Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) is sitting in a tree in the English countryside listening to her sister (Heather Angel) read from a book as a history lesson for the girl. However, Alice is extremely bored by this and prefers to play with her kitten, voicing the objection that the book doesn't even have pictures to sustain her interest and that she would prefer a world of nonsense instead, though her sister is unimpressed with this. As she begins to daydream, she suddenly notices a white rabbit holding a pocket watch rushing by, complaining that he is late, and Alice is immediately intrigued: following him will be far more interesting than that book, and she chases him down a rabbit hole...
Lewis Carroll's Alice books have been plundered by filmmakers almost ever since the medium was invented, such is the hold his imagination had over culture, and pop culture at that. However, it's difficult to argue that whatever specific magic his tales had, the page was where they were best suited as their episodic nature didn't lend themselves especially well to a more narrative-based form where the plot was just as important to propel the characters forward as the events they meet along their tale. It could be true the more experimental styles Carroll's two books were adapted to were the most successful: though Tim Burton's update of the Disney cartoon went on to be one of the most financially profitable blockbusters of its age, it crammed the characters into a very conventional storyline.
Although far from perfect, the 1951 incarnation at least tried to keep to the surrealism of the source without imposing too much revisionism into its template, and you could tell the animators were enjoying themselves in allowing their creativity to run riot through Wonderland. That's not to say it was welcomed too warmly at the time, as it became one of its studio's costliest flops; in Britain at least, the view that Disney had bastardised a quintessentially English text by Americanising it tended to put punters off from taking a chance on it. It may be strange that an adaptation of a Victorian original could be termed "ahead of its time" but that appears to have been the case with this Alice as it took a long while for it to be accepted by an audience.
Funnily enough, it was the college and hippy audience of the sixties and seventies seeking a visual accompaniment to their drug-induced experiences who embraced the 1951 Alice - along with another Disney underachiever, Fantasia - and convinced the company there was a market for the film. Not that they would have acknowledged the hallucinogenic apeal, but somehow this filtered down into society and its time had come, with audiences more used to the trippier imagery that was cropping up in so-called head movies and children's entertainment alike. Nevertheless, there was something decidedly nineteen-fifties quaint about the dreamlike visuals here, which has an attraction in itself, but for all the fantasmagorical qualities a restraint prevailed on the central character.
In spite of her wish for a nonsense based world to inhabit, Alice remains eminently sensible, and finds her travels through the ever-changing realities of Wonderland to be less fun when there is nothing to contrast it with. There is no anchor into the everyday realm she has left other than her own personality, so with everything now around her adhering to a chaotic form of logic, she has nothing to relate to, and that leaves us with a narrative essentially concerned with a little girl lost in the forest, with all the fear that entails. Alice may meet folks who are ostensibly amusing on the surface such as the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) or the Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway) but their lack of sense is oddly dangerous; the directors were keen not to make their results too scary for children, yet you could understand it was a tightrope they were walking over an abyss of sheer, unfettered madness. This crafts an interesting tension, with the conservative Disney brand allied to a work which revels in its own anarchic thought processes: if conservatism wins out, it's been a struggle to get there. Music by Oliver Wallace.