Walt Disney had already had some success with Alice in Wonderland. Combining live action and animation, Walt had a little girl named Virginia Davis star as Alice in a series of shorts called “The Alice Comedies.” From 1923 to 1927, Davis starred in 57 of these short films, including titles like “Alice’s Egg Plant,” “Alice Chops the Suey,” “Alice the Whaler” and “Alice Rattled by Rats.”
Based on this earlier success, Disney thought he might do a full-length live action-animation combo movie. When the movie was in its early stages, Mary Pickford did some color screen tests as Alice. By 1945, Disney thought he might like Ginger Rogers to star as the precocious little girl. This fell through, and by 1946, work had begun on an animated version that would have art design quite similar to the Tenniel illustrations from the original Lewis Carroll book. This version even get as far as storyboards, but Walt ended up hating it and had changed his mind back to a movie that would combine live action and animation. As you might have guessed, this idea also fell through, and by the late ‘40s, animation was started for the movie we know today.
If you love the bright colors and modern design of the movie, you have Mary Blair to thank. Blair’s distinct style can also be seen in Peter Pan, Song of the South and Cinderella. She is probably best known for art not in a movie, though - Blair is responsible for the design of the famous (or infamous) ride It’s a Small World. She also made a 90-foot mural for the Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
If you’ve read the book, you know that there were a large number of songs and poems written by Lewis Carroll that didn’t make it into the movie. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Disney hired more than 30 songwriters to try to transform Carroll’s whimsical words to music, but it was simply impossible to cram them all into a 75-minute movie. Still, the movie boasts the most songs ever used in an animated Disney film. Because some of them are just snippets of songs, though, most people don’t really realize this.
Alice was supposed to sing a ballad called “Beyond the Laughing Sky” that would be somewhat similar to Dorothy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t well-suited to Kathryn Beaumont’s (the voice of Alice) vocal range, though, and it seemed to drag the movie down a little. The lyrics were later changed and it was repurposed for Peter Pan under the name “Second Star to the Right.”
The movie was kind of a flop. It wasn’t a total disaster, but just like with any book-to-film adaptation, there were literary fans waiting to pounce on inaccuracies and omitted scenes they felt were vital. It wasn’t a big hit until the 1960s and ‘70s, when it became associated with drug culture. This wasn’t exactly how Walt pictured the film succeeding, but Disney eventually rolled with it - the company re-released the movie in 1974 and again in 1981.
Do the voices in the movie seem slightly familiar? If you watch a lot of Disney movies, there’s a good reason for that. Walt was loyal to his actors and would use them in multiple movies. Alice’s voice, Kathryn Beaumont, was also Wendy in Peter Pan and still provides the voices for both today (she has been featured in the Kingdom Hearts video games and in the rides at Disney Parks). Ed Wynn, the Mad Hatter, can also be seen in Mary Poppins as the giggly Uncle Albert and as the toymaker in Babes in Toyland. Sterling Holloway, the Cheshire Cat, might have found the most success with Disney, though: he was the voice of Winnie the Pooh, the voice of Roquefort in The AristoCats, Kaa in The Jungle Book, and had bit parts in Bambi, Dumbo, The Three Caballeros and Snow White.
The movie is actually a combination of two books - the original Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass.
Alice was originally going to encounter the Jabberwocky as she does in the books, but that scene was cut (rumor has it the beast was too scary). If you pay close attention, though, you can catch a couple of references to the creature: the Cheshire Cat sings a stanza from the poem, and there’s also an appearance by the Mome Raths, which are mentioned in the Jabberwocky poem.
So are you looking forward to the new movie? Think it can’t possibly top the original? Or are you strictly a book purist?