Today in Disney history, Alice in Wonderland had its premiere in theaters in the U.K. to mixed reviews, though they did not stop the legacy of the classic Disney film.
On July 26th, 1951, Alice fell down the rabbit hole and made her animated debut when Alice in Wonderland had its premiere in the United Kingdom. Two days later, U.S. audiences had the chance to catch her colorful, charming story in theaters on July 28th, 1951.
Creating Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland follows Disney’s long legacy of recreating literary fairy tales and stories with the studio’s own unique spin. As you may be familiar, Alice in Wonderland was an original story by Lewis Carroll, who wrote about Alice’s descent down the rabbit hole and her encounters with iconic characters like the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, and more (or many more, when you consider how many more characters are in the book that did not make it into the film.)
Production and animation teams on Alice in Wonderland included all members of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men: Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark. Mary Blair, known for her skills as a colorist and her work on films like Cinderella, and Disney attractions like “it’s a small world” created the original concept art for the film.
The Team Behind the Movie
A talented team of actors was used for voicework in Alice in Wonderland. Disney Legend Kathryn Beaumont voiced Alice, though you may recognize her voice from Wendy Darling in Peter Pan (1953). Disney Legend Sterling Holloway plays the Cheshire Cat, with a voice that may be familiar as he also played the roles of Sleepy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Stork in Dumbo (1941), and Winnie the Pooh, among many others.
The Queen of Hearts was voiced by Verna Felton, whose sound you may know from her roles as several other Disney characters, including Mrs. Jumbo and the Elephant Matriarch in Dumbo, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp (1959), and Flora and Queen Leah in Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Perhaps the most well-known voicework in Alice in Wonderland comes from Ed Wynn (the Mad Hatter), who, along with an extensive career in film, TV, and radio, portrayed Uncle Albert and sang the “I Love to Laugh” number in Mary Poppins.
The Initial Reception Was Mixed
Despite being regarded as one of the best-animated films of all time today, Alice in Wonderland was actually received rather negatively upon its initial release, especially in the UK. Critics (both film and literary) in the UK disliked the Americanization of the original Lewis Carroll source material, and the film nearly garnered a $1 million loss at the box office during its first theatrical run. Others noted that the animation and soundtrack were well done but felt that the character development was lacking.
Profits increased during later re-releases, and the film took off primarily during the 1960s and 1970s when psychedelic art and music began to take off in popular culture.
The Legacy of the Film Today
Today, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland extends far beyond its initial film release into several other areas of popular culture. The film and its characters have been the inspiration for songs and multiple retellings over the years, and it’s a major part of Disney theme parks.
Both the Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort have featured Alice and other characters from the film in everything from parades and fireworks shows to merchandise, and character meet and greets. The Mad Tea Party attraction in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom along with Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland dark ride make up some of the most beloved Fantasyland experiences for Guests on both coasts. (The UK Pavilion in EPCOT is another favorite spot in the theme parks for fans of the animated film.)
And of course, Disney’s storytelling inspired by Lewis Carroll’s work did not end in 1951. Live-action remakes that take the story of the original film further (and sort of closer to the book) starring Johnny Depp were released in 2010 and 2016 with Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass respectively.