Those Poor Oysters

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

If I had to make a bet I’d say that anyone that knows the story of Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland knows it from the Disney animated film released in 1951. While nowhere near the first adaptation of the source material, nor even the first to shorten the name to simple Alice in Wonderland (stage plays as early as 1886 were already going with the shorter form of the name). But due to it being a Disney animated film, and seeing multiple rereleases (and regular play on the Disney Channel) this version has become one of the most popular versions of the story, one that I’m sure most everyone has seen.

I was that exception. I don’t know how I managed to dodge it, having seen most of the other animated Disney films (and having watched my fair share of the Disney Channel owing to having nephews I babysat), but somehow this one fell through the cracks for me. Not that I was itching to go out of my way and watch the film, mind you. As I’ve learned watching the various versions of this story, I really don’t care much about the tale. The story of a rich girl that wanders into a world of her dreams and learns absolutely nothing from the adventure isn’t exactly my cup of tea. It works for some, and that’s fine, but there were always other Disney movies (and regular movies) I could watch instead. Alice in Wonderland never made the cut.

But I’ve watched it now, all for the sake of this website, and I can definitively say: it’s fine. It’s a Disney animated film from the early days of the studio so it has that distinctive, hand-drawn, house style. It’s lush, and well animated, and flows wonderfully. But it’s also Alice in Wonderland (with a bit of Through the Looking Glass thrown in) and so it has the same structure, and story flow, of all the other versions of that story. If you aren’t inclined to care about Alice and her adventures then this will be just another version of the same old story to sit through and say, “damn, will that Alice never learn?”

Like so many other adaptations, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland opens with Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) out in her garden, ignoring what she’s supposed to be doing (studying with her sister) and dreaming of a different, nonsensical life. She declares that if she could she’d travel to a world where everything was the opposite of this one, where the rules were strange and nothing worked like you expected (thus spelling out the rules of the world she’s about to travel to). When she spies a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) running through the garden, she follows, eventually going into his rabbit hole where she falls down into the world of Wonderland.

There she, of course, goes on a wild series of adventures. She meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee (J. Pat O'Malley) as they tell the tale of the Walrus (also J. Pat O'Malley) and the Carpenter (also J. Pat O'Malley). She nearly destroys the house of the White Rabbit when she grows too big. She drinks far too little and listens to the song of the flowers (before they accuse her of being a weed and chasing her from the garden). She wanders the forests, lost, until she finds her way into the gardens of the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton). And, of course, she offends the royals and ends up on trial before having to flee, waking up back in the garden, thinking it all a dream once more.

The Disney version is both better and worse than many of the other adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland out there. Alice doesn’t really learn anything here, much like she barely learns anything in any of the other versions. Here, though, she does have a throughline and, thanks to the setup in the garden, there is also one thing proven in the story of the film: visiting a land where everything is nonsensical and rules don’t seem to apply ever wouldn’t make for a very fun adventure, at least not for the person stuck in the middle of it.

Gone from this version is any semblance of teaching Alice that, just maybe, she shouldn’t be in such a rush to grow up. Growing up, in fact, is never once mentioned at all. In this version Alice looks like a teenager (owing to the Disney house style, of course), so she’s already grown enough that her complaining about “I’m an adult, damn it,” (not that she does it here) would seem out of place. While she does grow, and shrink, and grow again (following the standard beats of the tale) it’s not an allegory for her own desire to grow up. Growing in this story is just a means to an end without any subtext to function at all.

I would argue that there’s practically no subtext to the Disney version at all. Alice isn’t in Wonderland after being scolded for trying to be more than she is (not a child, not an adult, unable to fit anywhere). Instead she’s there on a flight of fancy, simply to find the White Rabbit and see where he goes. It does give her a throughline, someone to follow to help drag the story forward (instead of her simply bouncing from place to place without reason), but that’s barely a story and certainly nothing to hang any kind of moral lesson. Not that Alice learns moral lessons, mind you, but still, the fact that the Disney version doesn’t try to actually teach Alice anything is a failing, whether she’s there to learn the lesson or not.

By combining both books together (to add material, one assumes, and to keep the film moving along at a brisk pace) whatever messages were in the source material are certainly lost here. What are we supposed to glean from the tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter? What is the story being taught by Alice sitting through a song of the flowers? There isn’t one. Even the times where Alice is forced to sit down and have a cry because she can’t figure something out doesn’t have much weight here because we don’t have a reason to view her as a little girl letting her emotions get the best of her. Things just happen here because they happened in the books, but there’s little in the way of connective tissue (or connected ideas even) to bring it all together.

And when she goes to the Queen, the fact that the Queen acts like an immature tyrant (holding a mirror up to the immature behavior Alice expressed throughout the tale) doesn’t really work in this context. She simply comes across like a tyrant, petty and petulant for the sake of being both. She’s not supposed to reveal Alice’s immaturity to her (again, not that Alice would learn that) simply because we haven’t seen Alice ever once be told she was too young or immature, nor does she have a second thought about her own maturity in the story. It just doesn’t work.

All that being said, this is a very pretty version of the story and it moves along at a brisk enough pace. While I didn’t care about the story here anymore than I have in any other version I’ve watched, I won’t deny that by condensing everything down, and putting in a bunch of material, the film moves at a steady clip and never drags or gets boring. The songs are decent enough, the singing and dancing is amusing, and the animators certainly had fun drawing the various characters, and the world, of Wonderland. It works from an artistic standpoint even if the writing isn’t all that great.

I still don’t really care about Alice in Wonderland but I suppose, if I have to watch a version of it, this one will do. It might not please the hardcore fans of the story (it was a failure at the Box Office when it came out, only finding love in rereleases) but it is fun enough for those looking to make a quick visit to Wonderland just to see what it’s all about. Considering how much worse other versions have been, that’s practically high marks, all things considered.