Looking back at Disney’s Alice In Wonderland: refining the animator’s craft

Mark takes a look back at Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, a film that marked a change in the way the studio made its films...

When Disney devised the concept of a full-length feature animation and proved its viability with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937, there were many people who argued that the economics of these productions was a big issue.

Had Snow White not been a big box office success, Disney would certainly have gone bankrupt, as some 1,200 people had taken more than four years to realise.

A big part of the problem was the level of research and development that was needed to create believable animated characters was substantial, and during those early productions, well into the forties, Disney animators where inventing a highly complex skill set that allowed them to make movies in a way people had never imagined was possible.

But with each new full-length feature they produced, the risks multiplied, like they were playing roulette and betting repeatedly on red to win. At some point Walt knew that they’d make a less than successful movie and potentially ruin the business.

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In the early forties, Disney produced some of its most ambitious projects. These included Dumbo, Pinocchio and Bambi, all of which represented a further notch both in the quality of the animation, and also in the complexity of the image rendering techniques.

Innovations like the multi-plane camera, multiple exposure shoots and rotoscoping also progressed the art of animation, along with the amazing artwork created by the Disney artists. It was a golden age of animation that was probably living beyond its means.

Walt realised that if they continued down the road of making the productions ever more lavish and the animation more exacting, then at some point, the wheels would come off this particular wagon, as they’d make a film that would lose money irrespective of how many people came to see it.

So, what relevance has this to the thirteenth full-length feature, Alice In Wonderland, that was released in 1951? Plenty, because this wasn’t the first time that Disney had set out to make this movie. He’d had at least three other tries, and each one had failed to make it into the cinema.

But actually, the company’s relationship with Alice goes back to the time before Mickey Mouse, when, in the mid-twenties, Walt created over fifty short movies under the branding of ‘Alice Comedies’, and it was off the back of these popular silent shorts that the reputation of Disney grew and created an eager market for later characters like Ozwald the lucky rabbit, and eventually, Mickey Mouse.

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It was therefore natural that when Walt got a chance to create a full-length feature in the thirties, he’d use Alice In Wonderland as the inspiration, and it was nearly chosen as the first film. But ultimately, Snow White was given priority when Paramount released a live-action version of Alice in 1933.

Disney came back to the subject again in the forties, both as an animated film and as live-action, but both those attempts stalled.

The animated version was rejected mostly because it featured a visual style drawn from the work of Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, when they first went into print.

As lovely as these looked, Disney knew that they’d break his animation and cell painting teams to try to reproduce the style for eighty or more minutes of movement. So, when he did return to make the movie for real, it was on the basis that the characters bore a resemblance to Sir John Tenniel’s versions, but they were reworked to make them practical for the animation department to work with.

It was the lessons learned in creating Lewis Carroll, in how to stylise art to make it more production-friendly, that entirely altered the way that productions from this point onwards appeared.

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You might argue that Alicedoesn’t have the polish and finesse of the early movies, as the rendering of the characters is less impressive. However, that ignores a number of crucial elements that Disney put in place to make the movie more lavish in other, less expensive to implement ways.

The modernist look of Wonderland, created by background artist Mary Blair, was dramatically enhanced by exceptional use of colour, which is much more striking than the previously muted pastel shades that audiences had experienced with Dumbo and Bambi. They also upped the level of complexity in having large numbers of characters moving around the frame at any one time, often using exotic cycles and character segmentation to get the most movement out of the animators’ work. These types of optimisation were used in Cinderella, but here they’re more apparent and more earnestly executed.

It’s interesting to note that, aside from shorts like The Three Caballeros, Disney didn’t release a single major animated production from Bambi in 1942 to Cinderella in 1950. The war did have an impact, as did the animators’ refusal to let Walt into the studios, but clearly in this time much work behind the scenes was going into making their new films more viable and less expensive.

Unfortunately, this film was critically mauled, especially by those who felt it didn’t do justice to the Carroll source material, but its issues are actually more to do with the freeform nature of the narrative and a decision that Disney made about allowing five directors to each produce part of the story.

Where most of the animated features that came before this one had an exceptionally well defined plot, Alice In Wonderland doesn’t really lend itself to that scenario, an issue that others (Tim Burton, most recently) have run smack into. It didn’t help that they inserted some characters which are from Through The Looking Glass, which don’t fit into what story Alice In Wonderland does have.

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But the biggest problem is that each of the differently directed sections has an oddly unique feeling to it, different from the rest, and as such it lacks a really solid uniformity in how the characters are used and presented.

While not as diverse as, say, Fantasia, it doesn’t deliver a production that’s more than the sum of the parts, and in some respects, scenes rub uncomfortably against each other, rather than fit naturally.

This issue aside, Alice In Wonderland marked a turning point where Disney at last started to accept that the overarching economics of making animated features needed to change, and did much of the groundwork that allowed the likes of Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book to financially work.

It might not be the most engaging of the classic full-length Disney features, but it’s a masterclass in character design and merits of a vibrant colour palette.

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