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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Curiouser and Curiouser”

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Ever drifting down the stream,
Lingering in the golden gleam,
Life? What is it, but a dream.
-Lewis Carroll

            First of all, I feel a need to dedicate this blog to someone very special to me:  my sister, Ginger.  She loves Disney as much as I do, she was the one who inspired this blog, and she also happens to be the biggest Alice in Wonderland fan.  She loves the books, she loves the movies, and walking into her bedroom is a lot like walking into the mad tea party itself.  So Ginger, a very merry unbirthday to you.
            Now Alice in Wonderland is a film that has been getting a great amount of attention lately.  This is due in no small part to the hugely successful recent live action reinterpretation spearheaded by one Tim Burton, which was a great movie in its own right.  The animated Alice is actually based off of two incredibly famous books by one Lewis Caroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  So famous it is that it is actually ranked as the third most quoted literary source in the world (first being the Bible, and second being Shakespeare).
            Alice in Wonderland is unique because it is a story that has been reinterpreted numerous times in cinema, outside of Disney (one of my favorite versions of the story was the SyFy miniseries, Alice, which came out around the same time as Tim Burton’s version).  Alice is one of a generous handful of Disney animated features that have seen multiple film adaptations not associated with Disney.  But if you were to ask average Joe on the street if they had seen Alice in Wonderland, chances are that average Joe would hearken back to the Disney animated version.  This is a testament to Disney as storytellers in that their versions of incredibly famous stories are considered to be the master versions that all others must be compared to.
            But Alice is unique even among the Disney films, mostly because Mr. Disney hated it.  Which is strange considering that one of his first forays into moviemaking were the Alice comedies, featuring a live action little girl in an animated world.  He had tried to make an adaptation of Alice in a film that combined live action and animation for years, and even did some test footage of Mary Pickford, but none of this ever came to fruition.  There’s even a shout out to Alice in Wonderland at the very start of Pinocchio and that was back in 1940.  This story had been on his mind for a long, long time and yet when he finally got the opportunity to bring it to life in animation, he didn’t like the final product because he felt it didn’t connect with audiences on an emotional level.
Take a look at the book title to the upper left.
            Just because it didn’t connect with audiences on a commercially successful level, doesn’t mean that it didn’t find an audience.  In the 1960’s, this film became especially popular because apparently it worked very well when viewed in tandem with marijuana.  Though I can completely understand why, Alice was not completely written off as a “head picture.”  The film was extremely popular with film students as well, so much so that rental requests for the film inspired the studio to reissue it nationally to theatres (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043274/trivia). 
            Not to be contrary to Mr. Disney, but I think there’s more to Alice than he gives it credit for.  After all, this is the film that introduced the world to Kathryn Beaumont.  She had a wonderful voice that was so ideally British and girlish at the same time; I really don’t think they could have done better in terms of casting Alice.  Her facial expressions are some of the best parts of the film.  When she smiles tightly at her flamingo croquet mallet and motions for him to come closer, I laughed.  Alice is an interesting character; she’s a young girl who dreams of a world without order and logic, but when she gets it, she grows tired of the “nonsense.” 
            The Disney animated version of Alice is a coming of age tale of sorts.  Alice starts off with numerous flights of childish fancy but realizes the error of her ways when she’s faced with exactly the world she asked for.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s partly why Mr. Disney did not like this film.  If there’s one thing we knew without a doubt that Walt Disney believed in, it was that we should always pursue our dreams.  Here in this version of Alice, a girl gives up her dreams in favor of reality.  Granted, her dreams were pretty twisted, but the message is there all the same.  That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy film.  I do and here’s why.
            The animation is almost completely done in a classically cartoony style, except for Alice herself.  The animation is actually the strongest part of the film.  The film goes from one crazy part to another crazier part that unless you’re paying very close attention, it can be hard to keep up with what’s going on.  Yet the animators manage to keep up with the brusque pace of the film in a whimsically smooth manner.  I literally looked down from watching Alice being unwillingly run around in a circle on a beach with a dodo to her suddenly being bombarded with tales by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in the forest.
            For sheer beautiful animation, the Flowers singing “All in the Golden Afternoon” can’t be beat.   Their movements and gestures tell the audience everything we need to know about their personalities.  Though I can’t say I’m a fan of how they treated Alice, who is most definitely not a weed.  If you watch the Caterpillar’s movements, it’s amazing to see how technically complex they are. I imagine this was not a simple task for the animators to conceive.
            We talk a lot about Ward Kimball on here, probably because of how easy it is to identify his characters.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that probably his finest work was done here on Alice.  I can’t think of a story that he was born to do more than this one.  The Cheshire Cat is one of the best characters in the film, due in no small part to the way Kimball animated him.  But of course to make a complete character in animation the animator is only one half of the equation; the voice is the other half, and Sterling Holloway delivered in droves.  He has such a gentle voice, but here he manages to sound downright psychotic and it’s amazing.
            The White Rabbit is so adorably flustered; the poor guy just can’t catch a break throughout the whole film.  Bill Thompson, who would later go on to voice Mr. Smee in Peter Pan, provided his voice.  But almost unrecognizable is Verna Felton as the Queen of Hearts.  To think that it was only a year earlier that she was voicing the soothing and sweet Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.  It’s no wonder that Disney loved casting her in stuff; the woman could do anything.
            The Queen of Hearts is another one of those characters that has seen many incarnations.  She’s been Kathy Bates, she’s been Helena Bonham Carter, and she’s been the sweet mothering type in the Care Bears version of Alice.  Here she’s practically a Monty Python woman: a man in lady’s clothing.  And she’s probably the craziest serial killer in all of Wonderland.  Though I find it kind of hard to dislike her too much; the way she expects Alice to act properly in between her bouts of “off with his head” is really funny to me. 
Speaking of humor, I love the scene where Alice has filled up the White Rabbit’s house with her giant-ness.  Like Alice said, “Poor Bill.”  But of course, the most famous scene from Alice is the mad tea party with the Mad Hatter, March Hair, and Dormouse.  And why not?  The animation is great (I love the “half a cup” gag), but it’s the voice work here that makes the scene pop.  If you hadn’t guessed, the Mad Hatter was voiced by Ed Wynn, who later on played Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins

            The funniest line in the whole scene, “Mustard!  Don’t let’s be silly” was actually improvised by Mr. Wynn.  He and Jerry Colonna had perfect madcap chemistry as the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.  When the dormouse freaks out when he hears the word “cat,” is a great example of a bunch of characters interacting with each other at the same time.  There’s the dormouse freaking out, the Mad Hatter and March Hare trying to calm him down with their voices overlapping as they call for Alice to spread some jam on his nose.  They really did do a masterful job on the character most closely associated with Alice, besides the lady herself.
            It’s impossible to think of Alice without the Mad Hatter.  In all iterations of Alice, the Mad Hatter has made an appearance.  Whether it’s as a romantic interest like in SyFy’s Alice, an ally/romantic interest in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, or a twisted villain in American’s McGee’s Alice, you can’t have an Alice without a Mad Hatter.  This makes him the next most important and most memorable character of the Alice mythos.
            Of course, this scene lives on outside of the film in one of the most iconic attractions at the Disney theme parks all over the world.  The Mad Tea Party is simple in its idea and design: people go in giant teacups; giant teacups go round and round.  There is a version of this attraction at literally every Disney theme park all over the world.  Though they do go by different names, they are all located in Fantasyland.  This ride, possibly more than any other, has caused motion sickness like no other attraction at a Disney Park (except for Mission: Space).  My mother refuses to ride on it anymore because she claims that it was the reason she had vertigo for three years.
            If I had one critique of the film, it’s that its end is not that satisfying.  Alice wakes up from her dream and then goes off to have tea with her sister and Dinah.  Roll credits.  I can see why this wasn’t Walt’s favorite, but it wasn’t a bad film by any means at all.  But for a film that bombed at the box office, it has had a lasting legacy.  In the early 90's, Disney made a live action TV show for the Disney Channel featuring new versions of the Alice characters called Adventures in Wonderland.  If you stop by TrenD at Downtown Disney in Orlando, probably a third of the swank clothes on sale feature Alice characters in some way.  I’m sure if you’ve been to your local Hot Topic in the past three or four years, you’ve seen that Alice in Wonderland clothes are abundant and popular.  This winter, Alice in Wonderland is receiving a 60th anniversary release on blu-ray.  Over at Disneyland, Alice in Wonderland is a unique dark ride that actually has guests going outside in their Caterpillar ride vehicle, something that no other Disney dark ride does.

            I’m sure if Mr. Disney saw the reception Alice has been getting as of late, he might go back and think about this film in a different light.  Alice in Wonderland is more popular than ever.  Probably not with families and children, but at least with Goth/punk adolescents, and especially my sister.  Now if you all will excuse me, I’m late.  I’m late for a very important date. 


  1. Alice is a fundamentally flawed film, but it's also highly creative at times. It's definitely worth seeing for some of its bizarre imagery and humor of performance, but I think ultimately Walt was right because it's not really cohesive. The books themselves are episodic so its hard to give them a plot (which may be why so many adaptations use Looking Glass more to drive it's plot, because it has a more obvious structure).

    Thank you for mentioning the Care Bears in Wonderland. Why is that not on DVD?? I'm so mad that I've taped over or lost my VHS of that.

    Kathryn Beaumont is wonderful in this film, and yes, the animation of Alice especially facially is great. I enjoy the Caterpillar sequence a lot. You also are spot on that the best line is "Mustard! Don't let's be silly!"

    For me the narrative issues are the question of what drives Alice? Is it mere curiosity? Is she just escaping? IS it about growing up? At times it seems to be all of the above, and sometimes none. She wants to create her own world. Then she follows a rabbit. Most of the first half uses the Rabbit as a device to get from point A to B. Fine. Then somewhere in the middle of the film she decides she doesn't care about the rabbit anymore and wants to go home. But she can't. Then we get the "very good advice" scene. This is another thread running through the film. It seems to be that the message is to stick to sensible thinking. But that's weak. So finally, when she's come to this realization and doesn't want to follow the rabbit, the movie skews off into the whole Queen of Hearts sequence, which has no thematic relevance AT ALL. It's just to show what the rabbit was late for, and to end the film with the trial the way the book does. Frankly the Irwin Allen television adaptation does a better job using the "growing up" angle. And then as you say, it all just devolves into her waking up from a dream. That whole climactic sequence, though fun, has nothing to do with pretty much anything that preceded it. It's just a weird curtain call. The movie is disjointed. But I still love some of the Tulgey Wood stuff, the kooky songs, and the dense background designs.

    The most profound moment for me is the Tweedle Dee and Dum bit where they tell her about the Walrus and the Carpenter. The tell her of the oysters as a warning not to be led by curiosity (in her case, the White Rabbit). And there's that very telling bit when they've finished when they say it had a moral. She replies, "Oh yes, a very good moral... if you happen to be an oyster," revealing she has completely missed the point.

    Also must say that "Painting the Roses Red" is one of my favorite songs ever, and I sing it at work a lot. That and "Heffalumps and Woozels" are some of the best bouncy ridiculous drive-your-friends-crazy songs ever.

    Finally, we must give another shout out to the brilliant Mary Blair whose bizarre design work was a major influence in this film. All of the wonky backgrounds and color schemes stem from her. There's actually now a very nice picture book of the story that Disney put out a few years ago, illustrated entirely with original Mary Blair story art. It's beautiful.

  2. Alice in Wonderland has never been one of my favorites. Not that I don't enjoy it, but too many of the characters made me angry. Such as Dodo.

    However, Kathryn Beaumont is amazing! Her voice is beautiful. I agree with you both as well, Alice's expressions are great!!

    My favorite character by far is the Cheshire cat. I'm still in a debate whether I think he's a villain or not. He seems to help Alice and give her advice, but at the same time he gets her in tons of trouble.

    One thing I will always agree about with Alice is the line "Poor Bill." Poor poor Bill indeed.

  3. I can't help loving Alice in Wonderland...I even dressed up as Alice last Halloween. Its sense of absurdist comedy ("Mustard!?!") is always fun and when you think about it, there is a sort of trajectory there: Alice comes to realize that she needs to be "careful what she wishes for"--a world that's "nothing but nonsense" could bring a lot more problems than previously anticipated. I love the whole unbirthday scene (my students with summer birhtdays get an opportunity to celebrate their 'unbirthdays' in class with their friends), right down to the Dormouse wafting right down into the teapot, then the conversation continuing as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.