“Curiouser and Curiouser,” Colorful, Quotable, and Memorable
Originally Released: 1951
I have never read the children’s books by Lewis Carroll which this film is based from, but watching Alice in Wonderland again makes me want to read them so I can compare the stories chosen for the film with their source material, and to also compare the style and feel of each medium.
Walt Disney was, unlike me, very familiar with the Carroll books. He actually began his career with a loose adaptation in his 1920’s Alice comedy series, a series of shorts that combined live action with some very early animation (click here for a sampling of the series and see how far animation has come since those early years). After Walt Disney’s studio was established in Hollywood, an Alice in Wonderland film was in and out of production for approximately 20 more years, undergoing many revisions and changes in content, theme, and style, before it was finally released in 1951.
There were many reasons for this long process, but one reason is that apparently the contents of the books are very episodic in nature, and they have been found to be very difficult to adapt to the screen while retaining a strong narrative in traditional Hollywood fashion. Indeed, even in this Disney version this is noticeable as we watch Alice jump from one situation to the next. The film didn’t grab me emotionally like Cinderella, Bambi, or even Dumbo. However, this did not limit my enjoyment of the film because in terms of whimsy, art style, color, creativity, and imagination, few films are able to come close to what Alice in Wonderland accomplishes.
The film is just full of memorable characters, songs, and quotes. Surely many of us have at one sung to ourselves or to others “No time to say goodbye, Hello! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!” or at one time or another have had the urge to yell “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!” Then again, that may just be me. But most will at least be familiar with where these quotes come from as well as who said them.
My favorite scene has to be the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. It doesn’t get much wackier than this. All the different tea pots, the colors, the wordplay, and the brilliant animation combine to make an scene that to me is unforgettable. It is to the point that if this movie is mentioned, immediately my mind will conjure up an image from the very merry un-birthday party before I think of any other part of the film.
But from a truly artistic perspective, I believe the introduction of the Queen of Hearts, with the deck of card soldiers marching through the maze by her castle, is the best part. The bold red of the cards contrasting with the greens and greys of the castle and maze is a nice touch. The soldiers crisscrossing and getting shuffled together and then breaking out in groups is fascinating. And the shapes and distortions of the landscape is very interesting to look at. All these things contribute to make this really inspired animation and art.
The concept art for this and many of the other early Disney films was done by an artist named Mary Blair. As I have been watching the special features for each film, I have learned more and more about her, and it is clear that today the Disney animation studios and historians have a great amount of respect for her and her work. She was just as instrumental to the films as were the “nine old men.”
Mary was a part of “El Grupo,” the team that toured South America with Walt, and that trip inspired her and helped her develop a very distinct and contemporary art style, which she put to use in creating the concept art for the films. However, while her concept art served as a basis for many of the early films, by the time the final version of the film came out many tweaks were made, to the point where you may not recognize the relationship very much.
This is not the case with Alice in Wonderland, however (and in Cinderella to a lesser extent). In most of the film, and especially the castle, what you see on the screen is essentially what was painted by Blair. This is part of what gives the film its uniqueness and adds to the nonsensical, whimsical feel. It was a great move to incorporate this into the film.
Ultimately, what we have in Alice in Wonderland is a film which, while light on the typical Hollywood drama and emotional payoff, is a feast for the eyes, ears, and imagination. And as a bonus, it inspired me to read a book, and anything that does that can, in my view, be considered a success.