With Alice Through the Looking Glass coming out in May, everyone's favorite Wonderland tourist has been in the news again lately. But long before Mia Wasikowska stepped into Alice's Mary Janes, Walt Disney struggled to bring Lewis Carroll's story to life on the big screen. Here's what you need to know about the 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland.
1. ALICE IN WONDERLAND WASN’T WALT DISNEY’S FIRST FIRST FORAY INTO LEWIS CARROLL’S WORK.
In fact, Walt’s first Hollywood success was thanks to Carroll’s concepts. In 1923, Disney combined live action with animation and created the short Alice’s Wonderland, a comedy about a little girl who dreams herself into Cartoonland. They were a hit, and Disney produced 56 of the animated adventures.
2. MARY PICKFORD ALMOST STARRED IN A LIVE-ACTION VERSION.
In 1933, Disney had Pickford screen-test for the role of Alice, even outfitting her in full Alice regalia. He scrapped the idea when Paramount beat him to the punch; Pickford retired from acting later that year.
3. THEY WERE STILL TRYING TO MAKE SOMETHING WORK IN 1939.
There are at least 11 documented meetings on record where Walt was discussing Alice possibilities with his staff. In 1939, British artist David Hall created 400 paintings (pictured); the Disney Studio developed a reel that put the paintings to music to test the movie’s flow. Afterward, Walt decided to put the whole thing on hold, calling it stale: “I don’t think there would be any harm in letting this thing sit for a while. Everyone is stale now. You’ll look at it again and maybe have another idea on it. That’s the way it works for me.”
4. ALDOUS HUXLEY TOOK A STAB AT A SCRIPT.
Though other plans for Alice movies had fallen through, Disney wasn’t ready to give up on it yet. In the fall of 1945, writer Aldous Huxley—whom Disney described as an ”Alice in Wonderland fiend”—was brought in to help develop a new script. Disney believed that Huxley, being such a Lewis Carroll fan, would write something that stuck closer to Carroll’s original work than previous attempts had.
The resulting script was a live-action/animation combo that dealt largely with Charles Dodgson’s (Carroll’s real name) friendship with Alice. Huxley was paid $7500 for his trouble, but ultimately, Walt rejected the script, deeming it “too literary,” which was a shame; Huxley’s wife later said it was the only script her husband had ever enjoyed working on.
5. THE ACTORS PERFORMED SCENES LIVE FOR THE ANIMATORS.
Disney artists often had the voiceover artists perform scenes live in order to better capture their movements and quirks, and Alice in Wonderland was no exception. Check out Ed Wynn, Kathryn Beaumont, and Jerry Colonna acting out the Mad Hatter’s tea party scene, followed by Beaumont having a chat with the talking doorknob, below:
6. AT LEAST 30 SONGS WERE WRITTEN FOR THE FILM—AND THEN DISCARDED.
Just like the rest of the movie, Disney couldn't seem to settle on songs. One tune, “Beyond the Laughing Sky,” was later repurposed in Peter Pan as “The Second Star to the Right," but others were outright abandoned. The long list of scrapped songs includes one based on Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem, and another called “I’m Odd” that would have been formed by the Cheshire Cat. You can hear them both below:
7. THE FILM WAS NOMINATED FOR A BEST SCORING OF A MUSICAL PICTURE OSCAR.
The music that was included in the movie received critical acclaim, earning composer Oliver Wallace (who also scored Cinderella and Peter Pan, among others) an Academy Award nod. It lost to the score from An American in Paris.
8. ONE VERSION OF THE SCRIPT INCLUDED THE DUCHESS AND THE PIG SCENE.
Fans of the Lewis Carroll book probably remember the mildly creepy scene where Alice encounters an ugly duchess, who has a baby that turns into a pig. An early script of Disney's Alice did include the scene, but the scene never made it past the sketching stage.
9. NONE OF THE DISNEY EXECS WERE PLEASED WITH THE FINISHED PRODUCT.
Despite the decades spent on getting it just right—hundreds of drawings, countless treatments, scores of songs, numerous scripts, and various screen tests—no one seemed to be very happy with the final result. Walt said the film had “no heart,” and animator Ward Kimball called it a “loud-mouthed vaudeville show. There’s no denying that there are many charming bits in our Alice, but it lacks warmth and an overall story glue.”
10. AUDIENCES WERE ALSO LUKEWARM ON THE MOVIE—AT FIRST.
The movie made just $2.1 million when it was released in 1951. It didn’t really become a cult classic until more than 15 years later, when college-age audiences discovered that the film was not unlike an acid trip and began having screenings of it on campuses across the country. Disney was wise to the reason the movie was a late bloomer, and marketed it with ads that said, “Down the rabbit hole and through the talking door lies a world where vibrant colors merge into shapes of fantasy, and music radiates from flowers.” They also played on the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit,” saying, “Should you see it? Go ask Alice.”