Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek
'Cinderella' was seen as an ecstatic return to form for Walt Disney Productions. Critics loved it and the public fully embraced it, making the film their first genuine box-office hit on over a decade. Walt Disney and his artists may have been able to see all the shortcuts, but at least the film actually worked - it was economical, moving and wildly entertaining. 'Cinderella' had been relatively straightforward to adapt, a classic fairy tale with familiar beats and deep storytelling roots. Their next film was a very different beast, an ambitious adaptation of a literary monolith that had seemed perfectly suited to animation, but had proven incredibly difficult to adapt. Much like the story itself, the making of the film was a strange and maddening journey, one to find what Walt and the artists were desperately looking for, an answer to an impossible riddle - how on earth do you make a film of 'Alice in Wonderland'?
If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.
Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) is bored of the history lesson her sister is delivering to her by the river bank when she spots a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) dressed in a waistcoat and in a tither about being late. She follows it down a rabbit hole and finds herself in a strange place where little makes sense, where she changes size constantly, and which is populated by a collection of eccentric and disagreeable characters all insistent to teach her lessons she has no interest or need for. Determined to find the White Rabbit, she ends up in the court of the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), where her frustration in their collective antics reaches breaking point, and she wakes up on the river bank, having had the strangest dream.
On the 4th of July 1862, Oxford mathematician, the Reverend Charles Ludwig Dodgson, was taking a boat ride on the Thames in Oxfordshire with his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth and three of the young daughters of Oxford scholar Henry Liddell - Lorina, Alice and Edith. The girls complained of being bored, so Dodgson began to make up stories to entertain them, set in a fantastical place that mirrored England, and particularly Oxford, at the time, and featuring 10-year-old Alice as the hero, who he had a special affection for. They were enraptured over the five-mile journey, and at the end, Alice asked Dodgson to write the stories down for her.
Three years later in 1865, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Dodgson published the stories as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which, along with its sequel Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, published in 1871, would become the most popular and important work ever written for children. As well as Carroll’s playful and witty text, which bucked the trend of Victorian children’s literature by refusing to moralise or talk down to its child readers, the books were accompanied by illustrations from acclaimed political cartoonist John Tenniel, which have become as iconic as the books themselves. The influence of the Alice books on world culture, from literature to art to psychology, is practically impossible to comprehend, and it has become one of those rare texts that reaches across generations, genders, cultures and languages. 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland' is, quite simply, one of the most beloved and influential works of literature ever written.
No story in English literature has intrigued me more than Lewis Carroll’s 'Alice in Wonderland'.
Walt Disney’s long and tempestuous relationship with the 'Alice' books began when he read them as a schoolboy. 'Alice' was also a popular subject in early cinema, and it’s very likely that he would have seen one of those early film versions. In 1923, after the failure of the Laugh-O-Gram shorts, he pitched an idea loosely based on the 'Alice' books, that riffed on the Fleischer Bros’ popular 'Out of the Inkwell' series, where a live-action Alice falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in Cartoonland. After frantically shopping around the first completed short Alice’s Wonderland, he made a distribution and production deal with Winkler Pictures, beginning his fateful working relationship with Charles Minz.
A decade later, when Walt and Roy Disney began early plans for a feature-length animated film, 'Alice in Wonderland' was one of the first properties they considered. What followed would be a twenty-year journey to the screen, where the project would pass through many hands and go through many iterations. It was an idea that Walt simply couldn’t shake, either because he felt an affection for the story, because he’d been told it would make a great film or because, by the time he realised the project was in serious trouble, it was simply too late to pull the plug. There was also the enormous pressure that came with taking on such an adaptation - the other Disney features were based on thinly constructed fairy tales and short stories that they could expand on, or relatively contemporary novels they could bend to their needs. 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland' was an established literary giant, one beloved by millions of all ages. Their adaptation had to be respectful to the original text.
The journey of 'Alice in Wonderland' to the screen would be a long and intensely frustrating one, not only for Walt Disney but for the artists involved in solving its endless conundrums.
In the burst of excitement after the success of 'Snow White', the idea of adapting 'Alice' was revived, and through the Story Research Department, the rights to John Tenniel’s illustrations were secured. In 1938, Walt registered the title 'Alice in Wonderland' and set storyman Al Perkins to begin working out how to adapt the novel. The problem Perkins needed to solve was the story’s episodic structure. The only central narrative arc was that of Alice wandering through the woods, and this wasn’t enough to hang a film on. They needed to find something to hold the structure together and to make Alice a sympathetic character.
Around the same time, British-born art director David Hall was approached by Disney artist and talent recruiter Phil Dike to join the studio. Hall was the first artist to work on 'Alice', and in his short time at Disney, he produced a prolific amount of material.
Hall joined the studio in March 1939, but surreptitiously began work on 'Alice'. Legend has it that either an ambitious Disney executive or director David Hand secretly set up Hall in an office just off the Hyperion lot, where he began work on conceptualising and storyboarding 'Alice' based on Perkins’ script. It is clear from story meeting notes that Walt was aware of Hall working on the project, but it was many months before he was shown exactly what Hall had been doing. On top of the mountain of concept art Hall had produced, he had also storyboarded the entire film, which was presented to Walt in a leika reel, accompanied by recorded dialogue and songs written by Frank Churchill.
Both Walt and the other Disney artists were baffled by Hall’s work. He had strayed too far from Tenniel’s style for Walt’s liking, and Hall’s artwork was rich, intricate and full of detail. Many of the artists at the time described it as “overwhelming” and “grotesque”, and Walt rejected both Hall’s artwork and Perkins’ script as being too dark, ordering the project to be started again from scratch.
During his fifteen months at the studio, David Hall produced over 400 individual pieces for 'Alice in Wonderland', as well as for 'Dumbo', 'Peter Pan' and 'The Reluctant Dragon', and after being rediscovered many decades later, is now considered some of the most extraordinary concept artwork in the Disney archives. Hall would eventually find great success as an art director for MGM, working on such classics as 'Ben-Hur' (1959) and 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' (1965), the latter earning him an Oscar nomination.
Work continued on trying to crack the story, but it was already becoming clear that Alice was not going to be easy. The box-office failures in the early 40s and the start of the Second World War ground development to a halt, but despite being shelved around 1940, they hadn’t completely given up on 'Alice', and during the war, it was still sitting in the back of Walt’s mind.
...we are going to have to change it radically all the way through... and forget almost all of Carroll’s stuff.
Huxley’s script strayed even further from Carroll’s novel than the treatment by Al Perkins and David Hall, featuring Lewis Carroll and Alice Lidell themselves as characters, and a series of eccentric Victorian figures that mirrored characters in Wonderland. Once again, Walt was frustrated by how much the story had departed from the original, and Huxley didn’t last long at the studio, often being talked over by Walt in story meetings.
Alice has no character. She merely plays straight man to a cast of screwball comics. It is too bad for any leading character to be placed in this untenable position.
There were a number of problems that needed to be solved, both with the novel and with Walt’s demands. No-one had solved the episodic structure, though Perkins had proposed using the Cheshire Cat as a guide for 'Alice', an idea that does partly make it into the final film. 'Alice' also wasn’t much of a character. She was more of a cypher, entirely responsive and often passive compared to the overbearing characters she meets.
There was also the issue of how to translate the wit in Carroll’s writing to the screen in a way that was both respectful and visual. The artists tried responding to the provocations in the novel by coming up with new and original ideas, but at every turn, Walt demanded they return to the source, to let the humour come out of the characters and situations that were already there. This was completely unlike their approach to 'Pinocchio' or 'Bambi', where the source material had been used as a starting point. With 'Alice', Walt insisted they use the source material as a road map, but the more they broke the story apart, the clearer it became that this road map might be leading them nowhere.
A breakthrough finally came, as with so many projects from this period, thanks to Mary Blair. She submitted a number of concept artworks, and Walt immediately fell in love with them. They were once again removed from Tenniel’s illustrations, but they helped Walt conceive a new look for the film, one with bold colours and a strong graphic design. Blair’s artwork for 'Alice' may be the finest she produced for the studio, and their influence would not just be on the look of the film, but the overall tone. Walt wanted the film to now focus much more on the comedy, the rhythm and the whimsy of the book. It had also convinced him that 'Alice' needed to be fully-animated, and that Blair’s artwork should define its visual language. They still hadn’t solved the story problems, but at least they could finally start conceptualising what the film might look like.
In 1946, after thirteen years of development, production on 'Alice in Wonderland' officially began.
Kimball was born on the 4th of March 1914 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and from an early age began exploring what would become two of his great passions - drawing and steam trains, which were amongst the first things he drew. After graduating, he enrolled in the Santa Barbara School of Art in the hopes of becoming a magazine illustrator, but when he saw 'Three Little Pigs', his interest shifted towards animation. His instructor convinced him to apply for a position at Walt Disney Productions, and in April 1934, the 20-year old Kimball was hired as an in-betweener, soon after being promoted to assistant animator for Hamilton Luske.
Within two years, he had been promoted to animator, and apart from work on the Silly Symphonies, had fully animated the soup-eating scene that was cut from 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'. For 'Pinocchio', he was promoted once again to supervising animator and given the task of designing and animating Jiminy Cricket, a task Kimball found frustrating despite its success. He would go on to animate the crows in Dumbo and act as a supervising animator on 'Fantasia' and 'The Reluctant Dragon', but it was on 'The Three Caballeros' that Kimball developed a style that made him singular amongst his peers.
His work on the 'La Pinãta' sequence in 'Caballeros' is pure insanity, breaking many of the conventions that had dictated the Disney style, and when supervising director Clyde Geronimi saw it, he was sure Walt would reject it. Instead, Walt loved Kimball’s work, which Kimball later called the proudest of in his career. This mad-cap texture became the defining quality of Kimball’s animation style, and would dictate the kind of work he would be assigned. There were further triumphs with his work in the package films and with the mice and Lucifer the cat in 'Cinderella', but 'Alice in Wonderland' would see Kimball reaching his zenith during the Silver Age, the surreal and frantic rhythm of the film a perfect match for him. He would animate Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Cheshire Cat, but his triumph is the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, one of the greatest sequences in any Disney film.
My final two cents worth of advice is to develop an all-consuming curiosity for things both exotic and ordinary. Read, observe, analyze, and become involved with a variety of interests. Study, practice, delve, probe, investigate, and above all, be flexible. Keep an open mind. The world is changing fast. Don't get caught in the corner of the ring.
Following 'Alice', Kimball became a prolific director of short subjects, winning Oscars for 'Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom' (1954) and 'It’s Tough To Be A Bird' (1969). When the studio transitioned to television in the 1950s, he directed a number of hour-long specials on the Space Race, and continued to direct and produce work for television until he left the studio. Kimball also had a close relationship with Walt, and shared with him his obsession with model trains and locomotives. He was also an accomplished jazz trombonist, and formed the Dixieland band Firehouse Five Plus Two.
By the time Kimball left the studio in 1973, he had left an indelible mark on Disney animation. No-one else could animate like Kimball, who combined remarkable draftsmanship with his witty, irreverent sense of humour. One could credit Kimball with helping to usher Disney animation away from the romantic style of 'Pinocchio' and 'Bambi' to one more representational and energetic, where the infinite possibilities of animation could be fully embraced. His work in The Three Caballeros and 'Alice in Wonderland' stand as testaments to his remarkable imagination. He passed away at the age of 88 on the 8th of July 2002.
We just didn’t feel a thing, but we were forcing ourselves to do it.
The story still proved impossible to crack despite the involvement of thirteen writers, including Joe Grant and Dick Huemer on their last project together. In an effort to capture the musicality of Carroll’s writing, it was decided that music would drive the story, but this didn’t make things easier. Frank Churchill had started composing songs in 1939, but none of them were used in the final film, and after their success on 'Cinderella', the songwriting team of Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston were brought on, but the only song of theirs used was 'The Unbirthday Song'. In the end, nine songwriters were credited on the fourteen songs in the film, more songs than in any other Disney animated film.
Foreseeing potential problems at the box office, Walt enlisted an impressive voice cast for the film, including popular comic actors Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Sterling Holloway, Bill Thomspon, Verna Felton and J. Pat O’Malley. For Alice, he chose ten-year-old British actor Kathryn Beaumont, who became the first actor placed under contract by the studio. As with 'Cinderella', the entire film was shot as live-action reference, but during the filming of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Ed Wynn (who played the Mad Hatter) and Jerry Colonna (who played the March Hare) delivered such energetic and immediate performances that the raw vocal tracks for the scene were used instead of the clean vocal track recorded later.
...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.
Walt was more insistent than ever that the animators stick as closely as possible to Mary Blair’s concept art, which only added to their frustrations with the story and having to adhere to the live-action reference. No one had solved the issue of the story’s episodic nature, so each of the sequence directors approached each scene as a separate entity, and were so determined to outdo one another that the film was developing, as Walt put it, “the tempo of a three-ring circus”. They were letting their imaginations run wild in a desperate attempt to connect with the project, but Walt always insisted on returning to the novel, even rejecting some of Ward Kimball’s ideas as being too weird. In order to keep up with the demands of the film, the Colour Lab were forced to increase their staff, and the Colour Model Department, in charge of developing new paint colours for the studio, explored twice as many colour options than was the standard for a Disney feature.
As the film throttled towards its release in July 1951, the collective patience for the project had almost dried up. And yet, something special was happening. Where later adaptations of the Alice books would handle their cinematic limitations by drawing outside of the lines, Walt’s insistence that they stick as close to the book as possible meant that they were achieving something no-one had done before or since. Other films had and would simply put Lewis Carroll’s story on the screen. Walt Disney Productions were actually bringing 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland' to life.
- STORY: Many characters from the books were originally considered for the film, but were eventually cut, including the Duchess, the Gryphon and the Mock-Turtle. A scene was storyboard for the Tulgy Wood sequence where Alice meets a Jabberwock, which turns out to be a bumbling comical dragon. Another had her encountering the White Knight, which would have been modelled on Walt himself. In Through the Looking-Glass, the White Knight is said to represent Carroll.
- CHARACTER MODEL DEPARTMENT: In 1940, artist Johnny Walbridge worked on developing the Tulgy Wood sequence, and created a number of creatures that featured in the final film.
- ANIMATION: Animator Judge Whitaker worked on the choreography for the March of the Cards. It took weeks just to complete the rough animation, to the point where the supervising director had to check that Whitaker had been doing anything at all.
- MUSIC: A number of the songs not used in the film were adapted for further projects, including the melody for the unused “Under the Laughing Sky” by Sammy Frain and Bob Hilliard being used for “The Second Star to the Right” in Peter Pan.
When you deal with a popular classic, you’re laying yourself wide open to criticism.
After nearly 50,000 man-hours to produce around 700,000 drawings at a cost of $3 million, 'Alice in Wonderland' premiered at Leicester Square in London on July 26, 1951. The response from critics in the UK was swift and scathing. “This million-pound ineptitude deserves nothing but boos,” wrote William Whitebait in New Statesman, “and I wish cinema audiences were in the habit of according them.” They criticised what they saw as an ‘Americanisation’ of Carroll’s books, and found the film lacking in heart. Critics in the US weren’t much more forgiving. Time wrote on the 6th of August 1951 that "judged simply as the latest in the long, popular line of Disney cartoons, Alice lacks a developed storyline, which the studio's continuity experts, for all their freedom with scissors and paste, have been unable to put together out of the episodic books.”
Walt wasn’t overly surprised. He had anticipated the criticism, especially from literary circles, and in many cases he agreed with them. He also found the film lacking in warmth, particularly Alice herself, and was unhappy with its erratic tone. Unfortunately, the public shared his lack of enthusiasm. The film did poorly at the box office, unable to repeat the success of 'Cinderella', and ended up losing nearly $1 million on its initial domestic run. It was nominated for an Oscar for Oliver Wallace’s score, but lost to 'An American in Paris'.
It was also embroiled in a legal battle between Walt Disney Productions and a French/British co-production produced by Lou Bunin. Anticipating competition, Disney sought an injunction to prevent the competing film from being released in the United States, while the Bunin production accused Disney of exploiting their film by releasing the Disney film at the same time. In the end, the case was thrown out, though the Bunin production faced further challenges when theatre chains favoured the Disney film over theirs, and were denied access to Technicolor for prints.
The film was never re-released again during Walt’s lifetime, though from 1954, began to appear in an edited version on television. In the 1970s though, it started to gain a cult following on college campuses, with the studio finally re-releasing it in 1974 as a double-bill with 'Fantasia', promoting its “psychedelic qualities”. They even paired it with Jefferson Airplane’s song 'White Rabbit'. Over the following decades, it would gain in popularity and stature, and is now one of the most beloved Disney animated features.
They wanted to be as musical as they could and as humorous as they could, make the story as funny as they possibly could, and not necessarily stick so much to the literal qualities of the novel, more to the spirit of the book
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of 'Alice in Wonderland' though is how the frustrations of its development and production resulted in perhaps the most faithful screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s novel. Sticking to the source material had forced them to listen to it, not to the mechanics of the story but to its tone, wit and musicality. There are certainly more faithful adaptations of the book, but where others suffer in their fidelity, or worse, ignore the voice of the novel altogether, the 1951 'Alice in Wonderland' captures its spirit, keying into Carroll’s rhythms, wit and wordplay, and visually responding to them. There’s a lot they invented, like the talking doorknob in the Hall of Doors, but it all feels like it could have come from Carroll, imbued his imagination and sense of humour. Even their adherence to the episodic structure is a revelation - rather than applying an arbitrary framing device or inventing a motivation for Alice, they couldn't conceive on any other option than preserving that structure, and as a result, allow Alice to be the same determined, driven and no-nonsense character as on the page.
In 1951, Walt Disney and the many hundreds of artists involved in 'Alice in Wonderland' assumed they had failed in their efforts to bring Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece to the screen. In fact, they had succeeded in ways they couldn’t yet comprehend - more so than anyone before or since, they had captured the book’s lightning-in-a-bottle magic and irreverence, and in the process, delivered a masterpiece of their own.
After the burst of energy from 'Cinderella', 'Alice in Wonderland' had dampened the enthusiasm of the artists at Walt Disney Productions, and especially Walt Disney himself. In fact, Walt wasn’t even in the country when Alice opened in the US - he was in Europe with his family, overseeing the latest live-action film 'The Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Men'. He barely attended story meetings anymore, was far less emotionally invested in the animated projects and was becoming even more distant from the Burbank lot. Instead, he had become fixated on a new idea, his most ambitious yet, one that would once again send shockwaves through American culture. In the meantime, the animation staff were hard at work on another adaptation of a literary classic, one almost as beloved as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It would allow the artists at Walt Disney Productions to stretch their wings and shake off their frustrations, with a story of a boy with his head in the clouds and a determination to never grow up.
- In 1981, 'Alice in Wonderland' became one of the first titles released on VHS and Beta, and was released again on VHS in May 1986.
- In 2000, Walt Disney Home Video launched their Gold Classics Collection, with a new Disney Classic released on DVD every month. Alice was added to the collection in July 2000.
- The film was once again released on DVD in 2004 in a restored two-disc Masterpiece Edition, which also included One Hour in Wonderland. It was discontinued in January 2009, but re-released as an 'Unbirthday Edition' in 2010 to promote the Tim Burton film.
- For its 60th anniversary, a full restoration of the film was released on Blu-ray and DVD in February 2011. The Blu-ray preserved many of the special features included over the various editions of the film, adding the feature-length Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland, which featured historians and artists discussing both the film and the original novel.
- Wikipedia on Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ward Kimball and Lou Bunin Alice in Wonderland.
- Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition, Blu-ray, 2011
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler, 2006
- The Disney Studio Story, Richard Hollis and Brian Sibley, 1988
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume II - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Musical Years (The 1940’s - Part I), Didier Ghez, 2016
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume III - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age (The 1940’s - Part II), Didier Ghez, 2017
- They Drew As They Pleased: Volume IV - The Hidden Art of Disney’s Mid-Century Period (The 1950’s and 1960’s), Didier Ghez, 2016
- Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Mindy Johnson, 2017
- Forgotten Dreams: The Tumultuous Life of Lou Bunin’s Alice in Wonderland (1949), David Heslin, Senses of Cinema, March 2018
- Wonderland, ACMI Exhibition Catalogue, 2018