July 26 - Wonderland Premiere!

Posted on July 26, 2020

The world met Alice of Wonderland fame in 1865, when an Oxford (England) mathematics scholar and teacher named Charles Dodgson published his children's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He used the pen name Lewis Carroll and later wrote a sequel called Through the Looking-Glass.

What a lot of success those Alice books had! Never out of print; translated into more than 90 languages; adapted for movies, plays, art, radio, board games, computer games, rock songs (!), and even amusement park rides!!!

The Alice in Wonderland ride at Disney.
Above, outdoors. Below, inside scene from the ride.

One of the big-time favorite adaptations of the Alice books is Walt Disney's classic "all-cartoon Musical Wonderfilm," Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland. On this date in 1951, the "wonderfilm" made its world premiere in London.

But this beloved film had a bumpy start! Disney first tried to make a feature-length movie that was live-action (an actress playing Alice) combined with animation (the talking animals and bizarre Wonderland setting) in the 1930s. However, Paramount made a live-action movie of Alice in Wonderland in 1933, so Disney decided to work on another favorite story, Snow White.

Tenniel's Alice
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was such a huge hit that Disney was able to buy the film rights for Alice - complete with the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel - in 1938. He hired a storyboard artist to develop the story and concept art for the film, but that artist's vision for the movie was too dark and the Tenniel-like characters were too difficult to animate, in Disney's opinion. At that point World War II had begun, and Disney was in the middle of projects like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi

So Alice was put aside...

After the conclusion of WWII, Disney approached another writer (an author now known for the dystopian Brave New World, Aldous Huxley) to write a script adapting Alice. Huxley wrote a complicated story that involved the author and the child who inspired the Alice books both being misunderstood and persecuted after the books came out - but the happy ending was that Queen Victoria liked the books and so then everyone else followed suit! Wow, what a switcheroo from writing a movie version of the books themselves!

Around that time, maybe in 1946, an artist named Mary Blair submitted her ideas for Wonderland - illustrations that were quite, quite different from Tenniel's black-and-white images. In fact, Blair's Wonderland was whimsical and brightly colored. 

Blair ended up providing the direction that Disney decided to take for a fully animated movie.

As I said, the movie finally premiered on this date in 1951. But...it was pretty much a flop! Critics didn't love it; some British critics said that Disney had "Americanized" the beloved book, hinting that such Americanization had ruined it. Disney wasn't too fazed by the critics, but families didn't show up to the box office, either. I mean, obviously, a lot did - but the movie ended up being a loss of about a million dollars, on that first release.
However: television. Walt Disney was getting into TV-biz, and he released a drastically shortened version of Alice on his television show, and it did really well.

And then, of all things, the college market. Alice became the most rented film in some cities, with lots of sold-out screenings on college campuses. It turned out that Jefferson Airplane had released a song "White Rabbit" and folks who were into all things "psychedelic" loved the bright and unreal settings. 

Speaking of rentals, Alice in Wonderland was one of the first Disney titles released on VHS videotape, in 19181, for rental and retail sale, and it was popular enough to launch a Gold Classic version with extra content. 

By the way, a theatrical re-release also occurred in the U.S. in 1981, and had occurred a few years earlier in the U.K.

With all of that action in the 1970s and 1980s, you'd better believe that reviewers gave the movie - which was now a classic - some pretty big thumbs up!

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