Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Starring: Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Verna Felton, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna and J.Pat O’Malley
Directed by: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Released by: RKO Radio Pictures, Buena Vista Pictures
Synopsis: English girl Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) is bored of her life and wishes to be in a world where animals wear clothes, flowers sing and there’s a lot of wonder of discover. Soon her wish is made a reality when she follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. She discovers that Wonderland is both a marvelous and a terrifying place to be in, where everyone is truly mad.
Review: Unlike the previous classic Disney film I reviewed, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland is a movie that I actually grew up watching. It was one of my favorites as a kid, but as soon as the newer Disney films came out in the 80s and 90s I nearly forgot about it. Years later, as the world entered a sort of Alice craze where everything from new movies to videogames were created based on the Lewis Carroll stories (just recently, Tim Burton directed a new 3D Alice in Wonderland movie, for Disney as well), I re-discovered the film and fell in love with it all over again. But what is perhaps fascinating is how despite Disney’s take on the story being very episodic and lacking genuine drama, the movie is beloved among both movie and Disney fans.
The Alice stories are very painful to adapt simply because they are really random encounters filled with surreal humor and witty dialogue. The original novels lack some emotional strength as well as a clear motivation for the characters to exist in this world. But what it lacks in grounded narrative it makes up in unforgettable characters that both haunt and delight us, hence why despite the hurdles that come in adapting a story as confusing as Alice in Wonderland many people have tried to create their take on it, Disney included. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is brilliant on this regard. It’s true that the plot is just a series of events that are loosely connected by the fact that Alice is discovering them as she is traveling through Wonderland, but again, what wins here is how visually creative these scenes are.
You have the Cheshire Cat, voiced by Sterling Holloway, that at first looks and sounds trusting as he helps Alice out during the first half of the plot, but he completely delights himself in anarchy as he embarrasses the Queen of Hearts and puts Alice’s life in danger. Speaking of the Queen, she is grander than life and magnificently voiced by Verna Felton. But unlike other Disney villains, she strikes a near perfect balance between humor and menace. Her mannerisms, speech and presence are quite hilarious, but cross her and she will have your head due to a dangerously short temper. Again, you will delight in seeing her antics, but realize that she is the kind of person you would never want to be around with.
Alice, voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, is perhaps one of the best Alices presented on film, all because of Walt Disney’s insistence of authentic childhood innocence in his films. She has been criticized for not being the best singer, but in all honesty, it works. Sure, at times her singing sounds a little awkward, but that’s what I expect from a little kid that is trying to express what he or she feels through song. She is stuck in a fantastical universe that doesn’t make sense and will likely kill her, but is still a wonder to behold. The singing might be on the same caliber as Cinderella’s Ilene Woods or even Paige O’Hara’s Belle (Beauty and the Beast), but this is the sort of story that doesn’t need an epic sense of song just to express an emotion. Really, this is Alice in Wonderland we are talking about, not Othello.
One of my favorite characters in the film is the Mad Hatter. I am not alone on this as there are many that love the film just for this character, and there are many reasons why. Ed Wynn, in my humble opinion, may be one of the more underrated comedians yet. A lot has been said about the Marx Bros., Charlie Chaplin and even Jerry Lewis, for example, but little about Ed Wynn. In every movie he is in he manages to steal the show with performances that are very over the top, flamboyant and simply unforgettable. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is no exception. He has so many great lines that it has burned onto our minds. I will dare to try anyone that doesn’t understand what a UN-birthday is, especially one that doesn’t break out into song about it. In many ways, the Mad Hatter captures the hilarity of Wonderland, perhaps more so than the original book, and has quickly gained a fanbase beyond the film.
Going back to the original narrative, Disney’s version has been heavily criticized for not being 100% accurate. In some cases, Disney added certain elements that weren’t in the original story, such as the doorknob as well as the singing flowers. As I just explained, Alice in Wonderland is simply a hard story to adapt into a cohesive narrative. Even Tim Burton tried his best when he turned the story into a “hero reborn” tale in which Alice now must become Wonderland’s savior and defeat the Red Queen in his version of Alice. This route was taken because the emotional connection isn’t there, a problem even Walt Disney pointed out long after the film was completed. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland didn’t exactly set the box office on fire in the same way that Cinderella did a year prior. The most common complain, besides the adaptation issues, is that the movie was too manic for its own good and audiences didn’t quite care for the characters and their world. Many saw it as just a series of crazy jokes that had too little substance as a serious film.
This is something I both agree and disagree on. I understand how the film’s lack of a serious narrative could be a turn off for some filmgoers. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland doesn’t strive in trying to bring us complex characters whose daily situations are portraits of our own reality. It just wants to be wacky, fun and crazy. Those wanting something more out of their movies are of course expected to not like this. But we don’t always go to the movies to be enlightened by the basics of character psychology. We also want to have fun, and this is where the movie really triumphs. There’s a sense of fun and excitement throughout the movie thanks to some creative pacing and wacky characterizations. Disney employed his best animators as well as the greatest voice actors that expressed this sentimentality the best. Even if Walt Disney never thought much of it for the reasons I just mentioned he was in the end creating a masterpiece in fun storytelling.
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland simply dazzles in terms of animation. After Cinderella, Disney would employ s style of animation in which the character design would be split between realistic and cartoony (something that was first used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but would be refined throughout the decades), and Alice in Wonderland may be the best film that displays this animation concept. Alice is the only character in Wonderland that has been realistically designed, while everyone else are cartoonish in design. This is very appropriate, especially if you take into consideration the original Alice in Wonderland illustrations that presented cute Alice interacting with grotesque characters. The color and overall design of the world is fantastic. The setting truly influenced the look and feel of the film, and this is thanks to the talents of Mary Blair, a Disney artist whose unique visions of color and character design made a huge impact on the Disney films from the 1950s. Alice in Wonderland may be the best of her career thanks to a great feeling of whimsy and eye-catching color.
I’ll be frank; in terms of soundtrack, Alice in Wonderland is mainly catchy. In comparison to the other Disney films that came before and after Alice the music lacks the presence that made said films shining examples of music driven stories. This is ironic, considering that out of all the Disney films, Alice in Wonderland has the most songs ever written. Note that many of these are mainly short shanties and rhymes the characters sing whenever they are introduced, and only a handful of songs are full compositions. That’s not to say that the soundtrack is bad, though. “In a world of my own” perfectly conveys Alice’s desire to live in a world she can be happy in. Like I explained earlier, Kathryn Beaumont wasn’t hired as a professional singer, and yet she did her best anyways. The other songs that stand out for me are “Golden Afternoon”, such in many different musical styles by the flowers, “The Un-Birthday Song” by the Mad Hatter and “Painting the roses red” by the playing cards. They are catchy and they best convey the wackiness of the character. In many ways, the soundtrack is a lot like the movie: it doesn’t try to strike an emotional chord with melodies that reflects on the character’s emotions, but it sure is fun to hear them. Not everyone will accept this, but the songs in Alice in Wonderland are still above other musical efforts.
Overall, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t the best or most loyal adaptation of the story ever created. Such was its critical reception that people have been led to believe that the film is poor in quality. On the contrary, the film is excellent thanks to its bright and colorful settings and truly outrageous characters, and despite its rough beginnings the film has gained a very loyal following that can’t get enough of Alice’s journey through wonderland. I am sure one of them!
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5