Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Alice in Wonderland

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.” (This article was also published on the Disqus site.)

Title: Alice in Wonderland

Year: 1951

Source materials : Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Budget: $3 million

Box office: $5.2 million (US, 1951)

Background: Walt had first discussed the movie with Mary Pickford back in 1938. Shortly after Snow White, he bought a lot of properties, including the rights to the book and the Illustrations by John Tenniel. He had initially hired Aldous Huxley to pen the script, but Huxley soon left. The project was shelved during World War II.

Walt couldn’t decide if he wanted the film to be fully animated or a combination of animation and live action. He first announced that Ginger Rogers would play the part, then Luana Patten. Finally, he settled on English actor Kathryn Beaumont.

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Mary Blair submitted some concept drawings for Alice in Wonderland. Blair’s paintings moved away from Tenniel’s sketchy illustrations by taking a modernist stance, using bold and unreal colors.

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There were several omitted scenes: The Duchess’ manor, the Jabberwocky, the White Knight, the Mock Turtle, and the Gryphon

Plot:

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On a riverbank, Alice spots a White Rabbit in a waistcoat passing by. She gives chase, following him down a large rabbit hole. She sees him leave through a tiny door, whose talking knob advises her to shrink to an appropriate height by drinking from a bottle marked “Drink Me”. She does so and floats out through the keyhole in a sea of her own tears, which she cried after eating a biscuit marked “Eat Me” caused her to grow very large. As she continues to follow the Rabbit, she meets numerous characters, including Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who recount the tale of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”.

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Alice tracks the Rabbit to his house; he sends her to retrieve his gloves after mistaking her for his housemaid. While searching for them, she eats another cookie marked “Eat Me” from his cookie canister and grows large again, getting stuck in the house. Thinking she is a monster, he brings the Dodo over to help him get rid of her. When the Dodo decides to burn the house down, Alice escapes by eating a carrot from the Rabbit’s garden, which causes her to shrink to three inches tall. Along the way, she meets a garden of talking flowers who initially welcome her with a song, but then mistake her for a weed and order her to leave, followed by a Caterpillar. He advises her to eat a piece of his mushroom to alter her size. She does so and manages to return to her original height, and continues following the Rabbit.

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In the woods, Alice meets the Cheshire Cat, who advises her to visit the Mad Hatter or the March Hare to find out where the Rabbit is. She encounters both, along with the Dormouse, at the Hare’s house having a mad tea party and celebrating their “unbirthday”. As she is above to leave, the Rabbit appears, continuing to exclaim that he is late; the Hatter examines his pocket watch and says it is “two days slow”, and attempts to “fix” it by filling it with food and tea but ends up having to destroy it after it goes “mad”. The Rabbit laments that his watch was an “unbirthday present”, and the Hatter and Hare sing “The Unbirthday Song” to him before throwing him back into the woods. Fed up with the nonsense, Alice decides to go home, but her surroundings have completely changed and she gets lost. Fearing she is lost forever, she sits on a rock sobbing.

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The Cheshire Cat reappears and advises Alice to ask the Queen of Hearts for directions home. The Queen invites Alice to play against her in a croquet match, in which live flamingos, card guards and hedgehogs are used as equipment. The Cat appears again and plays a trick on the Queen, causing her to fall over. The Cat disappears in time to make it look like Alice was the prankster, but before the Queen can order her execution, the King suggests they have a trial.

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At Alice’s trial, the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse are called to the stand as witnesses, briefly celebrating the Queen’s unbirthday and giving her a headpiece as a present, which turns into the Cat. Chaos ensues when the frightened Dormouse runs around the courtroom. As the Queen orders Alice’s execution, Alice eats the pieces of the Caterpillar’s mushroom she saved and grows large again. The King and Queen order her to leave the courthouse, but she refuses and insults the Queen. As she does so, she returns to her normal size, and the Queen orders her execution. Alice flees, and the Queen, King, card guards and other characters give chase. When she reaches the small door she encountered at the beginning of the film, he shows her that she is actually already outside, asleep. She wakes up and leaves the riverbank with her sister to go home for tea.

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Animation:

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As in Cinderella, scenes were filmed as a reference. In addition to voicing the character, Kathryn Beaumont also served as the animators’ live-action model for Alice. The live-action reference scenes were filmed on a Disney Studios soundstage, with Beaumont wearing an “Alice” dress. For the scene where the giant Alice is stuck in the White Rabbit’s house, the stage technicians at Disney built a scale model house, and had Beaumont sit inside it. But animator Eric Larson said they needed to see how Alice’s body moved when she was inside the house, in order to animate her properly. So the stage technicians rebuilt the house as a “frame house” with transparent walls, so the animators could study how Beaumont moved while inside it.

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Directing animators:

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Marc Davis (Alice)
Milt Kahl (The Dodo, Alice, Flamingo)
Erik Larson (Alice, Caterpillar, Queen of Hearts)
Frank Thomas (Doorknob, Queen of Hearts, Wonderland Creatures)
Ollie Johnson (Alice, King of Hearts)
Ward Kimball (Tweedledee and Tweedledum, The Walrus and The Carpenter, Oysters, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse)
John Lounsbery (Flowers, Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Wonderland creatures)
Wolfgang Reitherman (White Rabbit, The Carpenter, The Dodo, Mad Hatter, March Hare)
Les Clark (Alice, Wonderland creatures)
Norm Ferguson The Walrus and The Carpenter)

Voice Cast:

Kathryn Beaumont as Alice. Walt Disney personally cast Beaumont after seeing the film On an Island with You, in which she had a small role. Beaumont also voiced Wendy in Peter Pan.

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Ed Wynn as Mad Hatter. Wynn began his career in vaudeville in 1903 and was a star of the Ziegfeld Follies starting in 1914. His role in The Diary of Anne Frank won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In Mary Poppins he played Uncle Albert

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Jerry Colonna as March Hare. Colonna was a sidekick on Bob Hope’s radio show and was featured in three of the popular Hope-Crosby Road films: Road to Singapore, Road to Rioand The Road to Hong Kong .

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Richard Haydn as Caterpillar. Modern audiences know him for his small role of Herr Falkstein in Young Frankenstein and The Sound of Music, in which he played Max Detweiler.

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Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton returned as Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts. Disney stalwarts J. Pat O’Malley as Tweedledum and Tweedledee/The Walrus and the Carpenter, Jimmy MacDonald as The Doormouse, and Pinto Colvig as the Flamingos

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Critical Reception: The film received a negative reception from British film and literary critics who accused Disney of “Americanizing” a great work of English literature. The film met with a lukewarm response at the box office and was a sharp disappointment in its initial release, earning an estimated $2.4 million at the US box office in 1951.

In The Disney Films , Leonard Maltin relates how animator Ward Kimball felt the film failed because “it suffered from too many cooks – directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product.”

In the 60s the feature was re-discovered as something of a “head film” among the college-aged and was shown in various college towns across the country. Disney resisted this association, and even withdrew prints of the film from universities, but then, in 1974, Disney gave Alice in Wonderland its first theatrical re-release ever, and the company even promoted it as a film in tune with the “psychedelic” times (mostly from the hit song “White Rabbit” performed by Jefferson Airplane).

Legacy: In 2010 Tim Burton adapted the story with Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman. A sequel folowed. The characters appeared in a spin off of Once Upon a Time. Alice is also a major character in the overall plot of Kingdom Hearts due to her role as one of seven “Princesses of Heart”.

In Disneyland, there is a dark ride based on the movie. And in all the parks there is a spinning tea cup ride called Mad Tea Party. Disneyland Paris contains a hedge maze called Alice’s Curious Labyrinth.

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Alice meets in Epcot in the United Kingdom Pavillion, and also appears in the park with the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, and the Tweedles.

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My take: This is a film that I wasn’t really into growing up but developed an appreciation for later on. The visuals are striking and I find that as I grow older I find great swatches of color truly interesting. The vividness of Wonderland is unlike anything else we’ve seen before in Disney’s work (with the exception of Fantasia). The bold designs really lend themselves to costume design. So far, Belle and I have dressed as Alice, Mad Hatter, Queen, White Rabbit and the Tweedles. They can be as simple or as complex as you want. And it’s legitimately funny. I remember laughing right out loud as an adult when the dog with the broom nose swept up the trail.

Further reading: This site is by Kelvin Cedeño Disney and Carroll: A Wonderful CollaborationDisney and Carroll

Next Week: We go to Never Neverland with Peter Pan