It’s been awhile since I was late on a Journeys in the Disney Vault post, so I don’t feel so bad (still trying to get back into the swing of things post-surgery). After the commercial success of Cinderella, Disney found themselves suffering a crushing blow with Alice in Wonderland. I was unable to find box office grosses for the time, but according to IMDB this was a financial and critical disaster that didn’t find an audience till the 1960s thanks to the drug culture. I’ve seen Alice at least four times, and I find it so forgettable that I’m always saying “I have seen this right? Maybe I didn’t finish it.” The film’s surreal images are notable, but the plot is as meandering as Alice herself, and the musical songs are uninspired. If you want a bizarre film in the early Disney canon I recommend taking a lot back at Pinocchio which is far superior in story and animation.
After following a talking white rabbit, the precocious Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) falls down a rabbit hole into the irrational world of Wonderland. As she wanders the forest she meets a grinning Cheshire Cat (voiced by Sterling Holloway) and ends up confronting the evil Queen of Hearts (voiced by Verna Felton).
Alice in Wonderland as a film property is cursed with dwindling returns. No version of the film has been a bona fide success due to the wacky writings and narrative techniques of author Lewis Carroll’s work. I understand that when I say the plot is nonexistent that it’s all within the framework of the story, but it’s one thing to read it, and it’s another to send 75 minutes watching it unfold. Keep in mind, I enjoy this version of the Alice story FAR MORE than Tim Burton‘s atrocious version from 2010. Disney had tried for over ten years to get the Alice story going. In fact, Disney cut his teeth as a director with Alice’s Wonderland; a ten minute short that kicked off his Alice comedies. At one point Mary Pickford did a color screen test as the title character when Disney wanted to create a hybrid live action/animated version of this film. I would love to know if any of that footage exists.
I do enjoy parts of Alice in Wonderland, but not the film as a whole. The opening credits of the film have to be my favorite opening credits so far. The way the cards guard the RKO label, and the way the pictures feel like hand-drawn chalk outlines come off beautifully. I noticed it with Cinderella, but this film has a very generic title song. Cinderella has the bland “Cinderella,” with a combination of male and female voices singing her name and detailing how she’s used and abused. Here, the same singers return to sing “Alice in Wonderland” which just feels like they made up the lyrics on the spot. I don’t think we see a good opening title song till Peter Pan; that’s the one I remember at least. Speaking of music, I find the songs in this film overall to be middling. None of the songs have that snappy lyrical quality of the more iconic Disney themes. Kathryn Beaumont was limited in her vocal abilities so there was no sweeping ballad for her to sing, and songs like “Very Good Advice” and “In a World of My Own” sound the same. The only song that has any memorable quality to it is “A Very Merry Un-Birthday,” and that could be because it’s the theme used for Disneyland’s Mad Tea Party ride which I know well.
From an animation standpoint Alice in Wonderland shows the range of skills the animators possess in their arsenal. I’m not sure if watching this in HD helped, but the colors are gorgeous in this film. The colors are bright, but not garish. Flesh tones are deep in the daylight, but they do look like a bizarre pink in certain regards, particularly towards the end on Alice herself. Towards the end when you see the cards painting the Queen’s palace there’s a lovely contrast between the black and white, unpainted, court of the Queen and the red cards marching through. Other animation applauds go to the unraveling of the Cheshire Cat which is a great effect.
With all of these individual elements that either work or don’t, it’s not surprising that the plot is boring. Alice wanders through the woods, meets a cadre of increasingly wacky characters, and learns about logic and patience. The film doesn’t gel into a coherent narrative until she is placed on trial by the Queen of Hearts. We get the second Disney film featuring the vocal talent of Verna Felton who we saw last week as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Vocally, Felton and Beaumont (who returns in Peter Pan) are good. Actually all the vocal talent here is top-notch including legendary character actors like Sterling Holloway and Ed Wynn. The issue is that you can really zone out (or get high depending on your preference) and really not feel out of your depth. Aside from Alice learning that logic is necessary in the world there are no genuine stakes. It’s a film that works best for small children easily swayed by bright colors and characters. I really recommend reading the book with the proper historical context because much of Carroll’s work is political which this film removes.
Alice in Wonderland is subversive, surreal, and rather bland. I do love the Dormouse who doesn’t get enough love. The HD transfer of the film is gorgeous and the vocal talent is good, but everything else is middle of the road, particularly the songs. Not my favorite of the Disney canon.
NEXT WEEK: Hoping to get back on schedule all with Peter Pan, the last Disney Vault film of 2012!
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.