Walt Disney's personal history with Charles "Lewis Carroll" Dodgson's Alice novels (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) extended almost to the earliest days in his career: in 1923, the 21-year-old Disney was based in Kansas City, Missouri, where he and a team of future animation giants (including Ub Iwerks, Rudy Ising, Hugh Harman, and Friz Freleng) were desperately failing to make ends meet with six rather crudely-made animated fairy tales collectively known as the Laugh-O-Grams. In an early indicator of what was to be the constant state of Disney's career for many years, these shorts failed entirely to pay the bills, and by the beginning of summer, the studio was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. As a last-ditch effort, Walt put together a little snip called Alice's Wonderland, about a little girl - filmed in live-action - who interacted with a menagerie of cartoon animals that came to life in an animation studio that she was visiting. The short wasn't enough to keep Laugh-O-Gram Studio solvent, but it did end up serving some purpose, once Disney had scraped together enough money to take a train to Los Angeles.

In a profound stroke of good fortune, Disney and his Alice short arrived in Hollywood right around the time that Margaret J. Winkler of Winkler Productions, the most important distributor of cartoons in the early '20s, was having a spot of trouble with her star filmmaker, Pat Sullivan. Sullivan was the creator of the superbly popular Felix the Cat films, and during contract renegotiations, he got to thinking that he deserved a great deal of special attention and extra money, and Winkler had no patience for it. When she came across Walt Disney, a desperate young man from the Midwest with his entertaining little fantasy, she knew that she had here a replacement for Sullivan (who split from Winkler within a year of this imbroglio), and "Alice's Wonderland" begat the fifty-odd Alice Comedies, the first work produced by the Disney Bros. Studio, as it was then called. Each film in the series a similar hybrid of live action girls (first Virginia Davis, followed by Margie Gay and Lois Hardwick) with animated animals, and the film became quite a hit in its four-year history, from 1924-'27, before giving birth to the even more successful Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It was Walt's first taste of great success, and though he managed to lose everything in the span of just a couple years, only to rebuild it almost as fast with the help of a little talking mouse, it is undeniable that his whole career was built on a foundation of Alice adventures.

Perhaps feeling that he owed the character a debt, Disney intended to make his first feature an adaptation of Carroll's novels, using the same live-action and animation mixture of those shorts; but it proved impossibly difficult to put together a workable story, and the idea was scrapped in favor of an all-cartoon adaptation of Walt's other childhood love, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But the idea of an Alice feature died hard: first floated as one of the innumerable possible follow-ups to Snow White, only to have more readily-scripted projects like Pinocchio and Bambi push it aside; and of course, World War II didn't help things out any. Immediately following the end of that conflict, Walt was right back on the idea, but money just wasn't there, and the idea was left in limbo once more. Finally, in the late 1940s during the relatively smooth production of Cinderella, enough of a story had been hacked together from bits and pieces of the Carroll books - classics of English literature no doubt, but hardly pristine examples of linear narrative - that it seemed possible to finally make an Alice feature, and realise Walt's long-time dream once and for all.

Pick up just about any book about the history of the Disney Studios, and you're going to run into the same stories, often told in the same words, about the miserable hell that was the production of Alice in Wonderland, which eventually saw release in July, 1951. The problem seems to all boil down to a small nexus of issues: first, there was the fact that Walt eventually had to face, which is that nobody could possibly make a film of Carroll's novels and expect it to turn out like Snow White, or even Pinocchio. The books were too mired in linguistic play, and given over rather to the creation of absurd situations than the development of plot or specific conflict. To surpass this difficulty issue, it seems like he eventually conceived of the film as a sampler platter, if you will, of animation and design: let it be the cartoon version of Carroll's writing in effect, not in detail, an opportunity for the animators to cut loose and make surreal situations with beautiful artwork. This led to the second issue, which was the fact that nobody was in charge of this ship, really - it might have been Walt's long-held dream project, but it seems that by this point he'd grown tired of it (I think it was probably the endless chain of false starts), and largely left the film to its own devices, devoting his energy instead to Cinderella and Peter Pan, and he largely eschewed his ordinary hovering over every detail of the film - for by this time, he was perhaps tired of animation and had begun to think of broader horizons than feature films.

This situation is summed up by the same Ward Kimball observation in every text I've seen on the subject: "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". The result was a tiring film to make and a tiring film to watch, one over-wrought situation after another until the viewer has been desperately overwhelmed by the crazy totality of it all. Marc Davis was blunter in assessing how pointless and dismal it all was: "Alice herself gave us nothing to work with.You take a nice little girl and put her into a loony bin, and you have nothing. If she had her cat with her, anything. But she had nothing to work with other than facing one nut after another, one person or thing. And that was right through to the end.". Walt himself curtly dismissed the film as lacking "heart", and proposed that the film's great flaw was that Alice herself was not nearly sympathetic enough. It was a failure at the box office, of course; because that is what happened to Disney films that followed big successes, they bombed. Only a 1974 re-release that consciously pitched the film to drug-users (it had been made a cult object as a head movie in the 1960s) made it a financial success at last - but Walt was not alive to see that happen.

So here is the question faced by the modern scholar, which is the correct opinion: the savage initial reception which called the film a travesty of a classic work (and, to the British critics, a particularly American travesty of a specifically English book), an emotionally chilly exercise in empty style; or the latter-day re-evaluation of the film as a stunning example of design and animation and imagination? (That it is a good head movie may well be, but that's not really an issue for criticism). Naturally, given that I just set up an artificial dichotomy, it's a little bit of A and a little bit of B. The film is, without doubt, a bit impersonal; and if the only thing you want from your Disney movie is a lovable sympathetic heroine who beats the odds and wins her dreams, then I can only imagine how much you must despise Alice in Wonderland. At the same time it is gorgeous indeed, one of the most singular movies in the Disney canon visually. It can be a masterpiece of form and still be a bit of a train wreck as a narrative - although I think in this respect that the animators and critics and Walt were all being a bit harsh in 1951. Yes, it's a little bit heartless, and a damn sight chaotic, but, have you read the books lately?

Thing start off simply enough, with a little girl named Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, who at the time seemed like one of Disney' big child star finds, but whose career petered out after just one other animated feature) ignoring her history lesson and playing with her cat Dinah. After a time she wanders off into a field of daisies and sings one of the film's 13 songs - a record for a Disney film, though several of them last for considerable less for thirty seconds, - reflecting on how much better things would be in her imaginary world of talking animals and flowers, where everything is curious and not at all sensible like boring old history. I bring this up not just as a keen example of dramatic irony - the rest of the film will be one example after another of how agonising such a world actually turns out to be - but because it serves a rather important little spot in the history of Disney narrative. "Three times makes a tradition", goes the old rule, and with Alice in Wonderland we find the third example of the Disney Yearning Song, in which the protagonist vocalises her desire for a better, more joyous, richer life than this one. Snow White had "Someday My Prince Will Come" and arguably "I'm Wishing", Cinderella, copying its predecessor, had "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes". And now we get the hat trick with "In a World of My Own", which didn't necessarily open the floodgates quite yet - for the rest of the decade, only Sleeping Beauty would have a yearning song, while Peter Pan has something of an anti-yearning song - but it would become such a definitive part of the Disney Renaissance films in the 1990s that it felt right to commemorate such an august milestone.

Retrospect teaches us that Alice falls asleep now, and dreams up a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson, the voice of Droopy, working with Disney for the first time) in a waistcoat with a pocket-watch, but at the time it just seems like something that she observes in the English countryside. Faster you can say "metaphor for the consumption of mind-altering recreational drugs", Alice chases the rabbit into a hole just big enough for her to fit into, and tumbles down a hill to a long, vertical drop where she slowly floats right to the center of the Earth, surrounded by bric-a-brac from a normal British household floating down with her.

After that, chaos reigns, and the plot fragments into a series of vignettes and poems and songs, every sequence put together as a hermetic object that could be combined with the others in pretty much any manner you please. In this, it's perhaps the Disney feature most akin to one of their package films, although not a single package film has the same explosive vastness of color and design, and I must not confess that, in that false dichotomy I presented up there, I for one fall squarely on the side of, "this is a minor masterpiece of visual creativity". While it is a damned busy film, and I would not want it to be any longer than it is, there's not much to be found here that's less than fascinating. And like the weather, it all changes around so quickly that if you grow bored, it's a simple as just waiting a few minutes till something new comes along.

One of the most instantly noticeable details of the film's look is the transition from the English riverside to Wonderland. The opening and closing scenes are quite straightforward and realistic: the most realistic thing in all of Disney since the forest backgrounds in Bambi, and that film's combination of strict realism and Impressionism seems very much to be the guiding principal behind the design of the landscape and buildings visible over the treetops; reminiscent a bit of the outdoor scenes of the later Pre-Raphaelites, p'raps (I say this advisedly; I am no art historian). The trip to Wonderland in the rabbit hole is a curious blend of quotidian objects with a round, Art Decoish sort of line to the background drawings. Wonderland itself, now that's the part of the movie that we remember: the last masterpiece by designer Mary Blair (who worked on but one more Disney feature before heading off to the theme parks), it is a fantastic spread of colors, and physics-defying lines, and superbly impressionistic shapes: if this film contained nothing but blank spaces and the White Rabbit's house, it would still be one of the best-designed worlds in Disney's Silver Age. And that's not even necessarily the best element of the film: I'd be inclined to call the grounds of the Queen of Heart's castle the most visually striking part of the film.

While the film is a sheer catalogue of ingeniously designed and colored spaces - and the more I am tempted to just start naming examples, the more I realise that I will simply describe every location in the picture - I will perhaps come back around to the rather more dour view of the filmmakers that it is a touch heartless and too nutsy for its own good. Because truth be told, the character animation and design is quite a lot harder to defend. Beginning with Alice: she has a weirdly shaped face as seen in profile, proportioned oddly, you know. She's more realistic than the carnival of gargoyles surrounding her, but if you saw her in reality, it would assuredly make the hairs on your neck rear up in protest.

And for the most part, the supporting characters don't do a great deal for me either, although usually they are presented with enough raucous energy that it makes up for any unappealing peculiarities in design. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee particularly bother me, although they compensate by telling the story of "The Walrus and the Carpenter", one of the best parts of the whole feature, both visually and musically (with all the parts performed marvellously by J. Pat O'Malley, continuing his brief fling with the company). The Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn, in the first of his two "crazy tea party" scenes for Disney) and the March Hare (Jerry Colonna, his second and last trip with Disney after "Casey at the Bat"), are a bit more effectively executed, and the whole matter of their sequence is so ridiculously playful that it's hard to dislike it, but at the same time, it's the one part of the movie that's so over-the-top madcap that you're kind of grateful when it's done, and not least of that is sheer anarchic whimsy/terror of the two characters

The only two characters that are wholly successful, in my eyes, are the Cheshire Cat (another in the long line of great Sterling Holloway contributions to the studio, though it was the last time he'd do voicework in a feature for more than a decade - he did contribute to a few shorts here and there, though), and the Queen of Hearts (voiced by Verna Felton, another great Disney actor, and one of their most versatile: immediately before this, she played the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella). This latter is Frank Thomas's second female villain in a row, and she could not be further away from Cinderella's stepmother: a huge, robust pile of fleshy parts, with explosive bursts of anger that seem to involve every last part of her body. The Queen's facial expressions are a particular triumph: she is as much of a flat-out parody of the human form as any other Disney figure, but even so she plays out a series of instantly recognisable (and all wicked) emotions on those caricatured features: slyness, vanity, anger, childish impatience. At the same time, she's perhaps the most exhausting character to watch in the whole movie.

Ward Kimball's Cheshire Cat, though, now I could just watch and listen to him nonstop. One of the last characters that Kimball supervised himself (the mid-50s would see his priorities at the studio move far away from feature animation), the cat fully justifies the animator's proud assessment that with his rictus grin, staring yellow eyes, placid voice and minimal, twitch movements, he's the only truly made figure in Alice in Wonderland - oh, everybody may be crazy, but the cat is the only one that you actually worry might do you physical harm, if it entered his mind. It could be argued Kimball was the one animator who was in the best position to work on this feature (he also worked on the Mad Hatter): his designs were always the most warped and otherworldly in the first place, so you could argue that setting him loose on a cartoon insane asylum was really more of a homecoming than anything else.

It is to be conceded that the film steadfastly lacks emotion: it is quite inescapable to feel, when poor little Alice sits alone in the Tulgey Wood weeping and singing "Very Good Advice", that we have so far been kept locked out of her mind, and this is not the moment that is going to fix that. Alice remains stubbornly opaque for the whole feature: we can never quite get a bead on why she is so relative unruffled by all the surreal things happening around her, unless it be to rely on that old phrase, "dream logic"; but that just confirms that Alice is a character in her own dream, and not properly human anyway. I can see where this inability to give us an immediately relatable and sympathetic heroine like the fairy stories would have made Walt dismiss the project, and it certainly does give the film an unlikable edge: I can't think of another Silver Age film that upset me nearly as much as a child, and I think it's one of the few Disney animated projects from 1950 onwards that really can't be considered a kid's movie, or even a family film. But these are not "flaws", so much as differences, and I am wholly unprepared to write off the Disney feature with the widest range of styles, colors and imaginative visual concepts of them all - I'd use the wimpy "arguably" here to qualify that, but after wracking my head, I can't think of another feature that objectively goes to so many different visual places. Not even the package films.

Nonetheless, Alice in Wonderland was a failure, and the Disney Company was ready to let it remain that way. The next feature was already half-finished when Alice flopped; story work had just begun on the project with the longest period of active production in the studio's history; and Walt had found a new toy to keep himself entertained, far better than those boring old animated pictures. The years 1950-1955 saw a host of changes afflicting the Disney animation crew all at once, and the success or failure of an essentially non-narrative visual experiment didn't have much to do with anything, one way or the other. Thankfully, history eventually caught up to the film, and now we can appreciate it in a way that no audience was ready or able to do when it was released by a company that couldn't quite tell which direction it was coming or going.