[2 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Without a doubt, the most significant work of fantasy fiction of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. From the moment of its first publication in 1866, its images and ideas have launched a dozen careers, a hundred imitators, a thousand interpretations, and a million influences. Whether or not the book (and its companion piece, 1871’s Through the Looking Glass) is actually a brazen political satire about class struggle and elitism in England or merely the attempts by a smitten man to gain the “favor” of a young (much younger) lady, no one can deny its brilliance. More than any other work of its kind, Alice has infiltrated our collective cultural consciousness.
So it’s no surprise that there are well over 100 adaptations of Alice on film, from early silent excursions to recent, more detailed re-imaginings. It is also no surprise that Walt Disney’s 1951 telling of the tale, making a re-appearance this month in a drop dead gorgeous Blu-ray presentation, is considered something of the standard. It has the most recognizable version of the characters this side of John Tenniel’s frightening figures from the original published version. But how this movie holds up against the classic volumes themselves has always been a source of debate. This new release may not settle the argument anytime soon.
You see, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is actually a strange combination of Carroll’s two books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Many scenes are lifted from the latter work and inserted throughout the vignette-oriented storyline of Alice, the White Rabbit, and the trip down the rabbit hole. In the House of Mouse version, Alice spends a sunny afternoon by the river. She is supposed to be learning, but all she wants to do is daydream. Alice has a vivid imagination and fantasizes of a world where everything is backward and nothing is what it seems. Suddenly, a white rabbit appear. Intrigued, Alice follows him into a cave. There she falls down deep into a hole Earth. She lands in a strange room that requires her to drink magic potions and eat enchanted cookies to escape. Once free, she is determined to explore this Wonderland and find her way back home.
Along the way, she meets various residents of this unusual place. There are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, identical twins who love to recite poetry. They tell the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Then there is a caterpillar that smokes a hookah pipe and speaks in linguistic riddles. Alice also runs into the Cheshire Cat, a deceptive creature who seems to be simultaneously helping and hindering her. And then there are the participants of a deranged tea party, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and the Door Mouse. Eventually, Alice ends up in the court of the Queen of Hearts, an overbearing bully who loves to hand out decapitation-style justice (her favorite phrase is “off with their head!”). A faux pas during a croquet match puts Alice on trial for her life. How she survives and returns to reality is the final episode in a journey filled with odd occurrences.
For many mainstream filmgoers, Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is considered a marvelous, inventive telling of the dense, elliptical fairy tales of Lewis (Rev. Charles Dodgson) Carroll. For some, sadly, it is their only experience with the books. Others view the Disney version as far too tame and light to accurately represent the darkness abounding in Carroll’s prose. This always seems to be the case with Alice, as there have been other Hollywood and British incarnations, including a 1933 version with W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, that have been only moderately successful.
Truth be told, this Alice has always been hailed as a classic, when it is a little less superior than that. Walt’s Wonderland encompasses the good and the bad of all the interpretations. It has classic hand-drawn animation, awash in sweeping artistic beauty with a sly sinister tone that permeates even the silliest sections. A closer look at the way the animators imagined the Queen of Hearts (a boorish battleaxe), the infamous Tweedles (with that menacing look in their eyes), and the Cheshire Cat (who becomes more and more like Hannibal Lecter with every viewing) indicates that some amount of homage was being paid to Carroll’s crazy/scary universe. But there are also many moments when Walt and the boys go for the cutesy and deliver it in satire-dulling cartoon spades.
Now, there is nothing wrong with streamlining a complicated, opaque opus like Alice. After all, Carroll wanted the work to be a fiction of exploration, where dreams and nightmares meet up with math and nonsense to host one Hell of a brain-teasing party. His jargon gibberish and crystalline imagery are unmatched…and almost unfilmable. Animation is perhaps the sole proper format to realize his twisted visions (live action, pre-CGI, just can’t do it justice). But what Disney does here has always been open to speculation and argument. Some enjoy his mixing of both manuscripts to present a kind of greatest hits of Alice and Carroll. Others are appalled at the liberties taken.
Two scenes in particular reflect the opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, there is the marvelous musical recitation by Tweedledum and Tweedledee of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. This sequence from Through the Looking Glass has marvelous phrase turns and grand visual lyricism. And everything about Disney’s version is right on target. Perhaps the best indicator of how well this sequence works is that, once it’s over, it tends to cloud the rest of the movie, making you wait (and wish) for the next section like it. Sadly, it never comes.
When we do get another major set piece, it is the Mad Tea Party scene, and the problems begin. Often cited as an audience favorite, the problems with the Disney version are as obvious as they are profound. The Tea Party is the cornerstone of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It is a turning point, a time for her to reap the direct rewards of her desire to dwell in a topsy-turvy world. The joyful, if confusing, characters that she has met have now turned into rude bores, crass and uncontrollable. As the festive occasion stumbles into name-calling and hurt feelings, Alice starts to understand the pitfalls of so-called paradise.
Not surprisingly, Walt will have none of this demented denouncement. His gathering is all nonsensical delight and animation invention. The fact that it cheats the book’s legacy is not what’s important. The purpose behind this kooky klatch is to make people happy, to have them laughing and tapping their toes. Just like the singing flowers, the cockney cards painting roses, or the roly-poly Cheshire charmer, it can all end up feeling like pandering. There is no desire to delve deeper into anything here. Walt just wants to churn out another animated classic based on his usual formula, enjoy the accolades momentarily, and move on to the next visionary project.
In reality though, Disney’s version was never intended as a carbon copy of the classic work of Lewis Carroll. As a work all its own, it is a sheer delight. It borrows liberally from the writer’s original imagery while updating its Victorian verse and visuals. It’s a pop art masterpiece of overwhelming primary colors and precision animation (years before the computer would make the magic of multiple exposure a cake walk). The voice acting is inventive, and every character is brought to life. Some of the shots and animated sequences are absolutely stunning - especially showcased as part of this Blu-ray. You’d be hard pressed to find a single flaw in the film, image wise.
In truth, Walt Disney’s beautiful, occasionally befuddling Alice in Wonderland should be considered a basic beginner’s primer. As a work all its own, it is a vibrant, exciting cascade of colors and cheerful cacophony. It finds ways to match Carroll’s crazy considerations with mainstream moviemaking to occasionally hit on pure gold. And there are times when the story stops dead in its tracks for some cinematic stalling tactics. Combine that with the trademarked Disney imagination and attention to detail, a memorable score, and a few moments of sheer brilliance and you’ve got something very special. Frankly, if there has to be a representative version of Alice and Looking Glass for all posterity, you could do a lot worse than this 1951 classic. Disney may have barely let some of Lewis’ lunatic creativity rub off on his movie, but when it does, it makes the most of it. Walt Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland may not be purely timeless, but it is definitely a treat.