The Great Disney Blogathon: Alice in Wonderland (1951)
|April 14, 2014||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Much like Cinderella, this was a concept Walt had been tinkering with for decades: there were the Alice shorts of the 20s, which featured a live action girl in a cartoon world; the 1936 Mickey Mouse short “Thru the Mirror”; and multiple riffs on surrealistic gags with playing cards and size changing sprinkled throughout the Disney canon. He officially registered the title with the MPAA in 1938, and the idea of a live action Alice was floated for years, with various stars: Mary Pickford in 1933, Ginger Rogers in 1945, Luana Patten after her star turn in The Song of the South.1 Finally the live action idea was ditched entirely, but early sketches and scripts proved too dark and/or complicated – they even considered copying the style of the original Tenniel illustrations, which would have been a beast to animate but utterly breathtaking – and it wasn’t until the late 40s, with Mary Blair’s bold, modernist concept art and a new musical comedy angle, that production truly got underway.
Despite all that careful prepwork, Walt knew the critics were ready to pounce on any perceived failings of the film, and, well, here’s where I might as well come clean about my own baggage. See, Alice in Wonderland was one of the few classic Disney films we didn’t have when I was a kid, so I have zero childhood attachment to it – but I did have Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and I read them over and over. “My Alice,” thus, is Carroll’s Alice and Carroll’s Alice alone, and I honestly feel that to a certain extent, no visual medium can ever hope to capture his genius, since its ever-shifting reality relies so heavily on the reader’s imagination.
On the other hand, I have absolutely no time for people who insist that the darkest possible reading of Alice is the only correct one, and claim that the main failing of the Disney version is its gentleness. Yes, the Disney version mostly lacks any sense of the macabre, outside of the “Painting the Roses Red” number, and there are no hints of the pedophilia and sexual perversion some people seem so very eager to see in Alice adaptations. (Peter Pan, which we’ll get to next in this series, falls victim to a lot of the same impulses.2) And look, I’m not interested in delving into the Lewis Carroll controversy here, because this is a discussion of a Disney movie made half a century after his death. But regardless of what the man was like in real life, the Alice books (and Peter Pan) are children’s books, and have been enjoyed by children for generations, and people who insist that they are really, like, super dark and macabre and sexy and actually for adults and thus adaptations that lean dark are somehow more accurate, well, they piss me the hell off. Disney’s version is toothless, yes – but I’ve read Alice more times than you have, I get all the death jokes and everything, and your weird creepy fantasies are still not canon.
No, as far as I’m concerned, the main problem with Disney’s Alice is that it’s too grounded in reality. Sure, talking animals abound, but, I mean, this is Disney – a talking animal isn’t anything to write home about. Wonderland doesn’t feel dreamlike or surreal; it has heft and a real sense of place. The strange creatures that inhabit it are rude, but they follow clear rules. Occasionally the madness struggles to break free – the Tulgey Wood sequence, the trippy “March of the Cards” sequence with its shifting patterns of light and dark, and everything involving Wonderland’s most successful effort, the Cheshire Cat – but for the most part the nonsense is restrained and safe: “Here, this thing talks, and also it’s a jerk.” Nothing in Alice comes close to the frenetic energy of something like The Three Caballeros, a movie that feels like the very fabric of reality is collapsing around the characters (to their delight). It’s not even as trippy as the “Pink Elephants” sequence in Dumbo. It’s a movie about madness, but it’s completely sane.
Worse, it’s moralistic. At the close of the film’s second act, Alice finds herself lost in the Tulgey Wood and wanting desperately to go home. She breaks down in tears and speak-sings the film’s moral, “Very Good Advice”: “I give myself very good advice/ But I very seldom follow it/ That explains the trouble that I’m always in.” In the Disney version, nonsense isn’t just a thing that exists, but a punishment for not paying attention to one’s lessons and letting one’s mind wander. Alice tries to imagine a free and fantastical world and finds herself scared, lost, alone, and, soon after the song, in danger of beheading. Rewatching the film for blogging purposes, I was struck by this scene in particular – and it reminded me that the 1950s were not exactly the best decade for free-spirited nonsense. A toothless and preachy Alice was almost a foregone conclusion.
And yet, at the same time that Disney fails to embrace Carroll’s amoral nonsense wholeheartedly, they fail to go far enough in the other direction and really Disney the thing up with a heartwarming emotional journey and characters that tug the heartstrings. I mean, making us care about precocious children and talking animals is kind of Disney’s stock in trade, and yet Alice has no real emotion to it at all. Walt himself said the film lacked heart. Alice isn’t kind to anyone in Wonderland, and no one is kind to her.3 She makes no emotional connections to anyone there. Even when she decides she wants to go home it lacks any real pull, since we haven’t been sold on her relationships with the people in the real world either (compare to the Darling children’s homesickness in Peter Pan: their parents are a bit ridiculous, but they’re lovable, and there’s a strong bond between them and the children, whereas Alice doesn’t even make it clear that the other girl in the opening scene is Alice’s sister, or show Alice’s attachment to Dinah the way the book does). The plot’s too episodic to allow Alice to grow (except to a million feet high), so her journey is only a literal one, and it doesn’t take her anywhere in particular. There’s not enough crazy to get lost in and there’s not enough heart to pull us along; the movie’s just sort of nothing-ing in the middle.
I don’t mean this to come off as “Alice in Wonderland is a disaster and Lewis Carroll is spinning in his grave!” or anything like that. In some ways the movie succeeds admirably, and its greatest success is Alice herself. Disney has always had a remarkable ability to create profoundly appealing characters and cast the absolute perfect voices to go with them, and Alice is a shining example of that skill. Her design, streamlined and rounded (and aged up a bit) from Tenniel’s, is cute as a button and instantly iconic, and her voice, supplied by British teen actress Kathryn Beaumont, is effortlessly charming. (The entire film was recorded with live actors as reference material for the animators, and Beaumont also modeled Alice in this footage.) She’s a joy to follow through Wonderland.4
In general, the casting is absolutely superb. Sterling Holloway’s gentle tones, already very familiar to Disney audiences (well, and audiences in general – the man has a robust resume), turn eerie and mischievous for his role as the Cheshire Cat, a precursor to his bloodthirsty, opportunistic Kaa in The Jungle Book.5 Verna Felton, another Disney perennial (the meanest elephant in Dumbo as well as Dumbo’s mother, the Fairy Godmother, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, Flora in Sleeping Beauty, and Winifred in The Jungle Book) is clearly having the best time ever as the Queen of Hearts. Jerry Colonna and Ed Wynn take on the March Hare and the Mad Hatter respectively, and so distinctively that the animators shaped the characters around them, starting a trend that would get a little too popular in years to come. They also recreated the Mad Tea Party scene for the live action footage, and Wynn had so much trouble remembering his lines that he simply adlibbed; his adlibs were so funny that Walt insisted they be used in the film instead of the pre-recorded dialogue, much to the dismay of the sound technicians since the quality of sound on the live action footage was pretty lousy. Richard “Uncle Max” Haydn mangles words with pompous hilarity as the Caterpillar, and J. Pat O’ Malley absolutely murders the Tweedledee and Tweedledum sequence, playing not just the Tweedles but the Walrus, the Carpenter, and Mother Oyster. It’s a very good cast.
Alice is also notable for having more songs than any other Disney animated film, with over 30 written for it, many of them using Carroll’s poetry. Fifteen made the cut, but a lot of them are mere snippets; “Smoke the Blighter Out,” for example, is never going to replace “Part of Your World” on anyone’s Favorite Disney Jamz mix CD. Others, despite their brevity, earwormed their way into the collective unconscious; who among us hasn’t followed cries of “I’m late!” with “For a very important date?” The “biggest” songs, though, are the aforementioned “Very Good Advice” and “Painting the Roses Red,” the raucous “Unbirthday Song,” and the lovely “All in the Golden Afternoon” and “In a World of My Own.” That last replaced another “dreaming” song for Alice called “Beyond the Laughing Sky”; it was too low-energy and Beaumont had trouble singing it, so it got a new set of lyrics and became Peter Pan’s “The Second Star to the Right.”
And one last fun anecdote: after Yellow Submarine was released in the States in 1968, Alice was rediscovered as a “head film” (hee!), along with Fantasia and The Three Caballeros, and became a popular screening in college towns. Disney was not pleased by this association with filthy hippies and went so far as to withdraw copies of the film from university libraries, but after a few years they gave in and started promoting it as a psychedelic movie, because money stays green no matter how much LSD the purchaser is on. Hilarious!
So that’s Alice in Wonderland: strangely iconic and long-lived even though it didn’t make much money and is, generally speaking, not that well-liked. But who doesn’t love the teacup ride at the parks? No one, that’s who!
Anyway, Walt was so exhausted by all the critical vitriol thrown at the film that he swore never to make another movie based on a classic book. So, of course, the next movie was Peter Pan. Meet you in the Darling nursery in a couple of weeks!
- Not sure what the plan was with some of those, since Mary Pickford was 41 in 1933 and Ginger Rogers was 34 in 1945. Eh, I bet Ginger could pull it off. She was basically magic. ↩
- Paging Alan Moore! ↩
- The books don’t have much heart either, to be honest, but even the more kindly and/or melancholy characters – the Mock Turtle, the White Knight (who in the Disney version was intended to be a caricature of Walt himself, and GOD I would give my left arm to see that), the Duchess, the White Queen, the Fawn – are cut from the movie. ↩
- Okay, I don’t know where to put this footnote, but I have the Masterpiece Edition DVD release, and it has THE WEIRDEST special feature: an hour-long television special from 1950 in which Walt Disney invites Edgar Bergen and his dummies to a party he’s throwing at the studio for Kathryn Beaumont. So off Bergen and his little wooden friends go to the party, which is full of sedate teenagers in party clothes, and poor Kathryn in a full Alice costume, which would be cute if she were eight but was probably pretty embarrassing since she was actually about 14. (Also there: Bobby Driscoll, star of So Dear to My Heart, Song of the South, and Treasure Island, but also soon to be the voice of Disney’s Peter Pan, playing opposite none other than Kathryn as Wendy. Since both kids were basically just using their normal voices for the roles, their conversations in this TV special are pretty much just real life Peter and Wendy talking, and it gives me a tremendous amount of feelings, especially since Driscoll died young and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave and oh my God, you guys, prepare yourselves for talking about this when we cover Peter Pan because it is the saddest.) Anyway, Walt presents them with the Magic Mirror, courtesy of “a princess he met in Europe,” and the Mirror obligingly shows the kids/puppets whatever they ask to see: “The Silly Song” from Snow White, a large chunk of Song of the South (which is WEIRD, considering how tightly locked up that film is otherwise), a Mickey/Donald/Goofy short, a Pluto short, and an advance clip from Alice. (Weirdly, they don’t show “Thru the Mirror,” which would have been fitting in so many ways.) After a very loud and awkward break so all of these stars can ostentatiously enjoy some REFRESHING COCA COLA (guess who sponsored this program?), the Mirror shows them the animators hard at work in the studio – except that with Walt gone, the animators have given up drawing and are performing as The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a famous Dixieland jazz band made up of famous Disney animators because the world is so weird, you guys. Also at one point someone almost sits on Donald, who is invisible, and Walt “picks him up” (while Ducky Nash quacks angrily on the soundtrack) and “sends him upstairs” to “get drawn” oh my God it’s so bizarre. Also one of the puppets hits on Disney’s daughters. It’s so strange, you guys, you need to watch it if you have this DVD. ↩
- Fun fact: Holloway played a frog (the Frog Footman, maybe? Wikipedia’s not clear) in a 1933 live action version of Alice. Like most versions, it was a flop. ↩