LIST CANDIDATE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

Recommended

DIRECTOR: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske

 

FEATURING: Voices of Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson

PLOT: A young girl named Alice follows a talking white hare down his rabbit hole and into a world of talking animals, smoking insects, walking playing cards, and other nonsense creatures.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material.  Disney animator Eric Goldberg explains Alice‘s appeal: “I think the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is popular because it’s completely absurd… The book, in its kind of weirdness, persists because people like weird.”  The question becomes, does Disneyfication destroy the story’s weirdness?

COMMENTS: Though it doesn’t reach the level of the classic-era Disney animated masterpieces Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Pinocchio (1940), Alice in Wonderland is certainly in the next tier—notwithstanding the fact that it didn’t fare well on its initial release.  The animation, obviously, is glowing and superlative, and the anything-can-happen-here surrealism of the story gave the Disney artists the license to let their imaginations run wild without being fettered even by cartoon realism.  As might be expected, the result is worlds away from the staid, quaintly absurd black and white line drawings of Sir John Tenniel (the standard vision of Alice and Wonderland up until that time).  The rabbit hole, with its grandfather clocks and rocking chairs floating at different rates, doesn’t follow the rules of gravity; the flexibility of the playing card royal guards allows the animators to arrange them into pickets or to spontaneously form roller coasters to take Alice for a ride.  Scarcity of spectacle is not an issue in Wonderland.  As an adaptation, this Alice is surprisingly smooth.  Episodes from the book have been shuffled around and mixed with characters and events from “Through the Looking Glass,” an example that future Alices would follow (since no one wants to leave out Tweedledee and Tweedledum).  Even digressions like the “The Walrus and the Carpenter” interlude, which plays like a self-standing Looney Toons cartoon inserted into the middle of the action, don’t break the rhythm.  At only 75 minutes, the film zips along at an impatient child’s pace, yet manages to catch all of Wonderland’s major attractions: shrinking and expanding cakes, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat with his variable opacity and detachable noggin, the Mad Hatter’s eternally insane tea party, a game of flamingo croquet with the queen, and a trial that plays like a Kafka nightmare viewed through a head full of laughing gas.  There’s even enough time for new Disney additions to Wonderland: a menagerie of surreal nonsense creatures (the visual equivalents of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay) including rocking horseflies, bread butterflies, umbrella vultures, accordion owls, and a bird whose body is a birdcage housing other birds.  The main issue is tone: the original story was capable of amusing children and adults on different levels, but Disney aims squarely for the lower age brackets.  Overcuteness was an inevitability.  Alice’s eyes match her dress, the Mad Hatter has a lolling tongue and a vaudevillian’s comic voice, and there are too many zany sound effects—Tweedlee and -dum’s midsections honk like bicycle horns, and the Walrus’ cane makes a pronounced “boing-g-g” when he brings it down on the Carpenter’s head.  These Bugs Bunnyisms don’t fit comfortably into Wonderland, and are even a bit degrading to Carroll’s creations; youngsters, of course, won’t realize it.  The syrupy sweet score, sung by white-bred choruses with perfect enunciation, has not held up well over the decades.  As a glimpse at the sensibilities and methods of 1950s popular music, it gives insight into why rock and roll to conquered the airwaves so easily a few years down the road.  The overabundance of musical numbers, more than any previous Disney effort, may have been inspired by the success of The Wizard of Oz, but here the compositions slow down and interrupt the action rather than illustrating it.  Overall, this Disney effort manages to capture Carroll’s world reasonably well, while at the same time making it even more madcap and cutesy; it’s as if the story here is being told by a child, rather than by a sly adult seeking to entertain a child.  Still, Disney could have damaged the tale far worse (and did, in 2010), so we should be grateful that Uncle Walt let so much of Lewis Carroll’s genius and invention shine through.

Disney’s 2-disc “Un-Anniversary” edition of Alice houses a vast library of supplemental material, many of which is aimed at either very young children or at their great-grandparents who are nostalgic for the 50s. Among the former are the “Virtual Wonderland Party,” a series of “delightful activities” hosted by the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter, and the “Adventures in Wonderland Set Top Game,” a series of very easy challenges that may amuse a pre-school kid for ten minutes. Counting among the latter is the hour long 1950 Christmas special/Coke advertisement “One Hour in Wonderland,” with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, a crazy genie, and clips from Disney features (including two scenes from the “controversial” Song of the South), as well as a 30 minute excerpt from “The Fred Waring Show,” with musical theater renderings of the treacly soundtrack. Conventional featurettes include trailers and two openings for TV showings from “The Wonderful World of Disney”; “Operation Wonderland,” a contemporary Disney “behind the scenes” promotion; a 13-minute “Reflections on Alice” mini-documentary; concept art for the “Pig and Pepper” scene where a baby turns into a pig that was rejected (probably as too weird and scary); a new recording of the rejected song “I’m Odd,” which was to be sung by the Cheshire Cat; the Wonderland-themed Mickey Mouse short “Thru the Mirror.” The gem of the collection is the 1923 silent 8-minute Disney short “Alice’s Wonderland,” a technical marvel of its day that mixes a live actor with animation: watch Virginia Davis flee from cartoon lions and jump off a cliff to save herself from being shredded by their fangs, all thanks to the miracle “Laugh-O-Gram” process!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the weirdest of Disney’s animated features… Disney’s Alice In Wonderland wedges Carroll’s puns and asides between songs and free-floating surrealism, effectively throwing the jokes away.”—Noel Murray, Onion A.V. Club (DVD)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.