Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wilfred Jackson
The young Alice, bored by her history lesson, wanders off and encounters a talking, clothed rabbit. She follows him down a rabbit hole and into the strange world of Wonderland. There she encounters a series of bizarre and nonsensical characters, while undergoing multiple size changes from tiny to giant and back again. She is eventually directed to the Queen of Hearts, whom she hopes can guide her back home. The Queen turns out to be a tyrannical ruler who puts Alice on trial, and she barely escapes before waking from her dream, having nodded off during her lesson at the beginning of the film and imagined the whole thing.
Alice in Wonderland had been gestating for almost as long as the Disney studios had been in existence. Walt Disney used unreleased animation from an Alice project he’d worked on as an animator in the 20s as a demo reel to find production backers when he first established the company, and he purchased the film rights to Alice in Wonderland immediately after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, the war in Europe and the overall dark tone that the project was taking caused him to shelve it for half a decade.
Work finally started again in 1946, at the same time as Cinderella, and there was actually competition between the two teams to see which movie would be finished first. Alice’s surrealism proved harder for the writers and animators to adapt, so the film ended up lagging behind Cinderella and came out a year later.
That was probably fortuitous, as unlike Cinderella the critical reception was not kind, to put it gently. Many critics took Disney to task for “Americanizing” one of the high points of British literature, and the surrealism proved too much for both critics and audiences. It ended up being a $1 million dollar loss for the company, at a time when a million dollars was a significant sum of money for a movie studio. The movie would eventually turn a profit, but not until a rather brilliant marketing stunt in the early 1970s. Someone had the bright idea to market a re-release of the movie directly to the psychedelic drug culture, using Jefferson Airplane’s acid rock song “White Rabbit” in the trailer. It made more money on the re-release than it had the first time around, and prompted a much more favorable critical reappraisal of the movie.
And I’m back! Sorry about the lack of posting over the last two weeks. Hopefully there won’t be much in the way of interruptions from here on out.
Anyway, a while back I talked about how entirely weird the movie The Three Caballeros was. Alice in Wonderland looks at that film, and says “Hold my beer.” This is one bizarre film, and I can see both why it failed on its initial release and why it was a huge hit with the stoner crowd a generation later. This was a film tailor-made to be enjoyed with pharmacological accompaniment.
I knew a fair bit of what I was getting into going in. I’d read an abridged version of the original text as part of my high school curriculum, and I was familiar with the broad strokes of the plot, such as it is, and several of the individual sequences through pop culture osmosis. I don’t think I’d actually sat down and watched the movie, however, since I was a pre-teen, so I wasn’t prepared for it to be as consistently and wonderfully strange as it was. The sequence in the forest in particular was a delight, with Alice encountering a string of “wild animals” that would be more at home in a Dr. Seuss book than anything usually found in Disney.
The movie is very episodic, flowing from surreal scene to scene without a lot of connective tissue in between, other than Alice’s impulsive decision to follow the White Rabbit to wherever he’s going. I’d ordinarily say that this would be a problem, but here I actually didn’t mind it that much. The scenes themselves were different enough from each other that I was constantly being distracted by the new goings-on, without a burning desire for plot momentum or coherency. It also helps that none of the individual sequences are all that long. I think the longest one is the Queen’s castle at the end, which is maybe about ten or so minutes in length.
Like with Cinderella, the studio decided to make the movie a full musical. They didn’t quite bring their A-game, however, churning through multiple failed attempts at writing songs based on the poetry in the original Carroll book. While the majority of what made it into the movie is fairly forgettable, the title track and “The Unbirthday Song” have become standards outside the context of the film. That’s more than can be said for almost all of their 1940s output, so I guess the music was a success by those standards.
So objectively this movie is sort of a mess. It’s way too bizarre for its target audience, moves from scene to scene and character to character without any plot, and features a main character who mostly has things happen to her without any real agency of her own. Maybe this is just residual hangover from all the package films, but I actually enjoyed the movie quite a lot despite all of that. It wouldn’t be the first movie I turn to for a Disney movie to watch, but it’s not going to be anywhere near the bottom, either.
Animation: A (Where this movie really excels. Some of the most inventive design work in the Disney canon.)
Main Characters: C- (While she might be an icon of the growth/shrinking fetish community in the way that Lampwick is for animal transformation, that doesn’t mean she’s actually a good character with any real agency)
Supporting Characters: B (There’s a lot of memorable characters here, from the Mad Hatter to Cheshire Cat. But most of them are one or two-scene wonders)
Villains: C+ (The Queen of Hearts is the closest the movie comes to a real villain, and she’s only in the film for like 15 minutes, as Alice’s final obstacle to getting home)
Music: C- (We’ve got the “Unbirthday Song” as a classic, but pretty much nothing else that’s memorable)