Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Anne: Aaaaaaand we’re back! James was actually HERE, if you can believe that, and we watched Alice in Wonderland together and had a very merry un-birthday party. Anyway, he’s gone back to England, and even though it’s technically his turn to start a post, I volunteered to get the ball rolling because he’s still jetlagged.
Which feels a bit like this, if I remember correctly.
And with that incredibly clunky segue, the movie!
The last time I had seen Alice in Wonderland was my freshman year of college. As part of the Bachelor of Arts degree which I later dropped in favor of focusing full-time on my Bachelor of Music degree, I was required to take two Freshman Seminars, writing-intensive classes meant to introduce new students to the rigors of college-level thinking and analysis. In the fall of my freshman year, I took Imagining Identity in Francophone Fiction and Film (*snore*), and in the spring, I took The Progress of Nonsense–which brings me to Alice. We read both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and then I went to the library multimedia center and cued up the Disney movie.
I commented to James while we were watching the Disney version that I had the exact same reaction to the film as I had had to the source material, and it was lukewarm. The movie is 75 minutes long, but it felt much, much longer. It’s a pretty successful adaptation of the Lewis Carroll original, which unfortunately means it falls short of being a great movie because of that thing that James brings up in nearly every one of our reviews and which I usually try to refute: lack of continuous plot or throughline. I find it hard to actually criticize the film for that problem since it is based on nonsense literature in which events tumble along with no real pattern and there’s no way to guess how any given character is going to react.
All that said, there is a lot to enjoy in Alice in Wonderland. I’m a fan of Alice herself, actually; she’s voiced by ten-year-old Kathryn Beaumont, and I appreciate that they let her sound childish, especially in the singing. There’s a moment in “Golden Afternoon” when her voice cracks on a high note and instead of dubbing it or seeking to fix it, they kept it in and animated the moment, so that the on-screen Alice looks embarrassed at the sound she just made. And some kind person made a gif of it for me, thank you, whoever you are!
I like her spunk, her imagination, and her willingness to play along–but also the fact that she’s a kid and not impervious to hurt and confusion. She’s an easily relatable protagonist–although now that I’ve called her the protagonist, I’m wondering if she actually has a journey. Does Alice CHANGE by the time she wakes up and returns to her usual life? I think she’s probably glad to get out of wonderland, but I doubt she’ll really stop dreaming and infuriating her poor governess. Thoughts?
You can tell the animators just had a field day with this movie. The characters are so varied and richly colored, and each section has a different visual mood (I just made that up right now, so take it with a grain of salt!). I love all of the different creatures they invented–the bread-and-butterfly, the rocking-horsefly, the walking eyeglasses, the mirror bird, the horn duck things that make a honking sound, all of the gorgeous flowers…the list is really endless. It’s fascinating to watch this movie after having seen all of the package films, during which we were constantly noticing how the animators breathed life into inanimate objects in a believable way–and here they really go all out and turn inanimate objects into animals and plants.
James: The company really went to town on this film, didn’t they? They’ve been fans of the surreal stuff in the past, crowbarring something dream-like into almost every feature to date, and here they got the chance to just really be weird and imaginative right the way through. I don’t know how much of it is in the book, but creatures like the bird pictured here are just the kind of thing Disney has been sneaking into their pictures; things that make sense if you look at them in just the right way (in this case, through a pair of legged spectacles).
Unfortunately, as with many Disney protagonists up to this point (particularly the female ones), Alice undergoes no real character arc. She learns some things (that she might have just dreamed anyway), but the creators don’t seem interested in exploring how those things might change her. And, while I’ll agree that she seems to have a fairly distinct personality (one of the strongest for a protagonist to this point), there was one inconsistency that kept nagging at me all the way through: At times, Alice seems perplexed by the strange leaps of logic the characters make, whereas at other times she makes insane (yet correct in the context of the story) leaps of logic independently and takes them in her stride. The former makes more sense than the latter from a character standpoint, in my opinion, as it makes Alice the voice of sanity, and therefore the voice of the audience, amidst the madness.
Like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Geek anecdote here: In the HHGG radio series, there is a sequence wherein Arthur confuses a man into doing something his way using warped logic. For the book and TV versions, it was changed to Ford using the confusing logic. This is because it makes more sense for Ford, the alien, to use warped logic than for Arthur, the human. When Arthur tries to use confusing logic, he is always surprised that it works. If Alice were the sane one, she would be surprised when her nonsensical analyses yield positive results.
Now, arguably Alice could be as mad as the Hatter; this could be a strong interpretation, if the idea was that children are imaginative enough to understand anything, no matter how seemingly ridiculous. The problem is, she’s not consistently one or the other; she’s sometimes a child, and sometimes grown up, with no reason given for the changing perspectives. Perhaps that’s in Lewis Carroll’s original, or perhaps it’s a mixture brought in by Disney. Either way, I found it distancing.
Anne: But the thing is, it does all turn out to be a dream–both in the original novel and in the Disney film. With that in mind I’m not sure that it hurts the story if Alice behaves one way in one scene and another way in the next, though I can see how it might be confusing until you realize that it’s all a dream. Or you can just embrace it and enjoy the silliness.
On to the music, which I love. There seems to be more music in Alice than in its predecessors, which may just be because with the exception of the song over the credits, all of the songs are diegetic, sung by characters on-screen. Maybe that’s because they’re all mad in Wonderland, or because there are a lot of “songs” in the book, but the characters really do seem to be always singing. The only song that I think was just an excuse for the animators to do something really cool is “Golden Afternoon”–but is it ever cool!
It also takes its title and one line of the refrain (“All in the golden afternoon”) from the poem that Lewis Carroll wrote as a preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That’s where the similarities end, but I like that they kept it connected.
Anyway, as the Mad Hatter (voiced by the splendid Ed Wynn) says, “Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.” First, there’s “In a World of My Own,” which I think is a wonderful expression of character for Alice, and it’s not only well-sung but well-acted by Miss Beaumont. A little clunky to end with “I keep wishing it could be that way / because my world would be a wonderland”? Oh well, maybe. But as soon as she says the word “wonderland,” the White Rabbit appears, singing “I’m Late,” of which only a few lines actually happen before he scurries down the rabbit hole. I think this is one of the most distinctive voice performances in the Disney canon–fussy, petulant, sycophantic, but somehow sympathetic, especially when he’s having his watch torn apart by the Mad Hatter and Hare.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (Also, that image is from an Italian website; the Italian title is Alice nel paese delle meraviglie, which has a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?)
And then we have the Caucus Race song, which isn’t really important, though the Dodo Bird is a character who sings every time we encounter him–first during the Caucus Race and then when discussing how to get rid of the “monster” in the White Rabbit’s house.
I realized as I was listing out all of the songs in Alice in Wonderland that I’ve never really connected the two Dodo Bird moments with the more distinct songs in the movie, because they really are just the character improvising, no set-up, no introduction, very organic. I think that’s something we haven’t really seen yet. Ditto the Caterpillar’s A E I O UUUUUUU.
Anyway, the next real musical “number” we get is “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” which actually comes from Through the Looking-Glass originally and is sung by Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum (both voiced by our favorite Lancastrian horse, J. Pat O’Malley!). I’ve always liked this sequence, mostly because awwwww, little oysters!
According to Wikipedia, when the Mother Oyster indicates the calendar and tells her babies to stay underwater, it’s because oysters are only eaten during months with R in their names, and it’s March. The more you know!
I think this segment is wonderfully whimsical, and by setting it to music the composers and filmmakers have ensured that I will always be able to recite most of this poem verbatim. Calloo, callay, no work today! We’re cabbages and kings! I’m also really impressed by O’Malley’s voice work here–I actually didn’t realize that he played all of the characters in the story, not just Dee and Dum. The Walrus especially is such a departure from the voice I’ve come to recognize.
At this point I checked IMDB to see an official song list, and I forgot about the little song that Dee and Dum sing when they first meet Alice and also “You Are Old, Father William,” which thankfully is not included in its entirety. Apparently mad people like to sing! Every time the Cheshire Cat sings a little setting of the first stanza of Jabberwocky: ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe, / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the momeraths outgrabe! But it didn’t occur to me that somebody had written that song–I just figured that the multi-talented Sterling Holloway had made it up. His voice is ideal for the off-his-nut Cheshire Cat, and I think it was a nice touch to give him Jabberwocky as entrance music (since it’s one of the most iconic poems in the original novels).
I’m going to go out of order for a moment (sorry, Mad Hatter!), because I want to touch on “I Give Myself Very Good Advice” before I turn it over to James. I’m not sure I ever quite realized that this was officially a song before. Kathryn Beaumont’s performance of it is so seamless, seguing straight from a spoken line and staying sort of half-sung, half-wept the whole time, that it doesn’t read as a separate piece of music. I think it’s one of the first times in a Disney movie that a song is used to tell a little story about the emotions and the personality of the character who is singing; Alice gets lost in the Tovey Wood, and in the dark surrounded by all of these bizarre Wonderland creatures, she starts to sing about how all of this is her fault, and the awareness of how her curiosity and impatience have put her in this pickle overwhelms her and makes her cry. She doesn’t even finish the song: the chorus chime in when she can’t control her sobbing anymore. I think it’s a very effective dramatic moment, and as she’s singing and getting more and more distraught, even the creatures who have been watching and crying with her begin to slowly disappear.
James: Err, I don’t want to contradict you, Anne, but I’m pretty sure Alice nel paese delle meraviglie is a pasta dish. The ‘Alice’ is the herb they use.
And yes, that is a powerful moment for a girl going through a lot. Although she doesn’t exactly develop through the film, she does at least go through a variety of emotions. My favourite part of the film, though, coincides with what is probably Alice’s: The Unbirthday Song. For the first time, everyone is having fun in the story, and the mood is infectious. The song is fun and silly, and the characters and their ways are the only ones in the film that one might actually enjoy spending some time with. Not a lot of time, but I could certainly join them for the odd tea party on my next unbirthday. They’re just so happy, and so friendly, a nice comparison to the rest of the film which often seems more nightmareish than dreamlike.
There’s one other song brimming with happiness and friendliness, but it’s in the execution rather than the lyrics:
You’ll now be singing that for the next five minutes. Sorry. But it’s just so much fun, and all too brief. These are fun, nicely harmonising characters doing something utterly ridiculous. Elsewhere the characters are just as ridiculous, but they’re less fun. Take, for instance, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. While their designs and performances are enigmatic and interesting, and their story not without its charms, I couldn’t really enjoy that section in the same way because, amid all the deliberate nonsense, I couldn’t find myself to actually like any of the characters. They’re all kind of mean and selfish, which made it that bit harder for me to engage with (and while the story is fun on its own, it stops what little action there was dead, and our lead is essentially put on pause for five minutes). This is of course even more true when the Queen of Hearts shows up. The Queen is a mean character, and yet no more fearsome than most of the creatures so far featured in the film, and so I found myself neither engaged nor awed by her. She does have a few funny moments, though, in particular when compared with her morsel of a husband.
Anne: Tee hee, her morsel of a husband. I like it. Hooray!
You’re right that none of the characters are likeable–except Alice (and mayyyyybe the Cheshire Cat, but while appealing he’s not very helpful, is he?). I think in previous films there was a better balance. In Cinderella, we had the title character, the mice, Bruno, the Fairy Godmother, the Prince and the King, who were all likeable enough to form a sort of united front against Lady Tremaine, the stepsisters and Lucifer. In Alice, there’s no clear villain. Except that the Queen of Hearts has the power to officially decapitate people and playing cards, is she really any more menacing than those flowers when they think Alice is a weed? Or the Dodo Bird and White Rabbit on their way to smoke the monster out? Or the caterpillar, or the bird who thinks Alice is a serpent? Obviously we root for Alice, but against what, or whom, exactly? There’s no EVIL as such in this movie, but most of the forces of Wonderland do seem to be on the opposite side from Alice.
There’s no logic, no reason, no way to overcome the challenges because they don’t function in a real world way. (I was thinking of it as a video game, but except for the Red Queen, there’s no one to “beat.) I find it hard to fault Disney for that, because they’re constrained to a certain extent by what’s in the books. Maybe they could have included the White Knight from Through the Looking-Glass (as long as they were drawing material from both books), whom I remember as being a bit hang-dog and more sympathetic than the other characters. But they made a conscious decision not to include him, or to give Alice any kind of companion–maybe their intention was to distance the audience from the Wonderland characters so that they would only relate to Alice. Alice is, to borrow a term that you’ve used before, the audience surrogate; she’s our in, so to speak. I think it wouldn’t have worked if any of the characters had gotten as much screen time as Alice, the way the mice and Cinderella get approximately the same amount of material, or Snow White and the dwarves, or Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket.
All that said, I’ve always really enjoyed this movie. I like the whimsy and the colorful characters, and the utter nonsense of the whole thing. It works for me. But as far as scoring goes, Alice in Wonderland is the first of the full-length narrative films to bore me a bit, particularly towards the end, so as charming as I find it, I’m giving it a 6/10.
James: If Alice had been guided by Jiminy Cricket I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. Or even if she’d been accompanied by one of the Wonderland characters like the Cheshire Cat, but who was slightly more on her side (while still providing a contrast between the Wonderland and the Earth points of view), the narrative might have been more enjoyable.
I’m finding the scoring tricky because on the one hand, I don’t think it’s a great film. Through its cluttered narrative and cluttered characters there’s very little to get a grip on, and I’ve never been a fan of nonsense. Silliness yes, but not nonsense. Still, I’d say it’s probably a pretty good adaptation of the source material, and I think there’s only a few missteps in Disney’s bringing the story to life (and Alice’s character inconsistency should certainly have been ironed out). I don’t know that there’s much that Disney could have done to make a better film and keep it feeling like Lewis Carroll. I’ll also give it a 6/10.
Next up on our list, Peter Pan. I will be imagining Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles, and I trust it’ll be entertaining and disorienting.
Anne: You think Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman will be disorienting? Mary Martin is the Peter Pan in my head.