Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not a cohesive novel. It is, as befits its origins as a series of stories told to children, a collection of vignettes. Alice wanders, dreamlike, from one extraordinary situation to another. The first film adaptation dates to 1903 and only exists in incomplete condition; by 1933, it was an excuse for a star-studded production that borrowed quite a lot from Through the Looking-Glass. Several of the characters people have come to expect are from that work; it’s only when they read the books that they realize the differences.
Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) is dozing under a tree while her older sister (Heather Angel) reads. Then, a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) comes running by, and Alice follows him. She gets past the Doorknob (Joseph Kearns), the one and only character invented for the film, and ends up in Wonderland. There she is in the world of Mad Hatters (Ed Wynn) and March Hares (Jerry Colonna). She is pestered by the Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway) and patronized by the Caterpillar (Richard Haydn). And, eventually, she is threatened by the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton).
This is, for many people, the version of Alice that they remember best. And, of course, it’s therefore worth noting that the movie flopped utterly in its initial release. It only became popular starting with the ’60s, when it was considered part of drug culture despite the animators’ insistence that they had not been on any mind-altering substances at the time, just things like antacids and headache medication. Is it trippy? Sure, it’s Alice. But there is this idea that surrealism cannot exist without chemical enhancement, and that’s just underestimating the power of the human mind.
Alice is a sympathetic character. For one thing, there’s the whole “I give myself very good advice” thing, because don’t we all? I was writing this far in advance of needing it because it’s better to do that, and I didn’t finish it because I could be reading fantasy novels I have read a dozen or two times instead. For another, who also hasn’t felt like the Only Sane Person in a mad world? I’ve had moments like that, and I’m mentally ill. Alice is enormously understandable because we’ve all been in the same place as Alice.
Yet it took enormous amounts of work to get her onto the screen for Disney. Work started before World War II. The list of people involved in trying to get the film completed is impressive, and it’s how I learned that Aldous Huxley’s mother was one of the girls with whom Lewis Carroll spent time and that he did indeed photograph her. Mary Blair, of course, was deeply involved in the finished product and is a strong part of why the film looks the way it does. Its influence would be felt on Disney films for decades to come despite the ostensible failure of this particular one.
There are hints of the Tenniel illustrations, too, but Disney definitely took its own path with the imagery. You wouldn’t hire Mary Blair if you didn’t intend to do that. I think a lot of the alleged drug influence stems from Mary Blair’s use of bold blocks of colour. And, of course, the fact that the whole thing is literally supposed to be a dream and therefore doesn’t make any kind of consistent sense.
There are more characters and more songs than any other Disney film, yet it’s incredibly short by feature standards. It’s 75 minutes long, not even an hour and a half. This is, of course, because most of the characters show up to participate in one scene and disappear to at most be involved in the trial at the end. The flowers? They get “In the Golden Afternoon” and are gone before anyone can say “you belong in the sequel.” And eventually, Alice learns the valuable lesson of “dreams are weird, man.”