Are you ready for some nonsense? Well, if the answer is yes Alice in Wonderland is the movie for you! I wasn’t a very fanciful or magical kid so Alice in Wonderland didn’t appeal to me. It was too different, too out there, too much nonsense!
But not too long ago it was available on netflix (it isn’t any more) and I decided to watch it and was blown away. So, this review is written less for die hard fans and more for those people like me who may have dismissed it, to give it another chance.
Let’s first talk a little bit about how this got made. Like Cinderella, Walt had worked with Alice in Wonderland several times in his career before Snow White. He had always loved the Lewis Carroll stories and even considered using them as his first film instead of Snow White, but the project kept getting shelved. With the success of Cinderella, he could push forward a more risky Alice in Wonderland project.
That is one thing I admire most about Disney. Throughout their company’s history they have a track record of taking risks. Whether it is Pinocchio after Snow White or Alice in Wonderland after Cinderella they rarely follow a big hit with more of the same (this year they are following Frozen with Big Hero which looks very different). I admire that. Sometimes Disney is treated like the Walmart of movies when that label applies more to their merchandise than the films.
So, the popular Alice literary editions at the time had drawings by Sir John Tenniel but these were more like lithographs or engravings, no color, no surrealist touches. As I’ve mentioned in several reviews, there was a definite surrealist camp in the Disney studios and at this time it was led by an amazing artist named Mary Blair (with a touch of cubism and modernist touches thrown in). She wanted to bring a bright, geometric feel to the films and applied it cleverly in Alice and Peter Pan (and in a number of Disneyland attractions including Small World).
Mary Blair’s concept art is AMAZING! I wish I was in the bay area because at the Walt Disney Family Museum they have an exhibit on Mary Blair art right now.
As you watch the movie with this in mind you will notice the geometric shapes throughout and the bright bold colors. It’s really quite lovely.
This is what makes me so mad about the recent Tim Burton version. It turns this bright colorful world into a murky, dark, dirty looking place. And then they make the huge mistake of trying to explain everything. There is so much exposition and it completely ruins it. It’s supposed to be nonsense! More on that later…
The script was also changed to focus more on silliness in the story; although, the madness does show as anger from time to time. This can be no surprise when you think about Walt Disney and his obvious love of whimsy.
The film also strayed from the Disney success of Cinderella in not having a lot of singable songs. In a way the music kind of reminds me of a Sondheim musical- like Into the Woods with lots of little melodies crammed together. Alice does have more songs than any other Disney film on its official soundtrack, but most are short, sometimes under 30 seconds. There are no real ballads or grand sweeping scores. It did embrace a jazzy feel in some pieces and the opening melody was even a big hit for jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.
When it was released critics in general did not like it. They felt it was slow, uneven, had too many songs and didn’t adhere to the Tenniel/Carroll book edition.
I love this quote from the New York Times movie review in 1951:
“But if you are not too particular about the images of Carroll and Tenniel, if you are high on Disney whimsy and if you’ll take a somewhat slow, uneven pace, you should find this picture entertaining. Especially should it be for the kids, who are not so demanding of fidelity as are their moms and dads. A few of the episodes are dandy, such as the mad tea party and the caucus race; the music is tuneful and sugary and the color is excellent. Watching this picture is something like nibbling those wafers that Alice eats.”
I think I could stop this review right now because that basically sums it up!
The interesting thing I learned in my research is Alice was a failure until the 60s when Yellow Submarine became a big hit among college crowds. As ‘trippy’ animation like Submarine, Alice became a popular feature to run in college towns. Finally Disney re-released it in 1974, and they promoted it as the “film in tune with the psychedelic times”.
One commentor I saw said that Walt Disney had apologized for the movie but I couldn’t find any proof of that. If so, that makes me sad. No one should apologize for their art.
The film also gained life by being a central part of Disneyland with the attraction and of course the tea cups.
Ok. Let’s actually talk about the movie. How does it hold up?
I think very well but enjoying this movie entirely depends on two things:
1. Like the critic from the NY Times said ‘if you are high on whimsy…you will find this film entertaining”. Perhaps it is strange I am higher on whimsy as an adult than as a child. Anyone else relate to that? It is wacky. It is out there. It is is NONSENSE!
2. You must be able to accept a non-linear type of storytelling. A linear story gives you a clear beginning, middle, end with building events, climax, declining events and conclusion. That is not this movie. This is more like being in a fun house. There really isn’t a story or concrete plot in this movie; However, we don’t know what is coming next for Alice so it is fun. It’s kind of like if you went to a party and met a bunch of crazy people and then were telling a friend about it when you got home. It’s not really a story per say- just a recap of the people you met.
WHO WE MEET ALONG THE WAY
1. Alice meets the doorknob- a fun sequence where she firsts partakes in the magic and learns her emotions could get her into trouble. Although the crying doesn’t quite fit in with her character in the rest of the movie it works for the scene.
2. Alice meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum- this is the weakest section of the movie. The twins tell her a story about the Walrus and the Oyster. I don’t know if Walt felt they had to add a linear story within all this madness but it doesn’t work for me. I find it a boring story and want the excitement to get going. Also, Alice learns in almost every meeting that nonsense carries with it a certain degree of anger. It is not always the lovefest she was expecting.
3. Alice meets the white rabbit and gets stuck in his house
4. Alice meets talking Flowers who sing a great song to her but then think she is a weed.
5. Alice meets a Hookah Smoking Caterpillar. He is a nonsense philosopher asking ‘who are you?’ and ‘Why do you want to know?’ but not taking a second to listen to anyone’s answers.
6. Alice meets the Cheshire cat next (2 meetings for him). He is full of misdirection and temptation-at least that is my take. Sort of like the serpent in Adam and Eve story. Sterling Holloway is amazing as the cat.
7. Alice meets the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Doormouse at a tea party. These are fun, silly nonsense and one of the most charming parts of the story, but Alice finds it equally frustrating as the cat
8. Alice meets the Playing Cards. They are more panic nonsense. They are doing something ridiculous not because they want to but because they feel they have to
9. Alice meets the Queen of Hearts. She is tyrannical nonsense. The playing cards are painting the roses red to make the Queen happy but still she wants to behead them. She wants to behead Alice for beating her in croquet. Verna Felton in another amazing performance for Disney. Hard to believe it is the same person who voiced the Fairy Godmother
And then we get all the characters together for a finale scene and then that’s it.
Aside from the Walrus segment I think it is an amazing artistic achievement by Disney. It’s just asking the viewer ‘how can we dazzle you?’. There is no need for prophecies or battles or gruesome scenes with floating heads…(I’m talking to you Tim Burton! I really hate that movie).
Perhaps it is simply after seeing so many movies as an adult it is so refreshing to see something truly unique. Most movies, including the Tim Burton version, look exactly like a million other movies. You can’t say that about Alice in Wonderland. It is a one of a kind. I like seeing what craziness is going to come around the corner and I don’t need a traditional story, or sweeping music with tender ballads.
I like to just have a series of zany introductions, beautiful visuals, and occasionally thoughtful comments like this scene:
|Alice: Oh, no, no. I was just wondering if you could help me find my way.|
|Cheshire Cat: Well that depends on where you want to get to.|
|Alice: Oh, it really doesn’t matter, as long as…|
|Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.|
That’s enough for me!
Overall Grade- A for the right kind of viewer. Would get A+ but I don’t like the Walrus story. It’s boring.
Another movie that is similar to Alice in Wonderland is Across the Universe but it is so vulgar I was turned off. Alice is bright, colorful without being garish.