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Part 13: Alice in Wonderland

Walt Disney’s interest in the story of “Alice” goes all the way back to the 1920’s when, as a struggling animator, he attempted to make a name for himself by creating some imaginative yet unsuccessful short films called “Alice’s Wonderland” which featured a live action actress interacting in a cartoon environment with animated characters. Abandoning these efforts Walt moved from Kansas City to Hollywood to pursue a career directing live action films.  Having no luck, Walt revisited the idea of his “Alice’s Wonderland” shorts hoping that this time he would have success.  Walt Disney’s “Alice Comedies” were a success and helped put the Disney Brothers’ Studio on the map. 

Walt had a real love for Alice in Wonderland and originally planed for it to be his first feature length project in the 1930’s.  Always intending to mix a live action Alice played by Mary Pickford, with an animated Wonderland.  Sadly for Walt this project could never get off the ground, but he never gave up on the idea of an “Alice” feature.  Several more attempts were made in the 1940’s; one staring Ginger Rogers as Alice, but eventually the live action element was dropped in favor of a fully animated feature.  This project was soon scrapped and it was decided to try the live action/animation mix again this time with Disney starlet Luana Patten, (FD2F readers should be familiar with her by now) but again, this project fell through.  Walt’s version of “Wonderland” didn’t finally get of the ground (or should I say ‘down the rabbit hole’) until the 1950’s.  1951 to be exact and like the 12 films before it “Alice in Wonderland” was released by RKO pictures.

Speaking of which, the original ‘RKO Pictures’ title card appears at the beginning of the film, unlike the film before it.  Hey “Cinderella”, what’s up with that?  Ashamed of your association with RKO?  They’re only the same studio that released “King Kong” and “Citizen Kane”.  Grow up will ya.

The opening credits of “Alice in Wonderland” contain a series of ink and color drawings featuring the unmistakably Disney characters, but here they are drawn reminiscent of Sir John Tenniel, the man who did the original “Alice in Wonderland” illustrations.  It’s a nice blend of the two styles, Disney’s tip of the hat to Tenniel.

Walt Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” is based on the Tim Burton film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.  It has also been speculated that both of these films are the adaptations of two books written by British Author Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the follow-up Through the Looking Glass. The story is about a young girl named Alice who suffers from undiagnosed ADHD.  Alice dreams of and eventually gets to visit a strange place called Wonderland.  What is Wonderland you ask?  I’ll let Alice explain:  “If I had a world of my own everything would be nonsense, nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t, and contrary wise, what it is it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would.  You see?”  Well-said Alice, moving on . . .

“Alice in Wonderland” holds the distinction of having more songs and musical numbers than any other Disney Animated Feature Film.  Fortunately, every one of these songs is entertaining, catchy and very fitting in the scene in which it takes place.  It’s easy to stomach this large volume of songs because the vast majority of them are short little ditties, maybe only a line or two, that often come across like TV commercial jingles.  This could also be seen as a problem.  If you are prone to having songs stuck in your head, fair warning, “Alice in Wonderland” has more that enough opportunities to get one of a hundred little tunes lodged into your brain for the rest of the day.  Currently, I am suffering from “A very merry Un-birthday!”  But that’s okay because it is my Un-birthday.

The film starts off with excellent use of the multiplane camera moving along the English countryside.  We meet Alice who is beautifully designed (establishing an iconic look for all Alice’s to follow) and wonderfully animated.  The overall animation in “Alice” is very strong and the design and layouts are spectacular even before we reach Wonderland.  As Alice lies in the grass dreamily singing her first song, In A World Of My Own we see examples of the great angles and perspectives to come.  The animation when Alice arrives in Wonderland is equally interesting without getting “experimental” (animation for the sake of animation).  The inhabitants of Wonderland are all interesting and well drawn.  The backgrounds of Wonderland are done in a fantastic modernist style; abandoning the conventional, traditional look of things.  I think the only way one could really create Wonderland with any measure of success is with animation, hand drawn, computer or stop motion.  Take the scene, for example, with the bread and butterflies, the rocking horseflies and the singing flowers.  I’ve seen this attempted with people in costumes . . . that’s a lot of leotards.  And even with Disney’s hand drawn animation they do an excellent job of giving human and animal qualities to the flowers while still making them recognizable as to which type of flower they are.

“Alice in Wonderland” is similar to many of Disney’s package films of the 1940’s focusing on music and comedy rather than a strong narrative like “Cinderella” or Pinocchio”.  This doesn’t prevent the film from having many classic, memorable moments. Take practically any scene or character from the film (almost any frame from the film) and show it to someone, I would be surprised if they don’t know it’s from “Alice in Wonderland”, even if they haven’t seen the film!  I love when the Tweedle’s tell Alice the story of The Walrus And The Carpenter.  I enjoy the fantastic and odd little creatures of Tulgey Wood, the tea party, the trail scene, the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Sterling Holloway) singing The Jabberwocky and the scene when Alice meets up with a hookah-smoking caterpillar . . . wait a minute, the caterpillar is smoking!  Not just smoking but putting on a whole morbid puppet show with his exhaled smoke.  How did this get by the Committee of I.D.I.O.T.S. (Improving Disney Images by Omitting Terrible Stuff)?  Maybe on future releases they’ll replace the smoke with bubbles.

A lot of the humor in “Alice in Wonderland” comes from the absurdity of the characters she encounters and how they speak and act towards her.  In contrast to Alice’s proper demeanor these character’s bizarre songs and dances, whether truly funny or not, can’t help but evoke smiles and laughter out of sheer silliness.

Believe it or not, I think that Alice is actually one of the more difficult characters from the books to understand motive and get emotionally invested in.  This also occurs in many of the adaptations.  She’s just “there”, interacting with these eccentric, enthusiastic characters and hardly prompting the reading or viewing audience to consider her a hero.  This is not the case in Walt Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland”; the filmmakers took great care in making Alice just as interesting as the characters she encounters in Wonderland.  They gave her a wide range of emotions, good dialog and a very clear motive emerges after her visit to the Mad Tea Party; she wants to get the hell out of Wonderland. 

The villain in “Alice in Wonderland” is the wonderfully outrageous Queen of Hearts, constantly shouting the orders “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”  But if you think about it, is anyone in Wonderland good?  When they’re not trying to cut off Alice's head, drown her or burn her, they’re trying to confuse and frustrate her with silly questions and songs. Whether or not Alice “fit in” with the high society back home she sure acted very proper and patient towards all of the nutcases she encountered, only losing her temper towards the very end.  Had I found myself in Wonderland, the phrase “Get away from me you maniac!” would be a very popular one.  Walking around in Wonderland is the equivalent of an evening stroll through the bad part of town.

I did come across a few technical occurrences to note: When the March Hare hits the “mad watch” with a mallet the film turns to black and white for just a few seconds, no idea if this was intentional or not but it was odd, and noticeable. I also thought it interesting that the background (and sometimes foreground) hedges in and around the Queen of Hearts palace are black and white (grey tones).  The ground is green and of course the characters are full color so it’s odd that the surrounding hedges and even the sky are a dismal grey color.  If the intention was to make the on-screen characters pop out or to create a subtle, gloomy environment then job well done.  And finally there is a short sequence containing what looks like rotoscoping.  It takes place after the mome raths show Alice a path out of the woods and occurs as Alice runs along the path.  This bit stands out mostly because Alice hadn’t moved like that in any other part of the film.  The animation looks “traced” but it’s a quick sequence, painless and over before you know it.

The most experimental animation in “Alice in Wonderland” takes place during the march of the Playing Cards.  I hesitate to use the word “experimental”, but I definitely don’t want to say “unnecessary”.  The animation in this scene doesn’t move the story along but it does look great, and the most wonderful and amazing thing about it is the fact that it was all hand drawn.  Take into account that today there wouldn’t have been a second thought about creating this sequence with computer animation.

At times through out “Alice” it may have felt similar to watching a series of unrelated cartoons who shared one character in common and if this was the way you felt, by the end of the film you’d discover that is clearly not the case.  Every character that Alice encountered is brought back to appear in the fast and frantic climax.  Alice runs into characters and revisits situations almost as if to retrace her adventure backwards from end to beginning.  This madcap finale is a nice way to bring closure to Wonderland.

“Alice in Wonderland” is one of the few times in film history where the, “It was all just a dream” ending actually works and, in this case, was even enjoyable.  By today’s standards “Alice” ends in a way that would be described as “open for a sequel”.  There were so many situations and characters from the Lewis Carroll books not visited.  Who knows if Walt ever intended on taking Alice back to Wonderland?  Based on the initial success of the film, my guess would be no (more on that later).

So many wonderful celebrities of the day leant their voices to “Alice in Wonderland” and their talents did nothing but improve the already enjoyable film.  Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter, Jerry Colonna as the March Hare, Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat, the Fairy Godmother herself Verna Felton as the Queen of Hearts.  Basically every character with more than a couple lines was someone who at the time was considered a recognizable talent.  Because of this after “The End” appears on screen there was actually a series of scrolling cast credits at the end of the film, which was not common at the time.

“Alice in Wonderland” was strongly criticized for it “Americanization” by Carroll purists, an outcome that Walt was expecting.  What he was not expecting was its poor performance at the box office.  Long time Disney animator Ward Kimball was known to have said that if Alice had any flaws it was that there were “too many cooks” working simultaneously on this project.  Five directors and 13 writers?  Yeah I’d say that could lead to some conflicts.  “Alice” wasn’t a complete disaster but it definitely didn’t achieve the success Walt had hoped for.  Although not a favorite of critics Disney still had a soft spot for the inquisitive Alice and chose to show the film (edited to one hour) as the second episode of his brand new 1954 television show “Disneyland” (later known as “The Wonderful World of Disney”).

“Alice” wasn’t considered an outright success and for that reason was not re-released into theaters for many years until . . . drum roll . . . the successful release of films like “Yellow Submarine” and even the re-release of “Fantasia”.  Small, independent theaters and college towns were scrambling to get their hands on any film prints that would appeal to the emerging drug culture; including the lost, but not forgotten, “Alice in Wonderland”.  Disney was at first very reluctant to embrace “Alice’s” new found popularity, but they eventually caved and decided to release “Alice” theatrically in 1974, even promoting it with a new psychedelic ad campaign. 

Having read and enjoyed the “Wonderland” books by Lewis Carroll, I can easily say that Walt’s version of “Alice” is my favorite.  And out of more than 20 adaptations, I feel that Disney’s is the most beloved and the one that all others are compared to.  I am aware that it’s a very loose adaptation, but it’s also a very good representation of the story and its characters.  Many of the “Alice” adaptations are a bit longer than necessary, trying to cram in everything from the books and remain faithful to Carroll’s words.  But what these filmmakers don’t understand is that Wonderland isn’t a nice place to be for a long period of time.  It’s a nice place to stop in for a short visit or be able to place a bookmark between some pages and leave for a little while.  Wonderland is no Narnia.  It’s full of lunatics that try to confuse you or kill you.  That’s the nice thing about the Disney version, it’s short and to the point.  It highlights some of the best bits of Carroll’s books and even gives the author a full title card in the opening credits.

I look at Disney’s “Alice” as a gateway drug to Carroll’s books; giving you a taste and getting you hooked on the Wonderland universe, and when you find out that there are more wonderful characters and strange situations to be found in the books, your curiosity is peaked and you decide to give into temptation and give the books a try.  At this point I would be skeptical to watch any future adaptations that attempt to follow Carroll’s books word for word.  Too much time spent in Wonderland cannot be a good thing.  Unless, I suppose, you are under the influence of some mind-altering substances.  But I would bring something to protect yourself with.

Strong Points: Music, Characters, Animation, Story.

Weak Points: If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s books, don’t come here.

My rating: 4 out of 5 fudderwacks

Don’t forget to pack your Michael Jackson jokes because we’re going to Neverland!  Peter Pan is next!

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Reader Comments (6)

I have to agree with you. This version of Alice is the best one I've ever seen and the one I compare all others to. As a child I loved it and now as an adult I still find it one of the most entertaining Disney animated films ever. There are so many fantastic songs in the film and iconic characters. I have a hard time thinking of a Disney film that has more characters in it that most people would know or remember. Great review, Dan. P.S. EAT ME

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