“No story in English literature has intrigued me more than Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It fascinated me the first time I read it as a schoolboy and as soon as I possibly could after I started making animated cartoons, I acquired the film rights to it. Carroll was revolutionary in the field of literature. He violated the serious Victorian tradition by writing Alice in a vein of fantasy and nonsense. In fact, he was a pace-setter for the motion picture cartoon and the comic strip of today by the style he introduced in his fantasy. People in his period had no time to waste on triviality, yet Carroll with his nonsense and fantasy furnished a balance between seriousness and enjoyment which everybody needed then and still needs today.” — Walt Disney, quoted in American Weekly - August 11, 1946
The synopsis begins with a letter stating that the Queen wants to know and meet the author of Alice in Wonderland. She has been told he is an Oxford don and that she wishes the vice chancellor of the University, Langham, to discover his identity.
Langham tosses aside the request since he has other concerns, including the Rev. Charles Dodgson lobbying to become the new librarian. Dodgson loves books and wants to be relived of his duties lecturing since he stutters badly when nervous. (In real life, the Dodo in Wonderland was named after Dodgson who sometimes because of his stutter would introduce himself as Do-Do-Dodgson.) Langham is not inclined to endorse Dodgson for the new job because he feels it is inappropriate for the good reverend to be interested in the theater and in photography. Langham’s assistant, Grove, who knows Dodgson quite well and just considers him a little eccentric tries to plead Dodgson’s case to no avail.
Grove is the weak-willed guardian of a little girl named Alice, whose parents are temporarily off in India. Grove has hired Miss Beale to take care of Alice. Miss Beale is a no-nonsense person who is very strict and dislikes Dodgson because he fills Alice’s mind with nonsense. Huxley points out that it is important to establish that Alice is “temporarily an orphan at the mercy of a governess and an old man who do not truly understand her or love her.”
Dodgson has invited Alice to join him for a theatrical performance of Romeo and Juliet featuring one of his former students now grown up into an attractive and talented young woman, Ellen Terry. Miss Beale is outraged and orders Alice to write a letter to Dodgson informing him she can not attend because of her “religious principles”.
Dodgson visits Terry in the theater and she immediately guesses that he is the author Carroll because he used to tell her stories of the Cheshire Cat when she was younger. Dodgson begs her to keep his secret since he is up for the job of librarian and that if it were revealed he was the one who wrote the children’s book it would go badly for him. He also talks about bringing Alice to the play the following day.
Mrs. Beale discovers that Alice has not posted the letter to Dodgson but hidden it so she could sneak out and attend the theater with him. Enraged, Beale locks Alice in the garden house. When “Grove expresses concern about the severity of Alice’s punishment, Miss Beale assures him that this is how it was always done in the best and most pious families. Grove ends by agreeing, as he always does when confronted by a personality stronger than his own.”
Miss Beale raises the question of her pension that must be submitted to the Bishop within days (or wait another two years for the next opportunity) and Grove advises her that the Bishop was good friends with Dodgson’s father and perhaps the reverend could write a recommendation. Miss Beale’s appears visibly concerned.
Alice is terrified at being locked in the garden house, but Miss Beale informs her that if she does not stop her screaming and pounding she will remain locked in there both day and night. To escape her terrors, Alice starts to imagine that a hanging rope is the caterpillar from the book and that a stuffed tiger’s head is the Cheshire Cat. Eventually, by remembering that in Wonderland there “is a garden at the bottom of every rabbit hole,” she finds a small shuttered window and is able to escape.
She rushes down the street towards the theater but has some horrendous adventures including being robbed by street urchins and trying to escape from a policeman remembering “Miss Beale’s blood curdling accounts of what happens to children who fall into the clutches of the Law.”
Alice eventually finds her way to the theater and rushes tearfully to Ellen Terry and the surrounding performers who are taking a break on stage. She incoherently blurts out her tale. Terry sends for Dodgson and is indignant about the way Alice has been treated. Alice confesses her “system of overcoming fear is pretending to be in Wonderland.”
Ellen Terry says that is the purpose of theater to “take people out of Dull Land and Worry Land and carry them into Wonderland.”
She, eventually joined by the other actors, recounts the story of the Red Queen’s croquet game and the film transitions into animation. Dodgson arrives to take Alice home but Terry insists that Alice stay until she’s had an opportunity to talk “with that old dragon” who has been persecuting Alice. Dodgson agrees and joins in on the storytelling that transforms into another animated segment.
At the point in the animated story where the Red Queen yells “Off With Her Head!” it returns to live-action and the appearance of Miss Beale followed by Grove and two policemen. Grove is persuaded to dismiss the policemen and Terry eloquently convinces Beale of the need to be kinder to Alice. During the discussion, Alice blurts out that Dodgson is really Lewis Carroll. A disgusted and frustrated Grove proclaims that this is the final straw why Dodgson is unfit for the job of librarian and leaves to confront Langham with the news.
Langham has no time for Grove, because he has been informed that the Queen is arriving that very afternoon to meet the author of Alice in Wonderland and he fears what her reaction will be for his inaction in finding the author. Grove announces he can produce the author and returns to the theater. There, without telling them the reason other than Langham needs to see them immediately, he gathers Beale, Alice and Dodgson and takes them in a cab back to the University.
Langham and the other dignitaries are paying their respects to the Queen and, just as Langham is about to admit he does not know who Carroll is, Grove arrives and shoves Dodgson forward. Alice is terrified the Queen will cut off his head, but the Queen is quite pleased. When she leaves, Dodgson finds himself lionized by those who had previously looked at him askance.
Even Miss Beale apologizes and shyly asks for Dodgson’s recommendation to the bishop about her pension. Once assured that this means Miss Beale will not teach anymore children in the future, Dodgson warmly agrees.
As all the new found flatterers cluster around Dodgson they all appear in Alice’s eyes to transform into residents of Wonderland with only Dodgson himself remaining human.
A brief epilogue shows a gothic doorway with the word “Librarian” painted on the door and Dodgson seated comfortably at a table, writing, and surrounded by walls of books. A scout comes in and announces the carriage is ready and Dodgson leaves and goes to a nearby park where children are having a party including a Punch and Judy show. Alice runs up to Dodgson to introduce her new governess who is a “young and charming girl” who seems to be enjoying the party as much as Alice herself.
A stout middle aged woman approaches Dodgson to tell him how much she loves his wonderful book. Dodgson bows, smiles and hands her a printed card from his pocket and walks away. The card states: “The Rev. Charles L. Dodgson takes no responsibility for any publication not issued under his own name”. The woman looks back up to see Dodgson walking away with Alice and other characters.