Reel Rumbles: Cinderella vs Alice in Wonderland
We return to The Great Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective! Last time, we finished off the Wartime Era of Disney films with a perhaps not too fond farewell, but a mildly appreciative one all the same. Now the Second World War has ended and Walt Disney and company return to making films with an actual budget, and they create feature-length narratives once again. We’re onto the Silver Age!
The Silver Age
The Silver Age, also known as the Restoration Age, of Walt Disney Animation Studios is said to run from 1950 to 1967. It is defined by a marked return to quality and lasts until Walt’s death in 1966. This era is comprised of eight films and represents a time when Walt Disney was beginning to grow from a small and talented animation studio into a corporate giant. During this period, Disney opened its first theme park, began to produce television shows, and expanded its business in many other ways. As for the features themselves, the studio returned to making stories based on fairy tales and increased the quality of animation. As in the Golden Age, the box office returns for these films varied, and it’s retroactive appreciation for these works that has helped the era earn the Silver Age connotation.
In many ways, it was non-film efforts that propelled Disney to the forefront of American culture. Disney used his Disneyland show that began to air in 1954 to forge a connection with Americans and promote the launch of Disneyland itself in 1955. Live-action features directly produced by Disney also debuted in this period, including the Academy-Award winning Mary Poppins. The 60’s themselves were Walt’s final years, and his attention moved away from the animated features, some would say to their detriment.
Early defining features of this era are the softer colors and more detailed backgrounds. Some have a lighter, perhaps a “silvery” sheen to their animation that creates a certain mood distinct from the Golden Age. The thematic content of these films is also lighter than in the Golden Age, with no evil Chernobog or poison-apple-wielding Queen to be found. Yet many of the protagonists are more complicated than their predecessors. The last feature Walt would see was The Sword in the Stone, but the Silver Era truly ended with the posthumous release of the last film he worked on, The Jungle Book, which met with great acclaim and allowed Walt to go out with a hit.
The History of the Films
If the Silver Age is known as the Restoration Age, that can be credited in large part to Cinderella. The film single-handedly turned around Disney’s fortunes and has become one of the studio’s most important works as its imagery has been incorporated throughout the Disney tapestry and defined the Cinderella tale for American audiences. Its production history began, in a sense, all the way back in 1922 when Walt made a short based on the fairy tale. He wanted to take another crack at it in the 30s, but production turned out to be too complicated. It moved to the back-burner until 1943 when Disney assigned Joe Grant and Dick Huemer as story supervisors. They began preliminary work with a budget of $1 million, but work halted on the film by 1945.
A quarrel over production on Song of the South resulted in Maurice Rapf being reassigned to Cinderella, who originally created a more rebellious and assertive Cinderella who fought back against her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. These suggestions were by and large ignored when Walt turned his attention to it in 1946, and the story went through multiple revisions over the next few years. The studio’s debt-filled ledgers threatened to plunge the company into extinction, but Disney convinced his creditors to let him keep floating while he brought his new, full-length films into production. With Cinderella at the top of the priority list, animation proceeded full steam ahead, led by the talented Ben Sharpsteen.
By 1948, the cat and mouse segments of the film that had been introduced in 1946 as small side plots began to grow, and Cinderella was evolving into finished product. The directors had a large degree of autonomy over the story, and they communicated with Walt mostly via notes. Still, Walt ordered many small changes and tweaked the film’s climax, ensuring that Cinderella would still be his creative child.
The movie debuted in 1950 as a smash hit and critical success. Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) wrote Walt and told him it was his greatest masterpiece yet. The songs, animation, and light tone all earned great praise. The only complaint was Cinderella’s docile personality. This didn’t matter, though, as the movie earned $8 million at the box office and received several Academy Award nominations to boot. The subsequent licensing of songs, publications, and other merchandise related to the film kept Disney in production throughout the 1950s. The studio might well not exist today were it not for Cinderella.
Like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland can trace its production history back to 1920s shorts that Walt worked on before he began to pursue the idea of a longer adaptation in the 1930s. But in 1933 Paramount put out a live-action version of the story and Walt decided to pursue Snow White instead. In 1938, after the massive success of Snow White, he decided to purchase the rights of Alice in Wonderland and produced a reel. He wasn’t satisfied, but further plans were put on hold due to World War II.
In 1945 Walt restarted production on Alice and had the script re-written by Aldous Huxley. Disney would reject his approach as too literal and hired Mary Blair to create a more surreal and vivid take on the material. Walt was taken with her approach to the film, which emphasized the whimsical nature of the story. Though Disney considered making a live-action version with Ginger Rogers, he ultimately felt justice could only be done to the story with animation. Set to debut in 1950, the production teams of Alice and Cinderella began to compete against each other to see who would finish first. Cinderella was the ultimate winner, but Alice in Wonderland followed close behind. Desiring to capture the poetry of the books, Disney commissioned music to feature the lines from the poems and ended up having over 30 songs produced for the film, the most of any Disney production. Ironically, only a few seconds of some of these songs were ever heard in the movie.
Alice in Wonderland debuted in the summer of 1951 as a double feature. It met a fairly lukewarm reception with 50s audiences, and Walt would die before the film got a theatrical re-release. It brought in only $2.4 million at the box office, thus amounting to a million-dollar loss for the studio. Critics were mixed, praising some of the “curioser” scenes and the general charm, but feeling that it lacked heart and was not an adequate follow-up to Cinderella. Many accused it of “Americanizing” a great piece of British literature. Ward Kimball, an animator, later commented that it suffered from too many cooks in the kitchen with five directors trying to outdo each other.
But sometimes time can change things, and the psychedelic 70s brought a newfound appreciation for the film. Its odd and zany imagery captured later audiences, and it began to have sold-out screenings on college campuses in 1971. Capitalizing on this newfound appreciation, the studio re-released the film 1974 and Alice in Wonderland finally found its fans. Critics praised the creative imagery and surrealistic tone, and it is now embraced as a classic of the studio. The 1974 re-release made $3.5 million and finally earned Disney its money back. Alice is now a major part of the Disney iconography, with much representation in theme parks, video games, and TV shows.
Round 1: Story
Cinderella‘s story is a timeless and classic tale of the underdog rising to excellence. Loved only by her father, a young maiden is left alone with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters when her father passes and leaves his fortune to her stepmother. She’s made into a slave, doing all of the cleaning and work for the house while the three other women preen about. Meanwhile, the Prince of the kingdom is a young bachelor uninterested in the royal women, so the King plots with his loyal Duke to find a way to have him married off and start producing heirs to the throne. A ball is thrown and all the women in the kingdom are asked to attend. Cinderella is nearly prevented from attending by her stepmother, but her Fairy Godmother uses magic to give Cinderella a suitable appearance and send her on her way to destiny. At the ball she sweeps the Prince off his feet.
It is fair to criticize certain aspects of the tale, such as Cinderella’s blandly hopeful personality, but this is perhaps as classic a fairy tale story as there is. The saga of a person rising beyond the cruelty of those taking advantage of her — with the help of fairy magic, of course — is told in picture-perfect detail here. This isn’t about nuanced characters or complicated plot turns, but about perseverance and hope. The side plot of the scrappy mice Jaq and Gus versus the aptly-named cat Lucifer are a distraction aimed at children, but it offers its own form of well-done slapstick comedy.
Indeed, the film offers many humorous notes, and a sense of grinning irony throughout gives Cinderella more oomph than a simple plot description suggests. It manages to strike a nice balance of tone that gives it a generations-reaching and generational-closing pull on audiences, and its story has remained entertaining to people of all ages and time periods.
Alice in Wonderland‘s script is more similar to the Wartime Disney works. While centered on the story of a young girl falling asleep during her studies in a meadow and entering a world of fantasy, it’s much more of a series of vignettes than a seamless whole. Alice does wildly different things from scene to scene. At root she’s trying to return home, but she attends tea parties, talks to invisible cats, is put on trial, and more along the way. The movie is really a collection of absurdist humor sketches.
The sketches are indeed humorous, though. The combination of slapstick hijinks, wordplay, and overall silliness make Alice in Wonderland quite a funny film. If you allow yourself to be caught up in the ebbs and flows of each scene, you’ll find yourself chuckling constantly throughout. The White Rabbit’s harried nature, the simple pleasures of the growing and shrinking food, and the fantastically oddball Mad Hatter’s dinner are all examples of great script choices that convey the absurdity of Carroll’s work. Is there some greater message behind all of it? Some have suggested there is, and other versions of Alice do more or less to convey that. Disney’s work is ultimately a celebration of the absurd, though, and needs no grand message.
With two different types of stories, it can be difficult to decide which is superior. Both are good at doing what they intend to do. However, Cinderella manages to mix its humor with a timeless story of triumphing over overwhelming odds. Had Alice in Wonderland created a stronger cohesive narrative thread, perhaps it could have competed with Cinderella.
Round 2: Music
Many of the songs within Cinderella have become a big part of the Disney catalogue. The most famous of these is likely “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” which despite being a novelty tune has a light and airy melody that has managed to charm generations of viewers. The bouncing lyrics are sung well by Verna Felton, who belts out the meaningless nonsense with punch and gives the scene the magical quality it aims for. “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is no slouch either, and it becomes the refrain of Cinderella‘s score. Illene Woods’ gorgeous voice sings a song of hope and never giving up on your dreams that could be seen as anthemic of what Disney films are all about. Cinderella’s Castle has become the most iconic image of Walt Disney Studios and the media conglomerate that it is today, and this song reflects some of that power.
“So This is Love” is a later song in the film, also sung by Illene Woods, and it is done in a similarly operatic orchestral style. It is a beautiful duet about the power of love. These songs encapsulate the strength of the Cinderella music, and though sonic variety is lacking outside of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” the music all attains a brilliant, sultry beauty.
The music of Alice in Wonderland is similarly styled with grand choruses and lush production. The main refrain of the film and Alice’s opening number about how she would change the world aim to evoke a longing for something more. The most well-known tune from the song is the short and chipper “I’m Late,” which showcases the film’s absurd humor with lots of quick, plucky strings.
The music is somewhat more varied than Cinderella‘s. The theme of the Hookah Caterpillar has an appropriately Middle Eastern flair, though its lyrics are still all about emphasizing the absurd. “The Unbirthday” is another great example of clever and silly lyrics lifted out of Carroll’s text.
Perhaps we are giving undue advantage to something with more dramatic weight, but the music of Cinderella stands out in a way that the Alice in Wonderland music does not. That’s not to discount the well-written lyrics and melodies of the Alice compositions, with gives each of the film’s notable characters songs full of clever, silly puns and turns of phrase. But between the Fairy Godmother’s iconic theme and the gorgeous crooners from Illene Wood, Cinderella‘s music wins.
Round 3: Animation & Direction
The animation of Cinderella is a rich and quite blue. Even the early scenes with Cinderella hard at work scrubbing have blue inlays and tones. The entire film is replete with detailed backgrounds full of color and vibrancy, yet it emphasizes cool tones rather than the bright reds and yellows of Snow White, creating a different sort of look from Disney’s earlier work. The look helped define the Silver Age.
The Fairy Godmother’s delicate baby blue robes and glimmering wand also evoke the film’s ideals of hope and beauty, conveying the central ideas of aspiration and wonder. As Cinderella and the Prince dance in one of the film’s rare uses of a warm yellow color, the animators capture the joy of the scene. Directors Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luke, and Wilfred Jackson did a marvelous job of bringing together one of Disney’s great works. Notably, Disney’s personal favorite piece of animation from his movies was the gleaming beauty of Cinderella’s white ballgown as it comes into existence, and the effect is still fantastic.
The animation of Alice in Wonderland, while decidedly less blue (aside from Alice’s bright blue dress), does not lack for lush detailed backgrounds and charmingly odd designs. The detail present in the film comes across in wonderful shots such as Alice peering into the burrow hole to see where the White Rabbit ran off to. The many individual blades of grass surrounding this impossibly cavernous hole at the base of a tree make it an engrossing picture despite defying reality.
The design of the oddball characters in the film also shows the wonderful talent in the animation. From the Cheshire Cat’s vibrant purple stripes and large creepy grin to the Mad Hatter’s buck-tooth smile and hazy green hat to the Queen of Hearts checkerboard dress, Alice in Wonderland has a varied and fantastic character design. The bizarre imagery lifted the movie to popularity in the 70s, and its surrealism has echoed with audiences since.
Elegance vs absurdity. Refined beauty against surreal wackiness. This is the choice before us. While either movie’s animation could fairly be called the winner, I side with Alice in Wonderland here. Its lush, detailed backgrounds and wonderful use of color pairs well with creative character designs and truly oddball segments that come to life here in a unique way.
Winner: Alice in Wonderland
And the winner is…
While Alice in Wonderland has rightfully risen above its initial lukewarm reception, Cinderella is the rightful winner. It helped jumpstart the Disney monolith and serves as an avatar of everything Disney represents at its best. While Disney has made better films, this or Snow White are probably the most “Disney” out of everything the studio has made. It’s aspirational tale of rising above your circumstances still pulls on the heartstrings. One might have hoped that Cinderella would be a more active character, but that is only a small flaw in an otherwise excellent piece of filmmaking.
- Ranked #1,652 globally
- Wins 34% of matchups
- 26,937 users have ranked it 211,682 times
- 28 has it as their #1 film
- Ranked 21/59 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
Alice in Wonderland
- Ranked #1,087 globally
- Wins 40% of matchups
- 22,508 users have ranked it 193,956 times
- 26 have it as their #1 film
- Ranked 8/59 in the Walt Disney Animation Studios filter
Disney Reel Rumble Retrospective Chart
- Bambi (1942)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
- Cinderella (1950)
- Fantasia (1940)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- Pinocchio (1940)
- Dumbo (1941)
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)
- The Three Caballeros (1944)
- Melody Time (1948)
- Saludos Amigos (1942)
- Fun and Fancy Free (1947)
- Make Mine Music (1946)