Walt Disney had long wanted to make an animated version of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and in fact had made many "Alice Comedies", using live action and animation, in the silent years. However, as many a filmmaker has proved time and again, it is awfully difficult to translate Carroll's classic nonsense to screen. In 1951, even Walt Disney proved it.
Disney's ALICE, which also uses material from Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, is, fittingly, a conundrum. Technically, it is a yet another masterpiece of animation, one of the most watchable Disney films if you are interested in style and technique. Animation students would do well to study many sequences, such as Alice and the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the Marching Deck of Cards and several others to see firsthand how old style hand drawn animation can really put CGI animation to shame and then some. Alice, as voiced by young Kathryn Beaumont, is one of Disney's most well-rounded and likable human characters. Like the Alice of the books, she is intelligent, curious, friendly, stubborn and quick to defend her own positions. And several other characters, such as The White Rabbit, The Caterpillar and especially the Cheshire Cat (voiced by, who else, Sterling Holloway) rank among the most memorable Disney designs.
ALICE is also the most musical of all Disney films. Over 30 songs were written for the production, and many of them appear in the film as snippets. Characters have a tendency to sing choruses without verses at the drop of a hat. For one example, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum sing about ten seconds of a song called "How Do You Do and Shake Hands", which was later recorded, in full, by an all-star team of Danny Kaye, Groucho Marx, Jane Wyman and Jimmy Durante.
In short, there are many things to love about ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
But... well, it just may be that the Lewis Carroll tale is unfilmable. I've read both Alice books several times, and, as with all books, I can take them at my own pace. The edition I have includes the original stark, slightly creepy illustrations by John Tenniel, far more disturbing than Disney's big, bright, bold characters, as beautifully rendered as they may be. For me, the Alice books are more nightmare than daydream, and definitely not the best material to be translated into a tuneful, colorful, splashy Disney movie. The built-in problem with all adaptations is that the books thrive on being illogical and insane, and movies thrive on moving from plot point to plot point. Even the mad Marx Brothers had to hang their nonsensical gags on some sort of story, slight as those stories might have been at times. Looked at simply, Disney's ALICE tells the story of a girl who wanders through a world where everybody except her is completely insane. Again and again, she starts conversations with characters who deny, defy, obfuscate, gesticulate and infuriate for no other reason except they are out of their minds. Watching Lou Costello do this in a five minute sketch like "Crazy House" is hysterical; watching Alice do it for 75 minutes straight is a bit too much. As writer Joe Adamson once said, "If you collect enough insanity in one place, the s will fall out." In Carroll's books, you can savor each chapter, or reread your favorite passages again and again. In Disney's film, he just keeps throwing mad sequence after mad sequence at you hoping something sticks.
Even the most famous scene, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, has problems. Yes, it is greatly aided by the voices of comedians Ed Wynn and Jerry Colona as the Hatter and the March Hare, and there is more intricate, astounding animation in this one scene than you'll find in the entire collected works of some other studios. But the scene itself is so manic, and becomes even more so as it goes on, by the end, you may be saying to yourself, "yes, it's wonderful... now please stop!". Likewise, the last few scenes of the film, featuring Verna Felton as The Queen of Hearts, is loud, frenzied and completely off the wall. There are few moments of actual charm, such as when the White Rabbit introduces everyone except The King, is reminded of that by the tiny King himself, and quickly mumbles "...andtheking." Otherwise, while the work put into animating all this madness is completely admirable, watching a Disney film should never feel like being hit in the head by a multicolored, shiny two by four. Some people swear that this film is great if you are on drugs. I have the perfect drug for it - aspirin.
Walt Disney dreamed for years of making ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and even got the chance to promote in on his new television show. But it flopped at the box office and cost the studio lots of money. It must have hurt old Walt deeply. He later said that the film failed because "Alice lacked heart." If he meant the character, that is not true. If he meant the film, I am right there with him. - JB
IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR GOOD MOVIE QUOTES
"What do you know about this
"That's very important! Jury, write that down!"
DUMMIES FOR DUMMIES
EDGAR BERGEN: "I never
told you the story of Alice in Wonderland, have I?"
--- (and later, after too many wisecracks from Charlie)
EDGAR: "Young man, I
may not go on with the story!""
--- from 1950's "One Hour in
Walt Disney's first television show, used to promote ALICE IN
WONDERLAND. Charlie McCarthy always cracks me up.