The Persistence of Disney, Part 13: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

| October 2, 2016

One constant in the story of Walt Disney seems to have been an ever-persistent passion for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”  That is reasonable because, for a visual storyteller, it might have seemed irresistible.  It is said that Disney read the book as a child and was so captivated by its bizarre and clever world that it stayed with him ever-after.  When he broke into motion pictures as a young man he made it his mission to bring the story to the screen.  His attempt to visualize Carroll’s world stretches all the way back to the 1920s when, through his short-lived Laugh-O-Gram Studios, Disney created a series called The Alice Comedies featuring a live-action actress having misadventures in a cartoon world.  Later he would loosely adapt Lewis Carroll’s story into a 1936 short called Thru the Mirror with Mickey Mouse in the Alice role.  A feature seemed inevitable.

In the late 1930s, after the enormous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt was eager to get down to the serious business of adapting Alice in Wonderland but his plans were put on hold by creative difficulties, budgetary problems and a halt on major projects due to the intrusion of a rather bitter sequel to World War I.  Once the war had ended and he could go back to making feature-length animated movies, Walt made the film a priority.  This was a daunting task.  Carroll’s book doesn’t exactly lend itself to a three-act structure and is therefore not an easy transference to a visual medium.  The book is not intended to be visual; it’s more a play on nonsense words, rhymes, riddles and songs.  Putting the book to the screen would take a lot of time and a lot of talent.

What Disney was able to put together is probably as good a version of Carroll’s book as has ever been rendered for the screen.  In fact, despite a great deal of criticism both casual and professional, I think it’s rather brilliant.  It is a vibrant, lively, colorful journey that doesn’t subsist on a trajectory but is more a collection of strange events and dysfunctional characters.  You remember the journey but you don’t really remember the ending because it doesn’t really matter.  It’s not the point.

A lot of the criticism comes from the fact that the movie is so episodic, that the events of Alice’s journey happen and are then unceremoniously abandoned.  Those looking for a firm narrative structure find themselves frustrated.  Some Disney purist decry the film for not having a heart.  I cannot agree.  The world inside this movie, while maddening, doesn’t need a heart.  I think the point of the journey is that Alice has found herself in a world in which time and space seem to have no meaning.  Here the landscape is dotted with silly and bizarre creatures made up of words and songs, of strange and bizarre creatures that appear and disappear at will.  It is almost as if Alice has landed in a world of literary run-off, as if she’s found herself in a dumping ground of rejected ideas ejected from much more structured material.  Therefore that’s no shape or structure; it’s just a maddening series of events.

The world that surrounds these kooky characters is the work of a conceptual artist named Mary Blair who worked with Walt Disney not only on Alice but also on Peter Pan, Cinderella and Song of the South.  Her style of bold colors may have come from her exposure to the landscapes in South America when she traveled with Walt on the good will tours of the early ‘40s wherein Disney made Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.  For Alice she came up with an interesting style of allowing the colors to pop by keeping the backgrounds very black.  The choice is interesting because it plays to the feeling of abandonment of the characters.  If Wonderland is a literary dumping ground then we might imagine that sunlight and colorful backgrounds would not be part of the tapestry.

Each of the characters has a quirk but not really a personality and that’s kind of the point.  Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum arrive in the film to sing songs and to tell Alice the story of “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”  The Mad Hatter and The March Hare are only present to have a tea party, a maddening pitch of nonsense in which a lot of tea is poured but none is ever consumed.  The Cheshire Cat only serves as a smart-allecky rendering of double-talk and physical manifestation and decombobulation that has no rhyme or reason.  The caterpillar is a hooka enthusiast with a penchant for obvious questions.  The Queen of Hearts has a decapitation fetish.  And, of course, The White Rabbit is very late indeed.  What he’s late for – and the reason he’s so panicked about getting to his destination – is probably the only thing in the film that makes any grounded sense.

What is interesting about these characters is that we never really understand their motives.  Are they leading Alice astray?  Are they dangerous?  Some seem cool while others seem loaded with hostility, though we can never figure out which is a threat and which is just passively insane.

The central element that, I think, makes the movie work is Alice herself.  She’s been criticized as being rather flat and dull and surprisingly unaffected by the bizarre events and characters that she comes across, yet I don’t find that to be the case at all.  Alice is an anchor to the story yet she’s not a lead weight.  She is a sensible yet imaginative girl whose presence in Wonderland is seen through her eyes.  She is not horrified by what she sees, in fact much of the time she’s kind of fascinated.  There is a rounded character here but she isn’t drawn with broad strokes.  You do have to look for the edges.  She nice and polite, but she can become frustrated.  There are moments when she is appalled by massive breaches in etiquette and characters that would rather frustrate her journey then helpfully assist.  Of this we understand the moments when she becomes angry and tries to fight back.  In a strange way, she and her adventure are very much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, both are flung to a far-off world of color and nonsense and whimsical characters, though I think dear Dorothy at least had the aid of friends to guide her.

This is odd to say but I think I felt more for Alice then I have for any of the previous Disney heroines that I’ve examined so far.  Though there are things to like about Snow White and Cinderella, there is nothing about them that I can really relate to.  There is a moment in the movie when Alice gives me a moment that I kind of understand.  Late in the film when she has become exhausted and frustrated by the world that she has come to inhabit, she walks through Wonderland’s impenetrable forest looking for some clarity.  Suddenly a strange bird made of eyeglasses lands on her face.  At a moment of weary emotional fatigue, she removes the bird from her face and places it on a nearby branch quietly pleading, “No, no please.”  I can relate to that.  I’ve had days when the world seems determined to be especially unyielding and you just want a moment of normalcy to get your head together.

In that way, I can relate to Alice.  She’s trying to be herself and trying to be ingratiating to the world that she now inhabits even though she is forced to be a tenant in a disturbing universe that resists any measure of assistance or friendliness.  Every character here is after their own ends and seems to have an agenda that makes little to no sense.  We’ve all felt like that.  We’ve all had those days when the world seems to make no sense and those around us seem patently determined to be the thorn in our foot.  Even though Alice resides in a world of nonsense, I see myself in her shoes more that I could understand the domestic abuse of Cinderella or the killer’s kiss that looms over Snow White.

As I have said, the film was criticized for being far too episodic and noisy for its own good.  Disney historian Leonard Maltin, in his book “The Disney Films, says “Alice in Wonderland is a very flashy and generally entertaining film but it lacks that essential thread that made Disney’s best features hang together, and moreover it lacks, warmth.”  Even Ward Kimball who animated Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum was dismissive of the final product: “It degenerated into a loud-mouthed Vaudeville show.  It lacks warmth and an overall story glue.’  He blamed too many directors and too many hands getting in the way of a solid story.  On both counts, I disagree.  This is not a story about warmth; it’s a story about a girl trying to make sense of a world made up of screwy nonsense.  If it had more emotional weight, then the coldness of the world would be less effective and there would be less motivation for Alice to press on.

As I watched the film again the other night I was captivated.  All the problems that the detractors had push on the film didn’t really bother me.  I found the film to be a journey, much like Dorothy’s Adventure in Oz.  She meets a lot of strange characters and tries to make sense of a world of nonsense and even runs afoul of a tyrant that wants to do her some harm.  The movie doesn’t need sentiment nor a straight-forward narrative.  Personally, I think the movie may have been ahead of its time.  While it was not a massive hit upon first release in 1951, it was reassessed during the cultural art movements of the 1960s where the film was seen as a psychedelic trip.  I stand with those who came to appreciate it.  I see what is special about it, I know what makes the film work.  It’s a journey, a good one, and I’ll gladly take it again.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.