“Weird” is a subjective word, but it’s likely few people would deny its applicability to Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. But that weirdness isn’t why Alice in Wonderland was dismissed by critics and audiences upon its release. A variety of factors contributed to its lukewarm reception, mostly revolving around poor adaptation from the novels upon which it was based.
British film and literary critics widely panned Disney’s “Americanization” of one of English literature’s great works by Lewis Carroll. The film was not released in theaters during Walt Disney’s lifetime, instead airing intermittently on television due to limited appeal. In The Disney Films, author Leonard Maltin notes that animator Ward Kimball felt the film failed because "it suffered from too many cooks – directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product." Walt Disney seems to have agreed, himself stating the film wasn't great because there was no "warmth" in Alice's character.
Alice in Wonderland attempts to blend plot points from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, into one 90-minute film. In John Reid’s book Films Famous, Fanciful, Frolicsome & Fantastic, he says this decision doesn’t work, as “the continuity of the books is lost and there are several serious omissions.”
The second mistake, Reid says, was Disney inventing material of his own. Further, the sequences in the film are over-elaborated to the point where they “lose the spirit and simplicity of the original.” What the picture becomes is a “very flashy and generally entertaining film,” but as Leonard Maltin adds, “it lacks that essential thread that made Disney’s best features hang together.”
Graded Talon writes, “Alice in Wonderland was released shortly after World War II when, due to the baby boom, the amount of families with young children grew exponentially. Parents wanted movies with clear plots and morals to show their children, something that Alice in Wonderland lacked.”
It’s true that Alice doesn’t represent the typical Disney hero who grows emotionally and learns lessons from her journey. She is a girl who dozed off during her studies, stumbled through a dream world, and woke up. Her tale is a difficult story for Disney to adapt into a film of any substance because it doesn't have much in the way of plot. Alice is a passive character who does what the various inhabitants of Wonderland instruct. This truth posed a challenge in rendering the character on screen, as she has little to identify with in terms of heroism or personality. At the time, people found Alice difficult to connect with on anything beyond a superficial level.
The film received grand complaints about its animation, as well. Though beautiful and intricately drawn, many of the character animations differ from the original renderings of John Tenniel. Not concerned about the irrelevant requirements of animation, Tenniel’s original character drawings contained heavy use of lines and would have been incredibly time consuming and expensive for Disney to animate with complete accuracy. This forced them to re-imagine many of the characters’ looks, utilizing a modernist stance involving bold and unusual colors. Tenniel’s original illustrations had become widely-known and well-loved before Disney’s film release, which resulted in disappointment when people were offered something different from their expectations. (Kathryn Beaumont, the child actress who voiced Alice, physically modeled various poses from the film for the artists to draw, basing the character on the real-life girl.)
Further, Disney animators were simultaneously working on Cinderella (1950) when drawing much of Alice in Wonderland. A number of characters ended up looking the same, like Alice’s Cheshire Cat and Cinderella’s Lucifer. This further Americanized the film in audience eyes.
Alice did find success, eventually, during the late 1960s, almost two decades after its original release. Following The Beatles' animated film Yellow Submarine (1968), Alice in Wonderland’s trippy and psychedelic style of animation and storytelling was suddenly modern and accessible. It spoke to a generation of people who were just small children when the film first came out. It was seen as a “head film,” reflective of the drug culture of the generation, and fit with the psychedelic times. The first time Alice in Wonderland was seen in theaters was 1974, at 23 years old, when it was finally in demand with the public.
The original acclaim for the film has since become outdated and the film is treasured as an imaginative and highly original entry in the Disney animated feature catalog. Nothing else has ever come close to the odd charm of Alice in Wonderland.