Monday, June 9, 2014

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

RELEASE DATE: Saturday 28th July 1951


Walt Disney had been a big fan of Lewis Carroll's two fantasy novels "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland" and "Through The Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There" since he was a child. These books are still considered literary classics today, and readers discover stories that tread a very fine line between insanity and genius. (Most likely they are both) Walt had been keen on turning the series into a movie for decades, but he could never quite get it to work. At one stage it was planned to be the follow-up film to Snow White. Then finally, after the war was over Walt revisited the concept, had a number of different drafts of the script created and had artist Mary Blair create a series of concept paintings that served as visual inspiration.

Alice In Wonderland serves as a very interesting follow-up to Cinderella. Like in Carroll's novels, Alice doesn't have a particularly strong personality and she doesn't really achieve anything of consequence. The journey she takes doesn't really lead her anywhere. So how do you keep the audience interested...? You bombard them with world-class artwork, an excellent cast of voices, some classic songs and a large portion of crazy. There's nothing quite like Alice In Wonderland.

On its initial release, the film wasn't a big success; nowhere near the box-office smash that Cinderella was. Famed animator Ward Kimball felt that too many creative directors gave the film a disjointed feeling. Walt himself stated that he thought it lacked "heart." Amazingly, on its re-releases decades later (after Walt had passed away) it developed a hugely passionate following, especially amongst the hallucinogenic drug culture of the 1970s. Later it would become a very successful home video release. The strange movie that Walt saw as a failed experiment would end up becoming known as one of his greatest classics!

The story begins in the beautiful English countryside. A young girl called Alice is receiving a very boring history lesson from her older sister. (Although this character is never named, and it's never specified what exactly her relationship with Alice is - I used to think she was a teacher - Lewis Carroll's book tells us that it's Alice's sister) Alice finds these real stories very dull, especially since the book doesn't have any pictures. She would rather play with her kitten Dinah.


Even though Dinah is a very minor character in the movie, she can happily sit alongside Disney's growing list of adorable animated cats. She is full of purr-sonality!


Alice is suddenly distracted by a very peculiar sight: a white rabbit with a waistcoat and watch! "I'm late!" he shrieks as he runs into a rabbit hole. Alice, always curious about everything, follows him into the rabbit hole to see where he is going.


Losing her footing, Alice tumbles down a long chamber, leaving Dinah behind and entering a world of the strange and insane.


Upon reaching the bottom, Alice tries to follow the White Rabbit through a door, but alas, she is way too big and the door is locked. She experiments with drinking a potion that makes her tiny and a cookie that makes her enormous, and eventually finds herself bobbing around in a sea made of her own gigantic tears.


After taking part in the entirely pointless Caucus Race led by the Dodo, Alice chases the White Rabbit through a forest. She soon realises she is not alone. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (who have jumped from the second book "Through The Looking Glass") want to make friends with Alice.


She agrees to listen to their story of "The Walrus And The Carpenter." What follows is a 5-minute stand-alone story featuring a very greedy walrus and a moderately intelligent carpenter, who try their best to entice a family of oysters to come for dinner. (Or should that be, to come AS dinner...?)


Having wasted enough time, Alice manages to escape from Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and soon discovers exactly what she was looking for: the White Rabbit's house! He is in a terrible rush and, mistaking Alice for his maid Mary-Anne, sends her to run upstairs to fetch his gloves. Unfortunately, Alice eats a cake and grows to an enormous size!


After surviving the Dodo's quest to burn the house down, Alice finds herself incredibly tiny. Running through a garden in the direction she saw the rabbit go, she soon discovers some friendly talking flowers.


Unfortunately the flowers turn nasty when they believe her to be a weed. So Alice continues on to the next chapter. (Seriously, this movie is pretty much split up into separate chapters. Which is fine, since that's how the book was. But it doesn't have an overall flow like Cinderella has) The next chapter in this case, happens to feature a vowel-loving, chain-smoking, very grumpy caterpillar.


After witnessing the caterpillar transform into a butterfly and having a chance encounter with a terrified mother bird, Alice is led to a tea party by a grinning Cheshire Cat. The tea party is hosted by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. (There's a Dormouse in there as well, but I'm not sure he really has any idea what's going on) What follows is an incredibly bizarre scene of craziness where Alice tries desperately to hold on to some form of sanity, a concept that has long deserted her hosts.


After leaving the mad tea party, Alice decides she's had enough nonsense and she's going home. Only problem is... she has no idea which way "home" is. (Especially considering how far she fell down the rabbit hole, I have no idea how she INTENDS to get home... but anyway...) She wanders aimlessly through the Tulgey Wood, meeting all kinds of strange creatures, until she realises that she is hopelessly lost and breaks down into tears. Suddenly the Cheshire Cat appears again and leads her towards the Queen of Hearts's palace.


There Alice finds that she is somehow inside a card game where the numbered cards are painting the queen's roses red. When the Queen of Hearts herself arrives, she beheads them all. It appears this queen has somewhat of a bad temper, and she loves nothing more than screaming "Off with their heads!" (It's here that Alice finally realises what the White Rabbit was late for... He is the queen's trumpet-blowing herald!) Taking a liking to Alice, the queen challenges her to a game of croquet, using hedgehogs as balls and flamingos as mallets.


The Cheshire Cat decides to cause some mischief, resulting in the Queen losing her temper on a grand scale and blaming Alice for everything. Luckily the little King of Hearts delays the beheading by suggesting that they hold a trial. So it's off to court they go!


The trial is a farce, and after Alice insults the queen, she is chased all over the palace grounds by an army of cards.


Just as she is about to be captured (and presumably beheaded) Alice wakes up. Yes, it was all a dream. None of it actually happened. It was all in Alice's twisted mind. Her sister is annoyed at her not paying attention to the history lesson, but calls her in to tea... And that's the end.


IRVYNE: In case you hadn't noticed, not much in this film actually makes any sense. Which, to my way of thinking, is fantastic! Because that is exactly what the book was like. Alice is not really an important person to any of the Wonderland inhabitants. She's just a tourist; a visitor who pops in and out of their lives without really changing anything. When she leaves the mad tea party, they don't even acknowledge that she's gone.
 
One of the main criticisms of Alice in Wonderland is that it lacks a constant narrative driving it forwards; it is more-or-less a chapterised jump from one scenario to the other. And that is an entirely true assessment. The only real motivation in the movie is for Alice to find out what the White Rabbit is late for. When she finally DOES have her question answered, it barely passes with a second glance. But again, this is staying true to the nature of the books, so I have no complaints here. It just adds to the oddness of it all.
 
For those of you unlucky enough to see the dreadful reimagining that Tim Burton had a couple of years ago...
 

... you would see what happens when someone tries to make SENSE of these stories. Linda Woolverton foolishly decided to have Alice be some sort of heroine or saviour who is foretold in a prophecy. She infuriatingly merged Wonderland with Looking-Glass Land, created a single character out of the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen (and yet, left the White Queen untouched) and just tried to tie everything nicely up into a "defeat the dragon" story. AND IT DIDN'T WORK. Apart from the wonderful Burton-esque visuals, the film was awful, and was a plain insult to Lewis Carroll's whimsy and insane genius. The Alice stories are never supposed to make sense. The joy in the tales is their joyful embrace of the nonsensical.
 
Anyway... Rant aside... back to Disney's version. (The animated version, that is...) I find that it works wonderfully as long as you can accept its non-traditional format. It could be argued that the central character of Alice is fairly bland and doesn't show much in terms of development. Which would be a fair judgement, but that's entirely the point. The Alice in Lewis Carroll's books was just a regular little girl who has very strange adventures. She is the person we project ourselves on to. So when she finds it hard to believe all of the bizarre things happening to her, we do as well. The Disney version of the story actually gives her a little bit of character development with the song "Very Good Advice," where she finally realises how useless her own good advice has been for her. But apart from that, she is simply an observer to the madness.
 
All of the other characters are an absolute delight, and you could see the animators had a ball creating such outlandish creatures. In some cases, like with Ed Wynn who voiced the Mad Hatter, they used the real-life actors as a huge inspiration for their animated counterparts.
 

The film does end very abruptly. Alice wakes up, doesn't even make a single comment on her adventures or what they meant to her, and suddenly it's "The End." Perhaps that's the point. This movie doesn't follow regular filmic conventions.
 
Oh wow, this film is a visual treat! Each frame is beautifully designed and the way the backgrounds compliment the characters is just a masterwork. The artists used bright, saturated colours to emphasize the zaniness of Wonderland. Once again, the animators used live-action reference to give them inspiration, but the characters still move in a very animated way, with the exception of Alice herself, who often moves very realistically. Like Cinderella before it, the film's visual style is hugely thanks to concept artist Mary Blair. Her designs are an absolute perfect fit for Wonderland. Everything is slightly off. Even when there are straight lines (like a tiled floor, for instance) they don't go straight. Also worth noting are the decorations on the leaves when Alice goes through the garden. True Mary Blair style right there.
 
 
When Alice reaches the queen's palace near the end of the movie, there is some incredibly clever dimensional animation on the cards that must have taken a lot of effort and research to make work properly. These days of course, it could all be done easily in a computer, but knowing that it was all done by hand gives it a level of artistry that stands out as truly excellent.
 
 
A little-known fact is that Alice In Wonderland has more songs on screen than any other Disney movie! Many of these songs are quite short and inconsequential, but in sheer number, Alice has the most. Many of them are poems straight out of Lewis Carroll's books, put to music.

1. "Alice In Wonderland" (Title song)
2. "In A World of My Own" (Alice's "I Want" song)
3. "I'm Late" (The White Rabbit's song)
4. "The Sailor's Hornpipe" (The Dodo's sea shanty)
5. "Caucus Race"
6. "How Do You Do And Shake Hands" (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum's introductory song)
7. "The Walrus And The Carpenter" (Self-contained story song)
8. "Old Father William" (Very briefly sung by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as Alice escapes)
9. "Smoke The Blighter Out" (Dodo's plan to burn the house down)
10. "All In The Golden Afternoon" (The Flowers' song)
11. "A-E-I-O-U" (The Caterpillar's song)
12. "Twas Brillig" (The Cheshire Cat's nonsense song, taken from the "Jabberwocky" poem )
13. "The Unbirthday Song" (At the mad tea party)
14. "Very Good Advice" (Alice's sad song)
15. "Painting The Roses Red" (Alice and the cards)

There are then reprises of "The Unbirthday Song," "Caucus Race" and the title song to finish off. So that's 15 individual songs! Wow! Although Alice In Wonderland has never seemed like an overly musical movie to me, I can now see how ingrained the music is into the story. Instead of stopping the narrative to have a memorable song, the songs just happen, moving in the same direction as the plot.

Within those 15 songs are some real Disney classics that many people would be able to instantly sing if prompted. It's a great soundtrack, even if poor Kathryn Beaumont (Alice) was definitely no singer.

Oliver Wallace's wonderful score is also worth a mention. Every piece of background music is entirely descriptive of the action in front of it. You could listen to the score in isolation and still have an idea what's going on in the story.

 
It could be argued that Alice In Wonderland was ahead of its time. On its initial release it was a box-office bomb. After the overwhelming success of Cinderella, Alice made only a fraction of that movie's earnings, and didn't even recoup its production costs. Something about the mad and colourful Alice stories just did not resonate with audiences.
 
It wasn't until years after Walt had died that people began to recognise it for the masterpiece that it is. It is now considered one of the all-time Disney classics. Even though it doesn't invest its audience emotionally like Bambi or Pinocchio had done, it is full of memorable moments, stunning artwork and a catchy soundtrack. I'm sure if Walt was alive today, he would be thrilled to see his years of hard work finally being properly appreciated. This film is a gem.


MARY POPPINS: I can remember being taken into the city to see this movie when it was first released. Back in those days it was a whole-day outing if you wanted to see a new film.
 
HAKU: I kept thinking of Labyrinth throughout this. I suppose it's the same theme of a girl going into a crazy world.
 
 
MALEFICENT: Really? Labyrinth is a terrible film!
 
 
IRVYNE: Get out. Now.
 
MALEFICENT: I love Alice though. It's one of my favourite Disney movies.

 
PASCAL: I couldn't half tell... Since you quoted the movie THE WHOLE WAY THROUGH.

 
MALEFICENT: I may have quoted one or two lines...

 
PASCAL: THE WHOLE WAY THROUGH.

 
IRVYNE: Something I noticed during the opening credits, is that no credit was given to all the hard-working ink and paint girls. These days every single person gets credited on a film, even the guy who provided lunch. Back then you got your pay and you stayed anonymous.

 
MALEFICENT: They should have all been credited. The artwork is magical. It's a very clever way of telling the Alice In Wonderland story without scaring children. Because the book isn't really very child-friendly.

 
SHENZI: Yes it is.

 
IRVYNE: Of course it is. It was written for children. What I love about those two books though, is that there's so much clever intellectual dialogue happening that children would never pick up on, and yet it's still an entertaining kids' tale. I think in the late '30s Walt had an artist do lots of concept art for Alice, but it was all a bit grotesque and scary, and he knew that wouldn't work for the kind of movie his company produced. It wasn't until Mary Blair did her paintings that he knew he'd found the look he needed.

 
SHENZI: The way the colours and shapes change, it's all very clever. I also love that there's so many characters in it.

 
MALEFICENT: Well the only character all the way through it is Alice. Everyone else is just a bit-part.

 
HAKU: I remember finding the oyster story so terrifying as a kid. I still think it's a very dark and disturbing story. By the way, did you notice the oysters don't have limbs? They're like Rayman!

 
IRVYNE: I always used to wonder why the "R" glows on the mother oyster's calendar, but now I've researched and I know! Huzzah for the internet! Apparently there used to be a saying that you could only ever eat oysters in a month that has the letter "R" in it. (May, June, July and August months would be too hot in England, and the oysters would go bad)

 
MALEFICENT: I love how everything is rabbity in the White Rabbit's house. Even the pillow has bunny ears.

 
PASCAL: I love all the play on words, like the "bread-and-butter-flies."

 
JOHN DARLING: I don't think the water in the bottle that Alice was in was true-to-life. When it filled up she should have sunk to the bottom. Then it bobbed around on the surface only half full. Where did the rest of the water go?

 
IRVYNE: Wow, that's a technicality! You do realise that this story is all a dream, right? It doesn't have to make complete sense.

 
MICHAEL DARLING: The little kitten was so cute! I loved when it waved goodbye to Alice when she fell down the hole.

 
JOHN DARLING: My favourite part was when Winnie The Pooh talked to her in the shape of a cat!

 
IRVYNE: I'm so glad they got an English actress to be Alice. It definitely adds to the authenticity of the story in relation to Lewis Carroll's books. It is a bit strange to have a "Cheshire" cat with an American accent though.

 
MALEFICENT: But Sterling Holloway's so wonderful, I don't mind. The Caterpillar has the best facial expressions. I also love the King of Hearts. He's so cute. He's just a pet to the Queen, really.

 
MICHAEL DARLING: I loved it when Alice called the Queen a fat bad-tempered old pirate.

 
IRVYNE: Tyrant. She said tyrant. But it has the same effect, doesn't it? The Queen didn't like it.

 
JOHN DARLING: I like this movie. It's cool. But it doesn't make much sense.

 
PASCAL: There was a live-action version of Alice In Wonderland that I remember.

 
IRVYNE: Yeah, there was the 2-part T.V. version where Carol Channing played the White Queen.

 
MALEFICENT: And she was AMAZING!!

 
PASCAL: No, I'm thinking of another one, where Whoopi Goldberg was the Cheshire Cat.


IRVYNE: That's a disturbing thought...
 
 
MALEFICENT: That version was horrible.


PASCAL: I liked it.


IRVYNE: But anyway. Back to Disney. There are moments - the mad tea party comes to mind - where they just absolutely nailed that level of insanity. You can see the looks on Alice's face that she's just so frustrated that nothing makes sense.


MALEFICENT: And she never actually gets to drink any tea.


PASCAL: I actually wanted a cup of tea the whole way through this movie.


IRVYNE: Is it your unbirthday?


PASCAL: It is!


IRVYNE: No way! It's MY unbirthday too!


MALEFICENT: What a small world this is!

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