Alice in Wonderland

World War II took something important away from the Walt Disney studio. Or maybe it was the colossal failure of Fantasia that did it. Either way, the studio’s extraordinary golden era of animation wheezed to a sad finale sometime around 1942, and the lush artistry of Dumbo and Pinocchio gave way to a leaner, more economical style with the debut of the classic Bambi and lesser films like The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. Not a bad style, but certainly less spectacular than the stunning multi-plane animation and intricate designs of Pinocchio.


Alice in Wonderland, which debuted in 1951, feels like it was meant to be a call back to pre-Snow White animation while adhering to the visual format of the studio’s mid-century work. It’s less a movie than a series of loosely connected cartoon vignettes, random musical numbers, and surreal comic routines.

Taken on its own, any sequence in Alice in Wonderland could stand as a pretty decent Disney theatrical short. You’ve got a song about a horrible walrus who seduces young clams and eats them alive (literally, not in some creepy metaphorical sense), a bizarre opium-addled caterpillar who poses existential questions, singing racist flowers, a tea party for the insane, and the world’s deadliest croquet match. You could put Bosko or Betty Boop in Alice’s place and no one would have blinked.

Unlike those older shorts, though, every scene in Alice in Wonderland is drawn in a clean, lean style with crisp lines and absolutely dazzling color. In throwing out the rounded and sometimes drab look (occasionally black-and-white) of early shorts, Alice in Wonderland modernized an aging format and lent it new energy.


Unfortunately, while the individual scenes range from good to great, Alice in Wonderland doesn’t quite work as a movie. Lewis Carroll’s picaresque children’s book makes pretty decent source material for a Disney movie — the songs and zany talking animals are built right in! — but the problem is that the startlingly expansive list of writers and directors didn’t bother to create any real linking material between these disconnected sequences. It’s just a bunch of standalone scenarios directed by different people, each with its own tone and theme.

As a result, it feels like Alice is bouncing constantly between unrelated cartoons rather than roaming on a journey. Aside from a few linking elements that come together in the final courtroom sequence, such as the Mad Hatter’s retinue and the magic mushrooms she fishes out of her pockets, there’s no continuity between the vignettes. Despite being barely more than an hour long, Alice in Wonderland drags terribly. Compared to most classic Disney films, it feels insubstantial despite being packed with so much variety.


I’m also fairly certain it’s single-handedly responsible for all the “giant woman” fetish porn that shows up when you google the most innocuous things. In short, not one of Disney’s better works.

15 thoughts on “Alice in Wonderland

  1. Yeah, I agree completely. Parts of the film are great, truly, but as a whole it just feels like a rudderless and disconnected mash of vignettes. I also think the film missteps by its characterization of Alice as generally very prim and collected. Lewis Carroll’s protagonist is certainly a product of her time, but she’s regularly flummoxed or even incensed by the odd behavior of Wonderland’s inhabitants. Of course, she’s too well-mannered to actually -say- much of what she’s thinking. This is a difficult thing to convey on film as compared to in writing, but I don’t think Disney does a very good job of it (and in some scenes doesn’t even try), and the end result is an Alice who often comes off as bland. I’d also argue that it loses quite a bit of the subversive appeal of Carroll’s work, but then I think that might be inevitable when making a big Disney animated feature like this.

  2. Man, it’s been decades since I last saw this. . .as well as Jungle Book, Robin Hood, Black Cauldron and Rescuers. . .gotta fish out my tapes! My favorite of all time is still Sleeping Beauty.

  3. (Entering Disney ‘sperg mode) WWII was a huge factor when it came to Disney’s diminishing revenue. But probably more important was the 1941 animators’ strike. This caused a massive rift between Disney and his employees, and after the strike was over, nearly half of the staff left, including guys who went on to big things later: Walt Kelly, John Hubley, Bill Melendez, etc. Those who remained claimed that the atmosphere was completely different post-strike, and the feelings of friendship and camaraderie between the animators and Walt Disney were pretty much gone.

    From what I understand, Saludos Amigos was the last cartoon that Disney himself took much personal interest in. It was poorly received, Walt got pretty bitter, and started focusing his energy on other things: live-action, the Disney TV shows, Disneyland, and so forth. Reportedly he considered closing down the feature animation department several times. So the Disney that made Alice, Peter Pan, Cinderella and so on, was a very different company than the one that made Fantasia, Pinocchio & Dumbo.

  4. Oh, man. We had a VHS of this movie that was taped off TV or a rented copy or something. At several point is would cut out mid-scene and pick up somewhere else. I think the Tweedledee and Tweedledum part was missing entirely. To this day, it’s the only way I’ve ever seen Alice in Wonderland. I was always sure it was a great movie that just didn’t make sense because I was missing the connections between the scenes. I’m glad to finally learn the truth.

    • Mine was also a homemade tape, probably from an ABC Wonderful World of Disney airing or something, and I remember feeling that same “missing reel” feeling during the commercial breaks.

  5. This was always my favorite Disney movie as a kid. It is the only one I remember seeing multiple times. I even wrote a paper on intertextuality between the Disney movie, American McGee’s Alice, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and the original books.

    A visually great version of the story in the 1988 version by Jan Švankmajer that mixes stop-motion animation and live action. It might be even more episodic than the Disney version, but the entire story is set in an old European house.

  6. I believe Pinocchio lost money, so Dumbo had 1/3 the budget. Also, WW2. I think Alice in Wonderland is a genre, where a “normal” character moves from place to place, meeting wierd people in wierd situations, with some characters appearing more than once. The most recent example I can think of is the last Silent Hill movie (ugh).

  7. I love that kind of storytelling, though–it’s what draws me to video games. I liken it to boss fights, particularly games like Metal Gear Solid, No More Heroes, and most action games. Disjointed scenarios can add variety as long as the individual pieces are memorable enough, and EVERYONE remembers the caterpillar, tea party, and queen of hearts scenes.

    • Video games work better because you can step away. With a movie, you’re meant to watch from start to finish, and it becomes mentally exhausting.

  8. Holy cow, I just watched Alice in Wonderland yesterday! I frequently have fond memories of it, but my appreciation for it is more intellectual than emotional. It’s an interesting artifact of the way Disney used to divvy up work, assigning separate people to handle separate sequences. By the time of the 90’s renaissance, animators were assigned characters rather than sequences. As you point out, it’s a case of too many cooks to the extreme. But there are some great little moments throughout. My favorite bit involves two birds, one with a mirror for a head and the other looking like a pair of glasses that innocently confuse Alice (unlike everyone else in the film, who maliciously confuse Alice.

    But one thing I’ve always liked about it that is frequently considered a negative is what a ridiculous little shit Alice is. She doesn’t grow at all as a character, and aside from the “crying in the woods” scene spends the entire movie being a deadpan straight-person to the random idiots surrounding her. It’s such a ballsy move for a Disney film that I do kind of appreciate it. Again, intellectually more than anything else. It’s a hard movie to love.

    Still, I wouldn’t call it the beginning of the end. My wife’s and my favorite Disney films (Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp, respectively) were still to come!

  9. I think it’s unfair to judge the film so harshly for not having a plot. It’s no different from the book; each chapter is a standalone piece populated by a set of caricatures (not characters) designed to deliver a set of verbal logic gags. Even when characters appear more than once, like the Hatter, their personalities are inconsistent. Disney created a lush and beautiful motion illustration for the book, while removing the satire that was relevant in the 1880’s and adding more of the cartoon-type wackiness of those earlier shorts to entice the kiddies.

    • Again, the medium makes the difference. Books work like that, because they’re broken into discrete chapters. A TV series would work like that, but a film needs more cohesion. And actually, a film CAN work like that, if they’re better about breaking up the sequences.

      I think the loss of the satirical edge hurts the film, too. Wizard of Oz managed to survive the loss of its dated political allegories because the filmmakers did such a good job of bringing everything together into a fun story, but Alice in Wonderland never gelled the same way.

  10. I’ve always loved the animated Alice in Wonderland; probably my favorite Disney movie. The general “mania” of the film works for me. That the movie is presented in what are basically incohesive vignettes, that it seems to wander directionless, is delightful, especially considering that the movie is presenting a kind of “dream logic” – which is no logic at all, and rather the point. If watching the film is off-putting and uncomfortable at times because of pacing or plotlessness or pointless action (or inaction), so much the better. Dreams are quite often like that.

    One of the reasons I so disliked the live-active Burton version of Alice in Wonderland is precisely because it did aim for cohesion. Wonderland is supposed to be a place of illogic, and madness, and glorious chaos – just like a dream.

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