Original US release date: July 28. 1951
Production budget: $3,000,000
Worldwide gross: $5,200,000
Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? The first feature-length animated film in movie history? The one that grossed $185 million on a $1.5 million budget, simply by virtue of being the first of its kind? Well, that was almost Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney had been a lifetime fan of Lewis Carroll’s works and had plans to make this film before Snow White. He was initially unable to procure a treatment for the film that he was satisfied with and the project stalled, falling by the wayside in favor of Snow White. It wasn’t until after World War II – over a decade later – that Disney finally found the approach that he liked and Alice in Wonderland was released, eventually becoming a legendary all-time classic in the world of animated cinema.
I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that this is going to be a positive review. Disney’s adaptation of this story is still my favorite version and actually made me a fan of the Alice story, in general. I have read Carroll’s original books (though it’s been a while) and seen many adaptations, both live action and animated, over the years. And this one is still the best.
Disney’s version adapts material from both of Carroll’s Alice books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Disney doesn’t squeeze everything from both books into their version but they manage to get a lot of it in there. And with a very brisk running time of 75 minutes, they don’t waste any time getting right to it. As Alice lounges around while being read to by her older sister, she desperately wishes to have a more exciting life. As she begins to drift to sleep, her cat Dinah runs off, necessitating a chase by Alice. As she follows Dinah, Alice falls down a rabbit hole, plunging an untold depth as she calmly shouts a goodbye to her beloved cat, sure that her wish for a more exciting existence is about to bear fruit.
The structure of the film results in the narrative playing out almost as if it’s designed as an anthology of short stories centering around Alice’s adventures, rather than one continuous tale. In a way, that’s exactly what it is, as Alice bounces from one whimsical land to the next, meeting a cornucopia of colorful – both literally and figuratively – characters with each transition. Each character she meets makes their mark and leaves a lasting impression on both Alice and the audience. They either have their own minor adventure going on, a story to tell, or a song to sing. Or, perhaps, they have a question. There are lots of questions for Alice, ranging from the existential (“Whhhhhhhoooo r u?”) to the enigmatic (“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”). Eventually, they are all brought together to form a singular, cohesive narrative.
The story and characters are brought to life by Disney’s traditional and classic animation style. As always, it’s smooth, clean, and extremely pleasing to the eye. The character designs are brilliant as are the voice talents who bring them to life. The vast majority of these characters have also withstood the test of time and gone on to become pillars of the Disney brand. In addition to Alice herself, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Queen of Hearts have all had tremendous staying power within the pop culture zeitgeist and it’s all because of this Disney adaptation. If only the Jabberwocky had been included, as well.
Thematically speaking, each challenge that Alice encounters requires her to look for the solution within herself. Absolutely no one that she comes across is of any help to her. She develops a resourcefulness and an ability to assert herself in order to survive and find her way home. And eventually, that’s exactly what she wants, as she comes to the conclusion that she should have been careful what she wished for, because she certainly got it. Boring isn’t always so bad.
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a short, but supremely entertaining grass-is-greener story. It prioritizes entertainment over education (and certainly does nothing to discourage children from eating wild mushrooms) but that’s okay. The lessons are there as subtext and could invite a good conversation between children and their parents, should the parents desire to have one. If not, it’s not a loss, because the film is an all-time classic from the days when hand-drawn animation was the height of cartoon technology, rather than being considered an archaic relic, as it is today. These older films should still be appreciated by people of all ages and Alice in Wonderland makes that easy to do with its eclectic mix of art, music, eccentricity, and a timeless tale of one little girl who should have been out of her league but was strong enough to not only survive, but triumph and stand tall.
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