On this date in 1951, Disney released one of its most fantastical, whimsical films: Alice in Wonderland. At the time, it was deemed a failure due to low box office and some frankly "psychedelic" visuals. Yet it's impossible to not note the power that it holds as the definitive adaptation of Lewis Carroll's seminal works about a young girl named Alice as she traveled down the rabbit hole. It was far from the first adaptation by decades, yet there's a lot that has solidified it as the quintessential take. It is in part the music that launched the "unbirthday" trend, and classic characters like the Cheshire Cat, whom remain some of Disney's key iconography. Still, the one opinion that isn't often held - but should be - is that Alice in Wonderland is something more. In the first century of Disney's existence, it is without a doubt the best animated film that they've released.
The notion "best animated film" may be taboo, especially for a studio that defined family entertainment and revolutionized animation. This isn't meant to take anything away from those heights like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Jungle Book, or even Beauty and the Beast. This is merely a study on the technique that I feel has never been put in such a thankless task as it was here. While the studio would tackle fantasy often, Alice in Wonderland is the only seminal masterpiece from the studio that feels like it reached the extent of what animation could do in the early 1950's. It wasn't just about pretty pictures. It was about utilizing the canvas while creating a world that couldn't exist in live action. As anyone who has seen Disney's recent revamp of Alice in Wonderland or its sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass, you'll understand further why the animated version holds up. It makes the impossible realized in ways that are compelling and not, let's just say, distracting.
Sure, Disney's early run was always pushing boundaries. Peter Pan showed the whimsy that came with flying. Pinocchio created horror out of being consumed by a whale. There's no shortage of iconic images in Disney's roster. However, there's almost a naturalism to most everything in those films that makes it feel grounded. While it is important to balance films this way to properly suspend disbelief, it doesn't necessarily seem challenging to create talking animals that walk on streets similar to what Disney has done before. Carroll's text is itself as perplexing as its "Wonderland" moniker would have you believe. The images described on those pages have filled artists with awe for over a century now, and most haven't been able to adapt it without seeming creepy or ill-informed. It could be that there's a need to challenge perspectives and make fantastical character designs. However, it's just that we need to believe that Wonderland is as wondrous as its title would suggest.
The brilliance becomes immediately clear when the plot is kicked into gear with that familiar saying of "I'm late for a very important date." The curiosity grabs Alice, and we're forced down the rabbit hole. The natural world that bookends the film is your stock Disney animation, being neither exceptional nor poor. However, that first fall into the unknown starts the challenge. As she spins, she passes by a room of clocks and other mechanical items. As she lands into a room with a talking doorknob and a height-changing potion, we're left to wonder what happens next. The magic doesn't just come from the choices of animation, but the various perspectives. Alice consistently changes sizes throughout the film, and the spatial placement of everything around her is an underrated tool that makes the story work.
From there, one can forgive the story for not being as concrete, as some moments play more as great ideas that make sense in Carroll's book, but don't add to the cinematic narrative. It could that the original story was mostly made up of vignettes of quizzical allegories regarding math and morals. In that sense, the film doesn't always elevate its source material into backdoor math lessons. However, this is a world only populated by strange and mystical creatures who coexist in a realm that wouldn't be offensive if compared to LSD. There's smoking caterpillars and two short men named Tweedledee and Tweedledum who serve more as a comical moment of slapstick. Even as the story progresses, Alice becomes bigger than a house, and even falls into her own Benny Hill-esque finale where the chaos and animation reach their peak while trying to wrap up a story that has no semblance of how to get there.
It would take forever to properly assess everything that's curious about this film's animation. While the music department is whimsical and fun enough, it is the visuals that inevitably are the most memorable part. Wonderland is meant to be a crazy world with talking animals and forests that change at a moment's notice. What the film delivers is the closest that any film, live action or animated, can bring to it while maintaining an artistic beauty. The wonder is constantly on display, never dropping its sense of optimism. Even the Cheshire Cat's fade away as it laughs has a certain ingenuity. We don't understand the mechanics of Wonderland, but by the end we're sure that there's nowhere like it.
I'll admit that it's hard to refute that it's the most visually pleasing movie. After all, Beauty and the Beast's "Be Our Guest" segment alone is a phenomenal achievement as food and china sing in a Busby Berkeley-esque routine. In fact, Alice in Wonderland seems crude by the standards of the 90's resurgence. Yet, I don't think that there's as much innovation on display. It isn't just in the set design or character design. It's in how every coexists without becoming a glaring issue for some other component. We're always left in wonder, never quite sure what is next. As guard cards paint white flowers red, there's a sense of sloppiness to the paint used. It's just as effective as seeing Alice grow and shrink as to benefit the story.
It may be a cop out to say, but Alice in Wonderland is what Disney could be if they stuck closer to hard fantasy. It's a visual masterpiece that never sacrifices the fun while challenging the viewer to contemplate what they're seeing. Maybe Disney has made better movies. Maybe some are stronger in the story and song department. The issue is that few rely on inventing whole worlds from scratch that don't even resemble our own. To me, the best animation is the type that challenges our perceptions of reality. Studio Ghibli are the masters of this, and LAIKA Studios has a knack for taking up the mantle in the stop motion department.
Still, there's a reason that Alice in Wonderland was one of the first to be adapted to live action when the fad was starting off. There's so much potential that could be done with computer graphics. The issue is that unlike animation, it challenges your perception in ways that are detrimental and sometimes distracting. While that is in part a failure on a story and directing field, it does highlight what the original did so well in the first place for Disney. It made you want to visit this fantastical land and stay there for longer than the running time. It's the reason that the Mad Hatter hat remains a successful piece of Disney merchandise. It's why Disneyland features the tea cups as an actual ride. It's a movie that showed the potential of animation at its most fathomable point and asked us to dream bigger. 65 years later, few dreams are as wonderfully realized on film.