Disney Review: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

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Year of release: 1951
Running time: 75 minutes
Based on: “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” and “Through The Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll
Availability: re-released on DVD / Blu-Ray in Feburary 2011
Sequels/Spin-offs: None.

Plot: When Alice follows the White Rabbit down his rabbit hole, she falls into a Wonderland – a curious place filled where nothing is as it should be. While on her quest to find out what the rabbit is late for, she meets with many colourful characters including Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Caterpillar, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat. The cat points Alice towards the Queen of Hearts – a bossy tyrant with a short fuse – but soon causes trouble, with Alice sentenced to death. After a rather comical trial, she flees Wonderland, only to discover that the entire experience had been a dream.

The Heroes
The key character trait in Alice is her curiosity: in fact, the entire plot of the film is driven by her desire to know more about the White Rabbit and why he is so anxious to get to where he needs to be. This curious nature is often what lands her in trouble and we see her repeatedly go against her own advice, pointing out explicitly what she should do and then doing the complete opposite. Two-thirds into the film, she realises this flaw in her song “Very Good Advice”, and makes the decision that it is time to stop being curious and find her way out of Wonderland.

When compared to previous Disney heroines (Snow White and Cinderella, who were pictures of perfection), Alice is quite flawed indeed: she makes mistakes, her singing voice is nothing special (something Walt asked for specifically when choosing an actress to play her) and she is often intimated by her strange surroundings. She’s never really seen to rise above these flaws, although she clearly recognises them and she does stand up to the Queen when all of Wonderland’s citizens cower in fear (of course, she is 30 feet tall at the time).

Ultimately, although Alice is an interesting character, she has little growth or development over the course of the film. We can only guess if Alice’s ordeal has any lasting effect on her.

The Villains
The Queen of Hearts is introduced late in the film, but is apparently ruler over everything in Wonderland: “all ways are her ways”. She is totally over-the-top and has violent mood swings, becoming extremely angry whenever she doesn’t get what she wants. Due to her bad habit of sentencing people to execution for the slightest wrong, all of her subjects do anything they can to keep her happy.

She is probably the film’s funniest character, especially in the final court case where she gets very excited at every piece of evidence against Alice, no matter how nonsensical it is. Her depiction is so comical that she rarely seems evil, despite her apparent disregard for the lives of those under her rule. It’s just a shame that she appears for so little time – she isn’t even mentioned until 55 minutes into the film but quickly eclipses every other character.

Wonderland is a fairly intimidating place, full of some truly insane characters. As such, there are times when it feels like literally everyone – however nice they appear – is out to get Alice, either becoming an obstacle in Alice’s path or being quite hostile towards her, despite the fact that they were enjoying her company just minutes before. The singing flowers, for example, soon turn to insulting Alice for being a “weed”, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee refuse to let Alice leave until she has listened to a story, making her lose track of the White Rabbit.

The Cheshire Cat is probably the film’s most contradictory character, offering Alice useful advice in one scene, only to nearly get her executed five minutes later. While most of Wonderland simply doesn’t understand who or what Alice is, he seems to understand perfectly well and just enjoys having fun by getting her into trouble. But, again, these characters rarely seem evil or cruel, their insane, nonsensical nature being a perfectly excusable reason for their treatment of Alice.

The Story
It’s an undeniable fact that Alice in Wonderland has some serious issues in the story department. Disney have attempted to squeeze the best moments and characters from two fairly nonsensical books into a 75 minute film and the result is a little patchy, to say the least. The film feels extremely disjointed, the first hour being little more than a collection of almost totally disconnected scenes. The individual sequences themselves can be quite excellent, but there is almost nothing at all holding them together.

This is likely caused by the fact that the film had many different teams working on it at different stages of development: Walt Disney himself admitted that the film suffered from having “too many cooks.” The first two-thirds of the film feel like a “Greatest Hits” of characters and chapters from the original books, with each scene attempting to best the previous in terms of scale and insanity. It’s only when Alice decides to go home that the film finds a worthy narrative to keep it going, but by then there are only 20 minutes left to go. And even then, the sudden arrival of a “Big Bad” who is supposed to have her claws in everything (“all ways are her ways!”) is a little confusing, since we haven’t heard any mention of her at all during our entire tour of Wonderland! Throw in the fact that the film ends very abruptly with an “it was all a dream” solution (admittedly, the book ends exactly the same way) and I’m left wondering how this film can be enjoyable at all with such an appallingly maintained plot.

Luckily, the individual scenes that make up the poor plot are (mostly) excellent. Each citizen of Wonderland is so perfectly realised that their moments in the spotlight can often excuse the fact that their is no real reason for them to be there. “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is practically its own short film! That said, there are also moments when the writers are seemingly padding out the running time, slowing the pace of the film even further. The flower concert, in particular, seems to have been invented just for the sake of having a musical number.

The Music
Speaking of the music, here’s a fun fact: Alice in Wonderland is officially the most musical Disney film ever made, with 18 songs squeezed into it. Of course, many of these songs last for mere seconds since almost every Wonderland citizen feels like singing. Of the long list of songs, the most famous has to be “The Unbirthday Song”, but the most impressive would have to be the flowers’ “All in the Golden Afternoon” (even if it is only in the film for the sake of having a big vocal performance).

Many songs sung by characters in Wonderland make use of Carroll’s original text (or at least words close to them) and as such very rarely make sense. Some are just left to blend into the background, being sung only as Alice approaches or leaves the character in question. Ultimately, Alice in Wonderland features plenty of catchy tunes that are hard to shift from your head, but lacks any stand-out numbers.

The Visuals
Visually, Alice in Wonderland is one of Disney’s most impressive films. The surreal, psychedelic designs of Wonderland were quite ahead of their time and some of the animation work is second to none. Imagine the amount of work that must have gone into the marching scenes with the Queen’s soldiers, each animated by hand! The character designs are spot-on too, really bringing Carroll’s creations to life. The visual humour is also some of Disney’s best, especially during the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Who knew a kettle could be used in so many different ways?

My only complaint would have to be that there are a few continuity problems here and there. Alice’s design, in particular, goes through minor-but-noticeable changes in some scenes (likely another symptom of the “too many cooks” problem).

When it was first released, Alice in Wonderland met with a lot of criticism and a lukewarm box office. In the UK, the film was practically slaughtered for how much it drifted away from the original novels. Like Fantasia before it, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Alice in Wonderland found a fully-welcoming audience thanks to its psychedelic visuals. In more recent times, the film is generally better received and considered a classic but it is also somewhat less popular than the other 50s Disney films (Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty).

Alice’s trip through Wonderland is quite an amazing experience, featuring some of Disney’s greatest animation and design work. The film definitely suffers from some story problems, but if you’re happy to simply take a wander in another world rather than follow a meaningful narrative through it, Alice in Wonderland is worthy of your time.

I award this film 6 out of 10 painted roses.

Next review: Peter Pan (1953)

So, what do you think ?