Brillig” for the Cheshire Cat. There were even some songs devoted to characters that didn’t make the final cut of the film such as “If You Believe in Me” for the Lion and the Unicorn or “Beware the Jabberwock” for… well, the Jabberwock.
On that note of deleted characters and scenes, one of the three major scenes that came close to making into the film did include the Jabberwock in it. However, going in proper order here, the first scene that nearly made it to film was the scene of the Duchess and her pepper obsessed cook but was scrapped for pacing reasons though I think it was more because of the scene itself being quite… violent… in a way.
The second scene was to actually include the White Knight who would have a conversation/song with Alice and would impart some words of wisdom to Alice. The White Knight was even purposefully designed to be a caricature of Walt Disney himself who, despite liking the scene, had it scrapped because he felt it would be better for Alice to learn her lesson on her own via the song “Very Good Advice.” Finally, the scene with the Jabberwock…
Oh boy this scene… For those who’ve seen Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, recall if you will the scene where Alice traverses through Tulgey Wood and having enough of the nonsense that Wonderland has in abundance. Now add in a creature of shadow and immense size, with eyes of flame, and a burbling cry following after Alice and attempting to scare her out of her wits only to reveal a monster that is slightly more comical in appearance than one would expect but Alice is neither surprised nor amused and continues on her way. The Jabberwock, like many other denizens of the forest, would then vanish away in tears at his failure.
One more note on the production of the film before moving on towards its reception. Like all Disney films past, and future, the animators employed the use of live action references to help inspire the animators to making scenes as true to life as possible. Back in the day, they used the actual voice actors themselves to act out their respected characters, as many of them would actually be caricaturized into the film proper. Such was the case for Alice via her voice actress Kathryn Beaumont and especially so in the case of Ed Wynn for the Mad Hatter who did such a marvelous job at it during his live action reference versus his reading of the lines they actually took the audio from that and put into the film!
Finally, in 1951, Alice in Wonderland premiered.
It was a flop.
Yep, you read correctly, a flop, despite being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, it was given major criticism by fans of Lewis Carroll alongside many a British film and literary critic who thought that it was too “Americanized.” The film was given a lukewarm response at best and only earned $2.4 million at its U.S. box office release back in 1951.
It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that another film’s success inspired a resurgence of Disney’s animated film. The film Yellow Submarine alongside the… ah… drug culture phenomenon that was occurring during the 70’s made such films as Alice in Wonderland, Fantasia, and even The Three Cabelleros as a “psychedelic film.” Of course, the Disney Company tried to resist this association and even went so far as to remove several prints of the films from most universities until they finally gave in to the hype in 1974 and re-released Alice in Wonderland to theaters.
The re-release was so successful that it actually earned a second re-release (or is that re-re-release?) in 1981 that proved that whatever consensus the film had in its initial release, was far too outdated. Alice in Wonderland gained critical acclaim and has since become one of the most popular Disney animated classics of all time and is even considered as one of the best film adaptations to the original novel as well though many a fan of film and book do take the time to nitpick over the other.