Wednesday, November 2, 2011

DATE Night: Alice in Wonderland

Whoa. Trippy, y'all!
So I'm just going to get this out of the way at the very beginning. I am biased towards the film that we watched for this week's DATE Night. It is very hard for me to play favorites with Disney films, but when it all shakes down, Alice in Wonderland is very easily in my top five. (My number one will always be the same. I'll tell you what it is when we get there.) That coupled with the fact that all I want to do is lose myself into the world of the film made it very hard for me to focus on my usual copious note-taking during the movie. The best way to approach this film is to just let it wash over you and experience it. But like the Studious Stanley I am, I forged through so that I could give you something resembling an interesting analysis of this film which, for me, defies analysis. Forgive me if at times I seem a bit mad. We're all mad here.

The Background:

Walt had been toying with adaptations of Lewis Carroll's Alice books since the early twenties, at the tail end of a time when he was still working under the Laugh-O-Gram banner. The success of his "Alice Comedies" (short live action/cartoon hybrids- see The Miscellanea) allowed for him to move on to Oswald, Mickey and beyond. Walt later planned to produce a feature length live action and cartoon Alice movie with Mary Pickford in 1933, before even Snow White, but was thwarted by a Paramount adaptation. In 1945, after WWII and in the midst of a decade of package films, the studio planned on utilizing technologies that allowed The Three Caballeros to mingle with our human Latin American neighbors to make an Alice picture starring Ginger Rogers in a cartoon Wonderland. This and two other passes at the story fell through in the forties.

Finally, in the latter part of the decade, work began on the eventually produced Alice in Wonderland that was released in 1951, after the success of Cinderella. Walt predicted that that there was an uphill battle to fight against Carroll purists and reviewers and he was right. Fans of the book (especially those in Britain) and critics balked at the movie, calling it Americanized, and the box office numbers were soft. It wasn't regarded as a failure, but became a red-headed stepchild of the animated classics clan, showing only on TV in a truncated version and not re-released into theaters during Walt's lifetime. It did begin to gain a cult following and was often shown in college towns where a good chunk of the audience had probably smoked everything but their shoes. Disney was none too happy, pulling the film to avoid this association, but when the film was finally re-released theatrically in 1974 they embraced the psychedelic aspect. Thanks, Jefferson Airplane. It is now pretty universally respected, even if it is not embraced or loved wholeheartedly. But in general, those who love it, me included, seem to be quite passionate about it.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 6: Alice in Wonderland. One of my tip top faves. If you love the visual style, that's all the Mary Blair I keep going on about. The movie is quintessential Blair. I'm struck by how clever both the art and the dialogue are. And I love the Alice character. Such great animation and voice work. And all the supporting characters are just as wonderfully done. Cleancupcleancup! MOVE DOOOOWN!
February 2, 2010 at 11:16pm ·

The Art:

Mary Blair's march of the cards.
10/10. A lot of people are quite married to the illustrations in the books by John Tenniel. They are intricate, evocative and amazing. Disney even developed earlier concepts for an Alice movie that stayed closer to his designs, but had to walk away when it was deemed impractical. Instead, they moved in a more stylized direction and entrusted the look of the film to Mary Blair, who had done some of the most fanciful and visually striking concept work of anyone for the studio in the last 10 years. The opening title cards have a heavily lined Tenniel look, with traditional Disney styled characters and decidedly Mary Blair coloring.

If you had to look to one feature film that best represented Mary Blair's visual style, it would easily be Alice. Cinderella and Peter Pan are certainly influenced by her, but in Alice the animators and artists came as close as they could to really capturing the essence of her concept art and translating it to a full-length film. There are pieces of her concept art that are almost exactly like frames from the film, many of which were on display at the Disney Gallery at Disneyland in the Colors of Mary Blair exhibit. This is the Mary that many would come to love through "it's a small world" thirteen years later, full of eye-popping juxtaposition of color, unexpected shapes and lines, and a singular sense of fantasy.

Mary Blair's Dinah looking down the rabbit hole.
If I touched on everything that had Mary's fingerprints on it, I would be describing every single frame, so I'll just point out some of my favorite elements. The bright, saturated color palatte. The lines, shapes, landscapes and backgrounds. The fanciful detailing, like the veins on the leaves and swirls in the hedges. The trip down the rabbit hole, especially in its shifting lighting. The dominant color changes as Alice emerges out of the keyhole in a bottle from blue to yellow and black to purple. The look of the mad tea party, garden and march of the cards scenes. The Blair-ian turning-red-in-anger moments from the Caterpillar and the Queen. The moment in the tea party where the watch goes crazy and the background turns blood red and the following moment when the watch is "killed" and everything turns black and white. The signage in the forest, the pastel look of the Tulgey Wood and the way its inhabitants fade to outlines before disappearing altogether. The violent red paint that they cards paint the roses with. The final moments in Wonderland when everyone descends on Alice before becoming a cacophony of colors.

Even outside of the execution of Mary's style, everything about this movie is beautifully rendered. The character animation is exceptional. The effects, such as Alice's reflection in the stylized water of the stream morphing into the White Rabbit's, the shifting clouds behind Alice floating in the Drink Me bottle, the smoke shapes from the Caterpillar scene (especially in the crocodile poem), the trees in the forest lighting up before the Cheshire Cat's appearance, and the Pink Elephant-like animation for the march of the cards are all wonderfully done. This movie just doesn't look like anything else that has or ever will be on screen again. On that note, I need to point out that this is the kind of movie that Blu-ray was born for. The Blu-ray disc is crisp, stunning, and definitive. Also, the Disney View feature, which adds subtle movie-inspired artwork in lieu of black bands to fill in the sides of the full screen format, is a really great option. (The whole disc is wonderfully done with great special features. I highly recommended the upgrade.)

The Story:

Decisions, decisions.
9/10. A lot of people are going to disagree with me here. I have yet to actually read the books. (I know. Shame on me. They're on my list.) My husband, Tom, however, loves them and is something of an Alice aficionado. He say, and I quote, "The Disney version is the only adaptation of Alice that comes close to the original in spirit." I'll have to trust him on that, but I will say that for someone who hasn't read the book, the story is well paced, never drags or bores and has a very clear arc for the central character. It tells the story efficiently and creatively without tacking on some kind of moral. Characters enter and exit, leaving us in the same fascinated and confused state that Alice is in. Her experiences in Wonderland are both overwhelmingly enlightening and terrifying in equal measure. Our experience watching the movie parallels Alice's journey within it. And therein lies the complicated, messy, exuberant beauty of the way that the movie is structured. It is a kind of ordered chaos. 

Even Ward Kimball himself felt like the film suffered from having too many cooks in the form of directors trying to one up each other and subsequently canceling each other out. In my estimation they pushed each other towards a grand fabulousness. He also felt like there was not enough "warmth" or "story glue". I feel quite the opposite, but that they do not come in traditional forms. In Alice, you are asked to bring the warmth. Alice elicits either a sort of maternal reaction (you want to care for her and see her through to the end) or empathy (because you've been in a similarly bewildered state and you know how it feels). If moments such as Alice's devastation over her path being swept away by the broom dog don't make you heart fall into the pit of your stomach, there's something wrong with you. As far as the story glue, this is not a linear story with a beginning, middle and end. It is more like a vaudeville, with different acts come forth and appealing to different pieces of your psyche. It is a episodic structure, no doubt, but that does not mean that it is unstructured. For me, it is exactly how this story should be told.

The Characters:

The fantastic attraction poster.
10/10. I feel like a lot of people are impressed by the characters design- and performance-wise, but because it's set up as a parade of oddities, they don't get enough time with any individual to really become attached. But that is the name of the game. You are not meant to forge a relationships with characters as much as you are to see a tiny shard of yourself and/or Alice reflected in them. They are not from a warm, snuggly, cuddly empathetic world. They are from an off-kilter world where nothing is as it seems and no one is who you think that should be. They are also all impeccably designed, stunningly animated and cast perfectly. Special shout outs to animator Ward Kimball for his animation of playful, loose limbed Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and the oddly calm Cheshire Cat. Also of note are voice actors Verna Felton (The Fairy Godmother) as the Queen (how's that for a 180?), Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat, who once again manages to sound singular and appropriate at the same time in another role, and the magical Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter ("Mustard?! Don't let's be silly!"). But every character from the doorknob to Bill the Lizard to the oysters with detachable feet (Isn't it shocking when they get eaten?!?!) to the flowers in the garden to the cards are interpreted wonderfully.

Kathryn Beaumont and Alice.
The only character you should really bond with is Alice, animated by one of Walt's Nine Old Men, Ollie Johnson. Some people may not gravitate towards her, however, I do strongly. She is absolutely one of my favorite Disney heroines, and the most dimensional one to date by far. Her facial design is wide, beautiful, innocent and expressive. Watch how her mouth moves after she realizes that they are going to burn the house down. She comes across as a real girl. She is bold and polite, unfazed and enraged, playfully funny and deadly serious. She acts out, yet is capable of significant acts of bravery. I love her because she is full of contradictions that a real human being would have. She has far more than one note. She is not a damsel in distress. She is not pining away for her love. She is not a victim. She is the original brainy heroine. You can draw a more direct line from Alice to modern princesses such as Ariel, Belle, Tiana, Rapunzel and Mulan than from any of the other early princesses. Kathryn Beaumont's vocal performance is also charmingly lovable. She captures the character's worldly innocence perfectly. She is unafraid to be sassy and has great comic timing. Her voice is a treasure. Hearing it automatically takes me to a specific time and place in Disney history. 

The Music:

My heart breaks just thinking about this moment.
10/10. I think people tend to forget about how much music there is in Alice in Wonderland (around 20 songs). This is understandable, since most of it is only heard in brief snippets, but it does a disservice to what a superb job the writer, Oliver Wallace, with lyrical assistance from Lewis Carroll, did of crafting a unique musical sound for the movie. It doesn't have a forties or fifties style, nor one of the period the story is set in. It is not pastiche, pop nor musical theatre. It exists in a world of its own, so to speak. A chorus sings only the title song, which is heard in the "real" world, bookending the movie. Alice has two songs, her I Want Song, "A World of My Own" and "Very Good Advice" which is almost the flip side, decrying her lack of ability to get what she wants (not to mention letting the animators cleverly riff on their own conceit of the heroine singing a song to the gathered animals). Both songs evolve right out of the plot, helping to uncover different aspects of Alice. I love the way that "Advice" starts with Alice speaking and so naturally progresses into a song, as if she was so overcome with emotion that speech alone could no longer express it. Kathryn Beaumont's singing voice is charming. The little vocal imperfections that they kept in make the character terribly human.

The other songs run the gamut from sea shanties to musical phrases to playful twists on children's songs and nursery rhymes to settings of poetry. They all, however, are arranged, orchestrated and composed in a way the keeps them all in the same musical universe- one that is not really of this world, but is also not kooky or otherworldly. It works like watch gears. The score is also crafted to heighten the mood of the scenes and punctuate moments. Even some of the animals in the Tulgey Wood act as members of the orchestra. There is not one piece of music that I do not actively love and that isn't perfectly suited to the moment when it bubbles up. It is one of the soundtracks that I find myself listening to most often. Tom also pointed out a niblet that I didn't know but find fascinating. Apparently "All in the Golden Afternoon" was not from the garden scene in the book, but rather it was based on the opening poem that he wrote about the day he first came up with the Alice tales. I'm actually quite excited to read the book and see where and how things differ.

The Gay Scale:

Ooh! Mary turns magenta when she's miffed.
8/10. Part of what is so cool about the story of Alice in Wonderland is the fact that no matter who you are you can interpret the story as speaking to your experience. You can apply a basic read that Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland is actually a young gay person coming out of the closet and seeing a whole new world open up in front of them. One that is confusing, exciting, exhilarating, frustrating and completely unlike the boring day-to-day that they have previously known. The White Rabbit is the crush you can never catch up to. The Mad Tea Party is the overwhelmingness of the social scene. The garden is the experience of being surrounded by beauty and not being confident that you fit in there. Alice's body keeps changing and morphing the same way that you feel like yours does when you enter a world where you acknowledge your sexuality. The caucus race is a political system that keeps you running in circles, never letting your break free or move forward. The Queen is that person in the center of a social group that selfishly rules everything. There are hundreds of ways to interpret each facet of the story, which is why it's so brilliant.

The only character that really reads as gay on the surface to me is the Caterpillar. He extends his pinky, has an affected speaking voice and a haughty attitude, gives Alice a bracelet made of smoke (accessories!) and recites poetry. In a larger sense, because the whole enchilada can be read as queer, it doesn't really matter if any of the specific characters do. They are all queer if you want them to be and not if you don't. There is a sense of over the top campiness in the whole affair that certainly speaks to a gay audience in a clear way. Mary Blair's bright color palate and whimsical design make the whole look of the film look like it was designed by drag queens. And I mean that in the most wonderfully exuberant way. There is a dearth of subtlety in Wonderland's design. As it should be.

The Bottom Line:

My favorite pice of Mary Blair art, period.
10/10. There may be flaws in this movie by some people's estimation, but I don't and/or refuse to see them. Artistically, thanks in no small part to my favorite, Mary Blair, there will never be something as stylistically bold, original and rich as Alice. The music is fascinating- both of this world and otherworldly. The way they approach the material is completely appropriate for the story they are telling. The characters are both sophisticated and primal. There are queer undertones throughout. I find surprising emotion and warmth where many see none. It speaks to me on a really basic level as someone who often feels a bit rudderless in an insane world, letting me know that I will make it to the other side of this adventure, despite a lack of easy or clear answers about how I will get there.

It is a movie that you can feel like you live in for seventy-five minutes. You can live moment to moment, casually letting things bounce off of you or really study each frame and see something new every time. (The mother oyster's nose is a pearl!) The movie is an escape that doesn't pretend to moralize or tell you how to feel. Alice in Wonderland leads you down the proverbial garden path and tells you that whatever experience you have there is just fine, unless of course it isn't, in which case you will have to be fine with it. It's like a psychological Choose Your Own Adventure story without all of that pesky flipping back and forth between pages. Each time you watch it, you can watch a totally different tale. There is a maturity in it that speaks to both children and adults in a way that challenges them without going over their heads. Full of contradiction and comfort, boldness and nuance, whimsy and logic, Alice sits squarely near the top of my list of favorites in the Disney animated classics canon. 

The Miscellanea:

I call this one "Untitled 1 in Teacup with Chinese Laterns".
There is a lot of Alice in the Disney universe outside of this film. The "Alice in Wonderland" attraction in Disneyland is probably my favorite classic Disney film dark ride with it's playful design, dual levels, clarity and exciting pacing. There is also the famous Mad Tea Party, which is a classic midway attraction using spinning tea cups as the vehicle. I love it. One of my favorite photo ops in Disneyland, where the ride is underneath Chinese lanterns, is on the ride. Just point up and shoot as you spin. No matter when you snap a picture, it looks gorgeous and makes you feel tres artistique. And of course who could forget the image of Donald Duck in Alice drag traipsing about Mathemagic Land?

There is also the Tim Burton remake form a little while back. I saw it once and was not much of a fan. I thought it was very dour and joyless. It felt too much like the Sleepy Hollow Tim Burton when it could have used a bit more of his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory side. I tried to go see a 2D showing, but ended up at a 3D showing, which I by and large hate, so of course everything was even darker and I got a bit of a headache watching, which did the movie no favors for me. I have since come to love Mia Wasikowska (if you haven't seen The Kids Are All Right yet, you are missing one of the most heart-wrenching portrayals of a family I've seen in years) and think it may be time to revisit the Burton version in the near future.

Here is Disney's very first attempt at adapting the Alice story to film. It's a short called "Alice's Wonderland" from 1923. It features a live actress as Alice in a cartoon Wonderland. Over fifty of these shorts were made in total and about 10 of them are available on the now out-of-print Disney Rarities and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Walt Disney Treasure DVDs. Though the animation looks crude to the modern eye, these cartoons were the beginning of the Disney legacy. The shorts are charming and provide a fascinating glimpse at where it all began.

This is a classic black and white making-of special from 1951 called Operation Wonderland. It is worth watching just to see the adorable Kathryn Beaumont and others, including Ed Wynn, doing live-action reference work for the animators. It's a short 11-minute long promotional piece and the first part of two is rightcha here.

I have already posted about this clip before, but it's so awesome I had to share it again. This person made completely amazing remixes of Disney films by taking bits of soundtrack, songs, sounds and vocals and shaping it into a whole new piece. It's hard to describe but easy to be fascinated by. It's creepy and comforting at the same time. All of their clips (including Pixar and non-Disney films) are worth checking out and several are linked in my blog post.

This is the intro for a Disney Channel series from the early nineties called Adventures in Wonderland. I had vague recollections of watching it as a child, but when the clip started it all rushed back to me. It's all done with live actors (including Armelia McQueen from the original Broadway cast of Ain't Misbehavin' as the Queen) and puppets. Though it bears very little resemblance in spirit to the original Disney film of Carroll books, it's still a nostalgic little trip to a time where The Disney Channel was trying to find its identity.

I feel like I need to give a shout out to my favorite non-Disney version of the Alice stories. This is a star-studded (Sammy Davis, Jr.! Imogene Coca! Telly Savalas! Shelley Winters! Carol Channing) miniseries from 1985. I had it recorded on VHS, complete with Teddy Ruxpin commercials, and loved every second of it. Natalie Gregory, who later voiced Jenny Foxworth in Oliver and Company, is a fantastic leading lady in a peach (!) colored frock. I wish I knew what became of her. If you've never seen it, track this puppy down if for no other reason than to see Carol belt "Jam tomorrow. Jam yesterday. But never ever jam today." You can't borrow my treasured copy, though, cuz Ms. Channing herself autographed it! Jealous?!?! The first part is right below.

Lastly, this is what a real dormouse looks like. Don't you just want to take it home and love it forever?!?!

Next week we will be leaving Wonderland, going towards the second star to the right and heading to Neverland with Peter Pan. It is the last of Mary Blair's big three for Disney, so I'm a little saddened by that, but the good news is that they will be continuing to match the high artistic bar set by these films for years to come. 

I'm curious (appropriately) about how you guys like Alice in Wonderland. Any of you fans of the original books? How does the adaptation hold up for you? Do you find it charmless and cold or are you as completely enraptured by it as I am? Were you puffing on the caterpillar's hookah when you watched it and/or while you are answering these questions? And most importantly- how is a raven like a writing desk? Please, someone. Tell me!


  1. Incidentally, there is no answer to the writing desk riddle. It's officially been proven to be a nonsensical riddle created by Carroll for humorous purpose only. Many tend to put meanings behind Carrol's Wonderland riddles and creations, but in actuality the books are fairly transparent in their references, word-plays and hidden meanings. Most of them are hidden to us nowadays simply because Carroll references things that were considered pop culture at the time, but are not known anymore. But reading the annotated Alice or doing some lite research can uncover most of them clearly. The writing desk riddle and Walrus and Carpenter segment are, however, among many things in the books that honestly have no hidden meaning, sinister or otherwise. Carroll was a genius, but he was a mathematical genius, not a crazy one, as he is painted by many nowadays. There's no hidden drug-induced insanity behind his creations, just a lot of logic games and mathematical shenanigans, layered with timely political satire.

    One of the few gems of hidden meaning, though, and my personal favorite in the first book is when Alice says, as she falls down the rabbit hole, "after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs!"

    Of course she wouldn't. She'd be dead!

  2. And yes, I definitely do think this is as close to the book as any adaptation ever got. Only pet peeve: the entire segment that belongs in the second book, including the Tweedles, the flowers, etc.. But almost every adaptation made this mistake, and this one is at least the least offensive. The Tweedles are so obviously mirror creatures that they at least didn't try to make them fit into he first book in any way: they belong in the looking glass, not wonderland, and the animators do a good job showing it.

  3. Alice is my all-time favorite Disney heroine. She's so charming and adorable, and Kathryn Beaumont portrayed her perfectly. Also, her bloomers (long frilly underwear) are very cute, and I just love the way her dress poofs up like a parachute.