Walt Disney’s thirteenth animated classic, Alice in Wonderland, has its roots as far back as Walt’s childhood, when he read Lewis Carroll’s series as a school boy. Walt made his first adaptation of the beloved adventures in 1923 while working at Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City; he was 21 years old. The result, part of the Newman Laugh-O-Grams, was a live-action/animated hybrid called Alice’s Wonderland:
Although the film was not released to the public initially, as Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt soon after, Disney used the short to find potential distributors in Hollywood. With a deal struck with Winkler Pictures to distribute the Alice Comedies, Disney partnered with his brother Roy and several Kansas City coworkers – including Ub Iwerks and Rudolph Ising – to form Disney Bros Studios, which as we all know became the infamous Walt Disney Productions.
Walt Disney’s passion for Alice’s adventures had proved miraculous for his career, and something he wanted to pursue after the wild success of Snow White in 1937 – but the resulting story reel, developed by Al Perkins and David S. Hall, proved difficult to animate and too dark for Walt’s taste. The film was shelved.
After a couple more attempts with various writers and artists, Disney accepted a submission of concept art from background artist Mary Blair; her modernist stance, with bold colors and whimsy, set the tone for the classic film we know and love today.
Starring Kathryn Beaumont (who would return to voice Wendy in Peter Pan), Ed Wynn, and Verna Felton (a returning voice from Cinderella), the animated adaptation became comedy, musical, and full of the nonsensical whimsy we as an audience has come to expect from Alice in Wonderland.
In addition to charming musical numbers throughout the film, Alice in Wonderland introduced the masses to wonderfully colorful characters. The Mad Hatter, being one of the more memorable, provided a template for the Hatter’s one-of-a-kind lunacy, as did Disney’s increasingly irate Queen of Hearts, who forever solidified the phrase “Off with your head!” Alice herself is sweet, stubborn, and slightly oblivious to the reality of cause and effect.
Although generally true to Lewis Carroll’s stories, full of adventure and nonsense, there is little structured story, or even character development for poor Alice. In the end, after endless frustration in Wonderland, Alice does return to reality, having shared amusement and annoyance, but not having learned anything particularly substantial. Although we laugh and sing along with a great movie, it’s sometimes painfully obvious that Alice doesn’t really change or grow. This isn’t to say that every protagonist must grow; but a large part of what makes Disney movies so wonderful is watching the hero (or heroine) develop throughout their story. Even though she may concede, by the end, that a nonsense world probably isn’t that fantastic to live in long-term, Alice is still whiny, precocious, and kind of bratty at the close of the film.
Ultimately, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is a charming entertainment as one of the studio’s earliest films and a nice light adaptation of classic stories. Alice in Wonderland is not one of Disney’s deepest or most meaningful, but it is one of his most beloved creations and definitely one of the most well-known. Rather than going deep into Lewis Carroll’s original themes, Alice in Wonderland is pure fun, pure whimsy, and purely concerned with amusement in a world pulling away from the darkness of war.
Do you love Alice in Wonderland? How does it rank among your Disney faves? Comment below!