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Here’s a controversial statement: Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Star Wars movie.
Here’s another controversial statement: I do not care for Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alice in Wonderland. Never have. I can certainly see how it has some good individual elements, but for me the whole is just a series of bizarre, barely connected episodes featuring an unlikeable protagonist sprinkled with contemporary (at the time) political and cultural references in place of any real plot or characterisation. So basically it’s a nineteenth century Family Guy.
“But-but-but-but Mouse!” I hear you stammer “What about the iconic characters, the ingenious wordplay, the wonderful illustrations by John Tenniel?”
Okay, this is a comedy blog and I realise it can sometimes be a little hard to tell when I’m serious or not so let me make my feelings absolutely crystal clear…
So that must mean I hate the Disney version, right? Well…funny story.
The Alice in Wonderland story and Walt Disney go waaaay back, actually as far back as 1923 when Walt was just starting out as an animator. Alice’s Wonderland was one of the first cartoons Walt ever worked on, back before he had even come to Los Angeles and was still working in Kansas City.
Alice’s Wonderland and it’s sequels put Walt on the map as an animator, and set the stage for later successes like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the subjects of this blog. He also used the Alice books for the short Mickey Through the Looking Glass, probably one of the best Mickey Mouse shorts. So it was perhaps inevitable that Disney would return to the material that had served him so well before. In fact, the first full length Disney movie was almost Alice in Wonderland, not Snow White. Again and again, Disney would return to the idea of an Alice movie, only to have it pushed aside by other productions or postponed by the war in Europe.
It’s okay. I shouldn’t have asked you to. It’s still too soon.
Me too buddy. Me too.
In fact, there were no fewer than three failed attempts to get an Alice movie off the ground in 1933, 1938 and then again in 1945. The 1945 version got further than most in that we have a good idea what it would have looked like. TERRIFYING.
Those are some of the concept designs down for the 1945 version by David Hall and they were clearly going for a darker, Tenniel-inspired aesthetic for the movie. However, the film we eventually got was made in the fifties, The Restoration as I call it, when Disney was moving away from complex character designs to simpler, cleaner models that could be animated more quickly and cheaply without sacrificing fluidity and animation quality. That meant that the ridiculously intricate line drawings of Tenniel (and yes, I will give him his due, he did do beautifully detailed Irish apemen) was no longer a good fit with this new Disney style. Instead, Disney turned to Mary Blair for the concept art for this new Alice in Wonderland. Trust me when I say I will be gushing in a rather disgusting manner on the subject of Mary Blair by the time we get to Sleeping Beauty but here are the basics; fantastic painter, concept artist for many of the Disney classics, not nearly famous enough, made of awesome.
Blair brought a Modernist style to her concept art for Alice in Wonderland, and this decoupling of the story from the Tenniel illustrations that had defined the tale visually since the 1860s was hugely controversial when the movie was first released. But this not only made the story workable within the new, more restricted Disney style, it gave the movie it’s staying power as one of the most visually striking and vivid movies in the canon. It also, and this is just my opinion, gives Carroll’s story something that it is sorely lacking in its original form: charm.
The movie begins of course with the opening credits and come on baby let’s make it four for four…
The story begins with Alice lying in a meadow being given a history lesson by her older sister. And already, one of my main criticisms of Cinderella has already been fixed. Nobody, not people who like the movie, not people who hate it, could accuse Alice in Wonderland of being restrained in its use of colour.
Alice sings In a World of My Own, the first of many, many many songs in this movie. Seriously, during the close to twenty years Disney had been prick teasing this movie over thirty songs were written for it. Most of these made it into the movie, often just as snatches or even single lines of sung dialogue.
Alice herself is voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, who was thirteen at the time this movie was made and, if you can believe it, is still doing voice-work for Disney at the age of 74. And let me make this clear, Beaumont is NOT a very nice young lady who is doing her best. (If you’re new to the blog, that must seem like an insult. It’s not.) I really like Beaumont’s Alice, although I can certainly understand how some might not. She is very British, and very proper but I still have to say I really like Beaumont’s take. Again, that’s probably because I have little to no affection for the character as portrayed in the book. Beaumont brings a kookiness to Alice that suggests that she may be a few teacups short of a tea party herself, and that there may not be so many degrees between her and the more bizarre denizens of Wonderland. One criticism; her singing voice is not exactly in the top-tier of Disney heroines.
Anyway, Alice looks up from playing with Dinah her kitten to see the White Rabbit running past screaming that he’s late. And I have to ask, what exactly was the Rabbit doing in our world? It’s not like he’s lost. He knows exactly how to get back. So, we must assume he meant to come here. Shouldn’t our world seem as bizarre to him as his does to Alice? But no, he looks like he’s perfectly accustomed to it. Like he’s been here before. And we know he’s a government operative, he works for the Queen. Could it be that he was on…a mission?
The rabbit is played by Bill Thompson, who had so many Disney voice roles he could pretty much have his own Sterling Holloway-esque drinking game. He’s got one of those voices that you know you’ve heard before but damned if you can remember where. Here’s a hit:
Alice follows the rabbit down the rabbit hole (though given the size of the thing it’s probably a badger sett and the rabbit just uses it) and she falls down, down, down into Wonderland. It’s around this point that Mary Blair roughly grabs this movie and french kisses it with a tongue of pure artistic hotness.
Blair had done concept art for many Disney movies before this, but this is probably the first time where even a measure of her weird, gorgeous, modernist style actually managed to make it to the screen unscathed. I mean, yes, the characters are still very much in the Disney house style, but the backgrounds are pure Blair and they are beautiful to behold.
Alice chases the rabbit and finds herself in a room with a tiny talking door. The door tells her to drink from a bottle on the table which shrinks her down small enough to get through the door. But the door now tells her that he’s locked and that the key is on the table which she is now too small to reach and this guy is just MADE for a job in the local Planning Office, isn’t he?
Anyway, she then eats some cake that makes her too big so she’s back to where she started and starts crying. She floods the room, drinks from the bottle again and floats through the doors mouth on a sea of her own tears.
Okay, before I go any further let me just say that one of the reasons that I like this movie is probably because I don’t like the source material and for me this film does what a good adaptation should do. It takes the best elements of the source while trying to rectify its flaws. Now, that doesn’t mean that the movie fixes all of the book’s problems (and yeah, I know I am completely in the minority in not liking the book, this is just my opinion.) But for me, one of the book’s biggest flaws is its episodic nature, the sense that it’s just a series of barely related vignettes strung together. And the movie does not rectify this. In fact, it downright exacerbates it. You see, Walt made the decision to give each segment (The Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Tea Party etc.) to different directors. As a result, each segment has a different feel and energy and there is even less connectivity between them than there is in the book, and that is saying something. As a result, reviewing this movie almost feels like I’m back in the middle of the Never Heard of ‘Ems, reviewing some bundle of shorts like Make Mine Music or Melody Time. So I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow summary of Alice in Wonderland because there’s really no point. You don’t need it to follow the story. You could swap these scenes out and rearrange them in almost any order and hardly make the story any more or less comprehensible. I’m just going to highlight certain scenes and if I don’t mention one just take it as read that I didn’t have anything interesting/funny to say about it. Otherwise I’m just going to be completing a checklist and getting bitter and sarcastic and I would like to do this review with a minimum of snark.
Alice floats along and sees various sea creatures and a Dodo floating alongside her and…wait a minute. If she created this ocean with her tears, does that make her Wonderland’s Poseidon? Nah, she doesn’t have either the killer abs or the irrational hatred of ships to be Poseidon.
We get to see the Caucus-Race, where the Dodo exhorts the other creatures to get dry by running round and round a rock, constantly getting soaked by each new wave while he remains on top of the rock with his own fire.
And okay, I get why the birds are trying to get dry but I don’t think the starfish, lobsters and fish have thought this one through. Anyway, the White Rabbit washes up and Alice chases after him.
She follows him into a forest and loses sight of him but comes across Tweedledum and Tweedledee which is odd, because they live in Looking-Glass Land, not Wonderland aaaand why do I care?
As they do in the book, Tweedleum and Tweedledee tell Alice the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, with J. Pat O’Malley (Cyril in Ichabod and Mr Toad) voicing all four characters.
O’Malley does a great job and it’s a fun sequence but it’s pretty obvious that the Walrus and the Carpenter are just Honest John and Gideon with a new lick of paint. Hell, they even give the Walrus the same outfit and walking stick as John, and I’m fairly certain that one scene of the Walrus yanking the Carpenter back and then clobbering him with his stick is just an identical scene from Pinocchio that was animated over.
Anyway, Alice finds the White Rabbit’s house and he mistakes her for his maid, Mary Anne. We never see Mary Anne, so I’m just going to assume that she’s Alice’s evil Wonderland duplicate who is even now back in the real world taking control of Alice’s life for nefarious purposes.
The rabbit sends Alice upstairs to find his gloves and she ends up eating a biscuit which of course causes her to grow and fill up the entire house.
The White Rabbit enlists the help of the Dodo, whose big idea is to set the house on fire and…yeah, that is actually the sensible way to deal with monsters. Alice manages to grab a carrot from the Rabbit’s garden and eats it which causes her to shrink down to Ant-Man size and she chases after the White Rabbit because this chick. Simply. Does. Not. Learn. The Dodo remains behind, still trying to set the Rabbit’s house on fire, although probably not of his own free will.
Alice then meets some talking flowers and this is, hand to God, one of the most beautiful sequences in the film (with the possible exception of the cards marching). It’s also I think the only sequence where Mary Blair’s art style actually carries over into the characters as well as the scenery. Which makes sense because, as talking flowers, they’re both characters AND scenery.
They sing Golden Afternoon, which is a quite nice song until Alice joins in because…ooomph…Beaumont really just does not have the pipes for this. In fact they even acknowledge it with the Violet shaking her head disapprovingly when Beaumont fluffs a note. But overall it’s very good, with the character designs for the various flowers bursting with creativity.
I especially love the drumming thistle…
…who’s just this crazy, purple, lanky creature who just loves drumming wait just a damn minute here!
Anyway, once the flowers decide that Alice is a weed they chase her out of there faster than a residents’ association.
She then meets a Caterpillar smoking a hookah who gives her some mushroom that allows her to change size.
And at long last we meet the Cheshire Cat, voiced by Sterling Holloway.
Holloway is a weird voice actor, in that he can do creepy characters and non-threatening characters without really changing his voice all that much. Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t sound that different from the Cheshire Cat but somehow the Cat is creepy while Pooh isn’t. I don’t really get it. Anyway, the Cat advises Alice to look for help from the Mad Hatter.
Of course we then get the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and it’s probably the funniest sequence in the film. It helps that the two voice actors( Ed Wynn as the Hatter and Jerry Colonna as the Hare), are perfectly cast and at the top of their game here. Wynn in particular ad-libbed most of his dialogue and the whole scene is an absolute hoot. Alice finally has enough of their antics and leaves, declaring it to be the stupidest Tea Party she’s ever seen.
Alice decides that she’s had enough of this bullshit and she’s going home. Which is unfortunate, because if she’d stayed a little longer at the Tea Party she’d be on our way home right now.
After a detour in the Tulgey wood the Cheshire Cat reappears and tells Alice that her best chance of getting home is to speak to the Queen.
Alice arrives in the Queen of Hearts’ Kingdom and, at around the hour mark, we finally meet our villain.
Come to think of it, the Queen probably gets less screen time than any other speaking Disney villain. She definitely makes an impression though, ably voiced by Verna Felton and far more dangerous than her literary counterpart. In the book, although the Queen orders plenty of people to be beheaded, the King always quietly pardons them behind her back. Not here though. We see several characters taken off to be decapitated, with no indication that they survive.
Alice gets roped into playing a game of croquet with the Queen, using flamingos as mallets and hedgehogs as balls.
The game quickly goes from bad to worse for Alice when the Cheshire Cat appears and causes the Queen to pull her own bloomers over her head. He vanishes, leaving Alice to take the rap. The Queen gives the old “OFF WITH HER HEAD!” but the King intercedes and asks that she have a trial. Just a little one.
The action then shifts to the courtroom, another absolutely gorgeous Mary Blair designed backdrop.
Now, a major problem I have with the original book and with most of the stage and screen adaptations I’ve seen is the ending. In the book, Alice grows huge thanks to the mushroom, gets attacked by the Queen’s cards and then wakes up and realises it was all a dream. One of the things I like about the Disney version is that it does at least try to give the story some kind of climax. Like in the book Alice remembers that she has the mushroom and eats it, becoming a giant.
The King tells her that under Rule 42, all persons over a mile high must leave the courtroom, and that under Rule 34 there must be porn of them doing so. Alice tells the Queen that she’s a fat, pompous, bad-tempered, old tyrant and then promptly shrinks back to her normal size.
There follows a beautiful sequence where Alice runs through the palace maze chased by the King, the Queen, the White Rabbit and a whole army of cards. There’s a sequence where they run into various entrances and exits in the maze, crossing over and overlapping and overtaking each other and wait just a damn minute here…
And then suddenly Alice is back running in the caucus race with the Dodo and the Walrus and the Carpenter…wait, no now she’s back at the Tea Party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare…now she’s back in the ocean…now she’s running through a tunnel of smoke…
It’s actually a rather effective way of showing how Wonderland is collapsing around Alice as she finally reaches the door with the talking doorknob and realises that she is asleep and this was all a dream. With the Queen and all the other denizens of Wonderland closing in on her she finally manages to wake up. Alice goes home with her sister, safe in the knowledge that she is back in the real world, which is just the way she left it.
Alice in Wonderland is a big leap forward from Cinderella. Where Cinderella was safe and almost passive, Alice is bold and striking in its use of colour and also a much funnier film. I would also say that it’s the most beautiful Disney film since Bambi. So, of course, it was a pretty big flop when it was released, not making anything like what Cinderella did. Say it with me now…
Ah well. There are really no unsuccessful Disney classics. Sooner or later, they always get rediscovered. Alice’s moment came in the sixties and seventies when hippies realised its potential as a head film. Of course, a family friendly company like Disney would never condone the use of drugs, or advertise their movies to people who would enjoy them that way.
Bigger, bolder, brighter, better. More please.
The Leads: 13/20
You know what? I like Alice a lot. Kathryn Beaumont and the animators really bring a lot of character to her that I think is sorely missing from the book.
The Villain: 14/20
The Queen is fun, if a little too ridiculous to be truly menacing.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
A really strong showing from the supporting characters in this one. Mad Hatter and March Hare stand out for me, though.
For a movie with so many songs it’s depressing how few of them are actually any good. And I’m sorry, but Kathryn Beaumont is not a great singer.
FINAL SCORE: 67%
NEXT WEEK: The Unshaved Mouse has a lot in common with Peter Pan. He refuses to grow up, he frequently forgets important things and he is always played by a woman onstage.
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter. The blog updates every Thursday. Thanks for reading!