Walt Disney loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass since he was a boy. He once said of the books, “No story in English literature has intrigued me more,” and he took inspiration from them for a long time. Walt founded his career and his studio on the Alice Comedies, 57 short films in which a live-action child interacted with animated characters in cartoon worlds. In a famous 1936 cartoon, Mickey Mouse’s dream self leaps through a looking-glass and interacts with talking phones and dancing gloves. However, his 1951 feature-length adaptation is the greatest of them all. Alice in Wonderland remains one of Disney’s most beloved animated films. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the movie is that the studio was able to pull it off at all.

A Long, Troubled Production

Naturally, Walt wanted to adapt the books, rather than just get ideas from them, and he attempted it as far back as 1932. However, productions from rival studios, financial problems, and World War II forestalled his efforts. When the company was finally able to take on this project, finding a suitable treatment proved to be challenging.

Lewis Carroll’s picaresque plots are as chaotic as Wonderland, with most chapters introducing Alice to a strange new character and promptly moving on. Basic elements like coherent plots, character development, and learning valuable lessons are largely missing. While this makes for enjoyable reading, Walt and his artists knew that they needed those elements to make the story work as a Disney movie. They had to do this while also staying true to the whimsical, anarchic spirit of the books — lest they incur the wrath of the book’s many fans.

Making the Story Their Own

A cursory glance at the final product proves that they managed to maintain the books’ unique brand of madness. The script is riddled the books’ world-famous wordplay, and almost every line holds up only by the speaker’s warped logic. Fittingly for an adaptation of a book filled with poetry, Alice in Wonderland also features more musical numbers than any other film from the studio. Most interestingly, rather than trying to imitate original Alice artist John Tenniel’s famous art, they created their own art style: boldly colorful, rather modernist, and definitely Disney. The strangest visuals from the book are beautifully realized: strange critters like the bread-and-butterflies, the Caterpillar’s letter-shaped smoke clouds, and (in one of Disney’s most dazzling animation sequences) a deck of playing card knights marching and shuffling.

As for resolving the story issues, the movie’s writers gave the story a sense of structure without imposing too much. Notably, more characters recur throughout the movie — a great idea, given that their strong personalities are the real draw. The always-worried White Rabbit shares in many of Alice’s misadventures on his way to his “very important date.” The enigmatic Cheshire Cat notably reappears several times after his big scene, first helping and then hindering our hero. Perhaps most cleverly, the writers use the climactic courtroom scene as a golden opportunity to bring back several of Wonderland’s weirdest denizens. Their reactions to each other, there and elsewhere, are volatile and hilarious.

Alice vs. the World

Perhaps the greatest method they used to add structure to the story involves Alice herself. Besides giving her some growth, the writers realized that they could heighten the movie’s drama by focusing on her reactions to the many conflicts she faces. Almost everyone she meets is cruel to her: the singing flowers eject her from their garden, the Dodo tries to set her on fire, and the Cheshire Cat gets her sentenced to death for his own amusement. While most Disney heroes get their share of lighthearted fun between dramatic moments, Alice spends much of the movie feeling indignant, irritated, and miserable.

Thankfully, she is never a drag to follow. Alice never refuses to take any indignities lying down, and she is quick to call out rude tea party hosts and maniacal tyrant queens alike. She spends much of her trial, where her life is at stake, feeling tired and annoyed with everyone’s antics, which humorously showcases her personality. Best of all and truest to her character, she never loses her curiosity and always wants to see what comes next.

The Wonder Continues

In 2010, Disney released a live-action reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, helmed by Tim Burton. It was a global box office smash, making over a billion dollars. However, James Bobin, director of its 2016 sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass, seems confident that the 1951 animated version will still certainly stand out as a classic. He said, “For many people, that is still the Alice they know and love more than any other.”

Like Alice herself after eating the enchanted mushrooms, the 1951 animated classic still towers over all these different Disney versions today. Like the books themselves, the movie will likely continue entertaining and inspiring generations of children.

Alice in Wonderland Merchandise

YourWDWStore loves this movie and Disney as much as you probably do, and we carry a wide variety of merchandise themed to Alice in Wonderland. Have your own mad tea party with an Alice tea set and even a special tea blend, and wear your favorite characters as pins or clothing designs. We have all this and more exclusive items waiting for you, so plunge down the rabbit-hole with us today.