“Alice In Wonderland” is another of Disney’s offerings from the silver era, an anthology film based on the works of Lewis Carroll. “Alice Of Wonderland” tells the surreal story of a London schoolgirl who follows a white mysterious rabbit down an impossibly deep rabbit hole, tumbling into a world of nonsense and madness, which she spends the rest of the film wandering around. I will admit I’m not as fond of this movie as some of the other releases from Disney’s silver era. I was pretty critical of “Bambi” for having a plot that was a tad too thin for a feature film and having very little significant conflict, feeling as though it was going through the motions for much of the film. “Alice In Wonderland” has a similar problem, though it’s noticeably worse here. A little girl wandering from place to place, following a walking macguffin and encountering quirky characters who confuse and confound her with purposely weird, circular logic sounds like a good idea for a thirty minute short film, but when you stretch that rather thin premise out to seventy-five minutes, at some point it starts to drag. My attention usually starts to wane during the tepid second act, especially around the time Alice attends the Mad-Hatter’s Un-Birthday party, though my interest always starts to pick up again when Alice gets lost in the Tulgey woods and has something of a breakdown.
Another thing I’d like to point out about the film is that it feels quite similar to “Peter Pan“. You’ve got a fanciful, inquisitive young girl who’s unhappy with her life and wants to escape into a world of imagination. She gets her wish and for a short while it feels like a paradise, but she’s quickly overwhelmed by how harsh and alien everything is, eventually craving her old life at home by the end, with the implication that she dreamed up the whole adventure. Alice and Wendy even share the same voice actress, Kathryn Beaumont. Comparing “Alice In Wonderland” to “Peter Pan” isn’t exactly fair, since “Alice” actually came first by two years, but between the two movies I’d say the latter film comes out ahead, by having a stronger three-act structure, more likable characters and a greater villainous presence. Still, something I enjoy about “Alice In Wonderland” is how psychedelic it is. Once you’re aware the whole movie is a figment of Alice’s imagination, in hindsight, the film does a great job of a simulating what the rambling flow of a dream is like when you’re experiencing it. There are bizarre and abstract concepts that are presented matter-of-factly, conversations that don’t make any sense, events and locations that segue into each other without purpose or logic (eventually blending together entirely), and a growing sense of fear, dread and unease as everything in Wonderland starts to pile up and turn on Alice, her dream slipping away from her and turning into a nightmare. Alice wanted to live in a world of non-linear nonsense, and a dream is probably the one place where you can experience that.
Alice is a wistful and unassuming little girl living in quiet old England. While lamenting the doldrums of her ordinary life, she decides the world would be a lot more fun and interesting if nothing made any sense (kind of like your average Dr. Seuss book) and that she would like to live in such a world, which of course sets off the premise for the movie. Alice is somewhat lazy, slacking off when it comes to her education, but she’s also a quirky and obtuse child. She’s always thoughtful and curious when it comes to experiencing something new and mysterious. She lives in her head and is often introspective, taking every obstacle she encounters in stride and usually taking the time to try to think her way through her problems. Unfortunately for Alice, applying logic and reason to her problems won’t help her much in a place like Wonderland, and as time goes on, she has to worry about keeping her temper and frustrations in check, lest they trip her up. Alice’s character arc is your classic ‘be careful what you wish for’ aesop. Initially she finds the random nonsense of Wonderland zany and endearing, but eventually it becomes frustrating and intimidating. Nobody listens to her, the locals are at best indifferent to her and at worst hostile, she’s far away from home, nobody knows where she went, and by the last act, she’s lost in a labyrinth of insanity that she will never find her way out of and completely overwhelmed. Alice finally starts to unravel during her song, “Very Good Advice”, and Katherine Beaumont, who had already turned in a very solid performance throughout the movie, really shows her chops as an actress during this scene.
It’s actually surprisingly difficult to talk about the side-characters in this movie, since there are so many of them and they all receive only a few minutes of screen-time at the most. Still, some of them prove to be more memorable than others. Bookending the adventure, you have Alice’s curt and comparatively more serious older sister, as well as her pet cat, Dinah, who ranks alongside Figaro as one of the cutest kittens I’ve seen in the Disney canon. Alice’s sister is purposely bland and strict to illustrate why Alice would have a desire to escape into a world of whimsy for a while (she’s not even given a name), but I still find myself growing curious about their relationship and what their life at home is like. The White Rabbit is probably one of the most quintessential examples of a walking macguffin in the world of literature. Alice’s decision to follow him down his rabbit hole is what sets off the movie’s wandering plot and she tries to stay on his tail for the rest of the film to satisfy her curiosity, but there’s nothing really extraordinary about him (at least no more so than the other citizens of Wonderland) and there doesn’t have to be. The White Rabbit is a neutral character. He’s high-strung and always seems to be on the go, since he has a poor sense of punctuality and he’s frequently delayed by Alice and her friends. Compared to some of the other inhabitants of Wonderland, the White Rabbit is fairly sensible and easily annoyed by the antics of Dodo and the Mad Hatter. The mystery of his enigmatic identity is finally solved during the film’s climax, when we learn he’s a member of the Red Queen’s court and the queen’s herald. The reason he was so stressed throughout the movie is because the queen looks for any excuse to chop her subjects’ heads off. No one would want to be late for an appointment with her.
One of the first figures Alice encounters in Wonderland, and by far one of the nicest, is the sentient, talking doorknob that guards the entrance to the realm. At first glance, he seems a bit dry and stuffy, but he quickly reveals himself to be humorous and good-natured. He always tries to be gentle with Alice because of her age, and he offers her some advice that is actually helpful about how the world works – she wouldn’t be getting a lot of that in this movie. Dodo is easily my favorite of Wonderland’s inhabitants, which surprises me, since he’s only in this movie for about five minutes. I think it’s partially because his character wouldn’t feel out of place in a “Winnie The Pooh” movie. Dodo is a fairly chatty, easygoing and genial older sailor who lives by the beach in Wonderland. He always makes for good company and he likes to take charge of a situation with his not-so-helpful life experience. He’s so affable that it’s hard to hold it against him when his solution to dealing with a giant Alice is a to try to destroy the White Rabbit’s house (and since we never saw the outcome of that, something tells me the Rabbit managed to save neck but not his humble abode). Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are odd, even by Wonderland standards. They’re a pair of Scottish twins, as well as a set of balding manchildren, who hold Alice up to tell her a surprisingly dark story about a walrus, a carpenter and some oysters (spoiler alert: the oysters die). The twins seem quite sinister at times, but they’re mostly harmless and more annoying than anything. Regrettably, Alice didn’t seem to enjoy their oyster story as much as the audience did.
While wandering through the forest in Wonderland, shrunk down to tiny size, Alice encounters a field of singing flowers, something she had imagined earlier in the film. Since Alice is British, she envisions them all as a group of haughty, dignified, upper-class ladies, who seem friendly and welcoming at first, letting Alice sing in their chorus. But they turn hostile as soon as they realize she’s a commoner, evicting her and humiliating her on the way out. It figures even in a place like Wonderland you still have your basic class snobs. One of the most entertaining scenes in the film is the bizarre two-hander between Alice and a prickly, neon caterpillar. The caterpillar in question pretty much epitomizes the circular troll logic that most of the characters in Wonderland operate on, and he has a real attitude to him too. He leads Alice back and forth with mind games, apparently without the intention to do so, and he grows more and more flustered and frustrated with her as she fails to keep up. He’s always honest about what he thinks, and he’s also condescending, standoffish, and hypocritical, since he warns Alice to control her temper while failing to keep his own in check. But, like the Doorknob, he’s one of the only characters in this movie to give Alice some advice that’s even remotely helpful. He helps her to get back to regular normal size, and keeping her emotions in check is something that’s crucial for Alice to do when she faces the Queen of Hearts later on, so he wasn’t all bad. Unlike certain cats.
The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are considered to be stark-raving mad, even by Wonderland standards. They ramble on endlessly, they keep to themselves in their own stretch of the forest, they entertain themselves by celebrating every day that is not their birthday (all three-hundred and sixty-four days), and they’re endlessly destructive. They’re a pair of contrarians who you can always count on to do the opposite of what they’re asked, and the most unhelpful thing possible at the time. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are probably considered the signature characters of this movie, being pure comic relief, and I also consider them to be two of the blandest characters, since there’s really not much to them other than being wacky or complete insane. The Cheshire Cat is the second largest antagonist in the film and is basically a colossal prick. There’s an unsettling quality to this character that he’s well aware of and delights in. Neither Alice nor the audience are ever really sure how much they should trust him or take his word at his face value, and it would be in one’s best interest not to trust him at all. The Cheshire Cat is a lazy trickster and troublemaker who can sometimes make himself invisible. He loves chaos and mischief, and he steers Alice in whatever direction he can send her that will get her into trouble. He’s apathetic to a fault, and occasionally cruel, caring only about his pranks and paying zero heed to the potential consequences. In that regard, he has a few sociopathic traits. The cat finally crosses into full-on antagonistic territory in the last act, when he keeps trying to get Alice in trouble with the Queen of Hearts, who he knows will kill her at any opportunity, because it amuses him.
The Queen of Hearts is the final boss in Wonderland and fittingly the most dangerous antagonist. While her subjects are all playing cards, the Queen of Hearts and her husband are both human, and she towers over them all. She’s bossy and boisterous, she demands absolute respect from the people around her, and she loves attention. Basically, she’s a royal tyrant on a power trip (who indulges in shamelessly rigged croquet). Almost everyone Alice has met up to this point has been condescending, demanding, unreasonable or unstable, but they haven’t proved to be anything more than a nuisance to her. What makes the Queen of Hearts extra volatile isn’t just the power she wields, but the fact that she turns Alice’s own character flaw against her. Alice is forced to try to keep her temper in check and walk on glass around her, or else she’ll be killed – because the queen does enjoy executing people and she looks for any excuse to do. Her tiny henpecked husband, the far more docile King of Hearts, does try to reign her in and keep her merciful but he can only do so much. Of course, Alice’s efforts prove for naught because of the Cheshire Cat, and after a trial in kangaroo court that was clearly just for the show, the final few minutes of the movie involve Alice having to run for her life from this crazy woman and her minions as her entire dream world unravels around her. Verna Felton is bombastically sublime as the over-the-top Queen of Hearts, and all of her scenes are somehow comedic and wrought with the tension, making them some of the best in the film.
When it comes to the animation, “Alice In Wonderland” is a very cozy and visually appealing film that plays things fairly safe. You won’t find many scenes that really go wild with the limits of the medium, but the film always brings its ideas and set-pieces to life with well-crafted aplomb, and there are some lovely, gentle eyesights like the scene early on where Alice frolics in the meadow. I find my favorite shots in the film are the various creative transitions, like a room full of Alice’s tears transforming into a choppy, open sea, or the various landscapes of the Tulgey Woods melting into each other. The most complex and impressive feat of animation in the movie is the march of the cards sequence, when the queen makes her entrance proceeded by hundreds of her card guards. The movie usually has a very stark and vivid color palette for Wonderland, with purple and red being the two most prominent color schemes in Alice’s land of imagination, which makes for a very effective and immediately noticeable contrast when the movie stifles and subdues its boisterous colors during the Cheshire Cat’s scenes, creating a queasy and uneasy mood for the troublemaker. “Alice In Wonderland” has a solid soundtrack of fun, jaunty songs that aren’t entirely memorable. The title song sets up the childlike, inquisitive tone for the movie; Kathryne Beaumont turns in a mesmerizing performance as always in her ‘I Want’ song, “A World Of My Own”; “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is a silly song by the twins that stretches on for quite a while and somehow never drags; “The Golden Afternoon” is pleasant to the ears; “Very Good Advice” stabs you in the heart with some unexpected feels; and “Painting The Roses Red” is more infectious than it ought to be.
In the pantheon of Disney canon films from the silver era, “Alice In Wonderland” lands more on the decent side, though that’s mainly because the middle act stretches on for too long until it drags. For the most part, I like this movie and while I wouldn’t want every Disney film to be like it, I think it was an interesting divergence from the norm for the studio to make a film that was mostly surreal, amiable silliness.
* The very best thing to come out of the Victorian era was easily the fashion. Twas classy.
* “There’d be new birds, lots of nice and friendly howdy-do birds! Everyone would have a dozen bluebirds, within that world of my own!”
* “Hmm, better look first. For if one drinks too much from a box marked ‘poison’ it’s almost certain to disagree with one sooner or later” “Beg pardon?” “I was just giving myself some good advice”.
* “Oh, I do wish I hadn’t cried so much” We’ve all been there, Alice.
* “Please help me! Um, pardon me, but would you mind helping me, please? Yoo-hoo. Yoo-hoo! Help me. Please! Won’t you… Help me!” Alice, dear, no one cares about you.
* “Well, it’s been nice meeting you. Goodbye” That’s cold, girl.
* Well, that was a surprisingly sinister look from two non-villainous characters.
* “The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of other things! Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings! And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings! Calloo-Callay No work today! We’re cabbages and kings!”
* * I bet you thought the oysters’ cuteness factor would protect them. Nope, they get straight up eaten.
* “That was a very sad story” Aye and there’s a moral to it” “Oh yes, a very good moral. If you happen to be an oyster” Heh, that’s a good bit of foreshadowing. The lesson of that fable, about how being too curious and blindly wandering into things can get you into some serious trouble, flew right over Alice’s head. She’s just going to have to learn the hard way during “Very Good Advice”.
* “Poor Bill” Poor dead Bill.
* Sassy Alice.
* “There are dog and caterpillars and the copper centipede, where the lazy daisies love the very peaceful life they lead. You can learn a lot of things from the flowers, for especially in the month of June, there’s a wealth of happiness and romance, all in the golden afternoon!”
* Alice does not sound like Alice during this song.
* No flower lady, that’s very inappropriate!
* It was at this point that Alice started to worry about getting lung cancer from second hand smoke.
* “By the way, I have a few more helpful hints. One side will make you grow taller!” The other side of what?!” “And the other side will make you grow shorter!” “The other side of what?!” “THE MUSHROOM Of COURSE!” TRIGGERED.
* Alice doesn’t find it weird or creepy that Cheshire Cat somehow knows she’s looking for the White Rabbit? Most people would immediately assume he’s been spying on her.
* “Thank you, I think I shall visit him” “Of course, he’s mad too” “Oh, but I don’t want to go among mad people!” Girl, it’s way too late for that.
* “Goodness, if the people here are all like that… I must try not to upset them!” Heh, more foreshadowing.
* “That was the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to in all my life!” The return of sassy Alice.
* “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it. Will I ever learn to do the things I should? I went along my merry way and I never stopped to reason. I should have known there’d be a price to pay… someday… someday”
* I noticed Alice never thanked the Cheshire Cat for showing her the way out of the woods.
* “The Queen she likes ’em red, if she saw white instead, she’d raise a fuss and each of us would quickly lose his head! So we’re painting the roses red!” Alice, don’t get involved in this business!
* “Never mind all that! Get to the part where I lose my temper”.
* “That’s very important. Jury, write that down!” “Um, unimportant, your majesty means of course” “SILENCE!!!”
* “And as for you, your majesty! Your majesty indeed. Why, you’re no queen! You’re just a fat, pompous, bad-tempered old tyrant!”
* Alice’s dream really is turning on her. The mushrooms have never had an embarrassing and inconvenient time limit before.
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