Thursday, July 7, 2011

Disney's Alice in Wonderland

Walt Disney's past with the story of Alice in Wonderland goes back to the beginning of his career as an animator. After a few of his other shorts, the Newman Laugh-O-Grams, failed to make a dent, his last effort was Alice in Wonderland in 1923, featuring a live action Alice, played by Virginia Davis, interacting with cartoon animals. This also did not gain any notoriety in the animated world, and Disney decided that he would give up on animation and go for live action directing. Luckily for all of us, Disney failed at that and soon went back to animated work forming the Disney Brothers Studio with his brother Roy. With their new company, Disney focused again on making shorts. A independent distributor M. J. Winkler screened Disney's Alice short and found it to be promising, so he agreed to distribute a series of Alice Comedies for the Disney brothers. Disney quickly called all his old animation buddies from Kansas City, where he had worked in animation before, and got the old team back together. From 1924-1926, the Disney Brothers Studio churned out over fifty Alice shorts. The mild success of the Alice shorts made Disney an established film producer and led to Disney's creation of Mickey Mouse.

To say that Disney has an affection for the story of Alice in Wonderland is an understatement. As soon as they started coming up with ideas for full-length films, Disney expressed his interest in doing a movie based on Lewis Carroll's surreal tale. He even planned on making it his first film instead of Snow White, using live action and animation like his shorts had been. The idea was shelved however when a live-action version of Alice in Wonderland was made staring such big names as Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, and Gary Cooper. Disney would have to wait to make his dream picture. After Snow White was such a resounding success, Walt went out and recorded the title Alice in Wonderland with the MPAA in 1938. Work on Fantasia, Bambi, and Pinocchio, coupled with the onset of WWII, delayed the production of the film even further. During the 40's Disney would try another idea of making a live action and animated film version of the book, in the style of The Three Caballeros, but this also fell through. It wasn't until the late 40's that Disney ultimately started working on the Alice in Wonderland that we know today. He wanted to focus more on comedy, music, and spectacle, as opposed to rigid fidelity to the original book. Instead of trying to produce an animated "staged reading" of Carroll's books, Disney chose to focus on their whimsy and fantasy, using Carroll's prose as a beginning, not as an end unto itself. He wanted the film to be more like Fantasia or The Three Caballeros, not Snow White or Cinderella. The music and visuals were to be the chief source of entertainment. Another choice was decided upon for the look of the film.

Rather than faithfully reproducing the famous illustrations of Sir John Tenniel, a more streamlined and less complicated approach was used for the design of the main characters. Background artist Mary Blair took a modernist approach to her design of Wonderland, creating a world that was recognizable, and yet was decidedly "unreal." Indeed, Blair's bold use of color is one of the film's most notable features. Finally, in an effort to retain some of Carroll's imaginative verses and poems, Disney commissioned top songwriters to compose songs built around them for use in the film. A record number of potential songs were written for the film, based on Carroll's verses—over 30—and many of them found a way into the film, if only for a few brief moments. Alice in Wonderland would boast the greatest number of songs included in any Disney film, but because some of them last for mere seconds (like "How Do You Do and Shake Hands," "We'll Smoke the Monster Out," "Twas Brillig," "The Caucus Race," and others), this fact is frequently overlooked.

The voices in Alice in Wonderland are basically an all-star cast of people who would become Disney regulars. Katheryn Beaumont, just ten at the time that she voices Alice, also served as the live-action model for Alice. If her voice seems a bit familiar, it's because she went on to voice Wendy in Peter Pan. Sadly, Beaumont hasn't really done anything outside of Disney related films. She has recently reprised her roles as Wendy and Alice for the video game Kingdom Hearts (play this game if you haven't). Probably the next well known voice is that of Ed Wynn, the voice of the Mad Hatter. Wynn is probably best known for his role as Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins. Another Disney movie I remember him from is Babes in Toyland, as the Toymaker. His Mad Hatter is still one of my favorite Disney characters. The Cheshire Cat is voiced by Sterling Holloway, perhaps one of the most well known Disney voice actors. His other roles included Mr. Stork in Dumbo, adult Flower in Bambi, the narrator of Peter and the Wolf, Kaa in the Jungle Book, and perhaps what he is most remembered for: Winnie the Pooh. You know his voice when you hear it, it's unmistakable. The March Hare's voice was provided by Jerry Colonna, a famous entertainer at the time, best known as the sidekick to Bob Hope on Hope's radio show. Colonna also lent his voice as the narrator for Casey at Bat in Make Mine Music. Verna Felton provided the voice for the Queen of Hearts, another example of a voice actor who did much for Disney. Her other credits include, Mrs. Jumbo in Dumbo, The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, Flora in Sleeping Beauty, and Winifred the Elephant in the Jungle Book. The last of the recognizable Disney voices is Bill Thompson, who provided the voice of the White Rabbit. Thompson also provided the voice of Mr. Smee in Peter Pan, and more famously, Droopy, from Warner Bros. You could say confidently that Disney liked using the same people for his animated films.

On to the film! Something important to remember is that the movie is an amalgamation of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The movie begins with Alice getting a history lesson from her older sister near a tranquil river. Alice is clearly not listening and is scolded by her sister. Alice wanders away from her sister with her cat, Dinah, and wishes that she lived in a world of nonsense. A world without history books and facts to remember. That's right, this story starts with a girl's intense annoyance at the subject of history. I have my work cut out for me. As she is wondering aloud about all the crazy things that would be in that world, she notices a white rabbit running by. This wouldn't be odd except for the fact that the rabbit has a waistcoat and large pocket watch. The rabbit yells that he's late on and on and Alice assumes that the rabbit is going to a party. *Fun fact*: The watch that the white rabbit keeps looking at always reads 12:25. Determined to crash the party, Alice follows the rabbit into a hole. She crawls deeper into the hole until she falls into a pit. Instead of being freaked out, she simply waves goodbye to her cat, Dinah. Alice keeps falling, not perishing as one might think, until her dress eventually acts as a parachute. This is where the movie gets a little trippy. As she falls, she notices random objects floating around such as clocks, tables, and lamps. This is a really cool sequence of animation too for the color usage and shading on Alice as she passes lamp light. The color of the pit keeps changing color, giving the whole sequence a very psychedelic effect. She eventually descends to the bottom and follows the white rabbit into a large hall. The white rabbit disappears into a small door, leaving Alice alone in the room. She tries the door that he rabbit goes through and surprisingly finds it to be alive. Though shocked she asks it how she can get through. He suggests drinking the bottle marked "Drink me." She does so and becomes small enough to fit through the door. This is where the bad news comes. He forgot to tell her that he's locked and she needs a key to open him. The key is of course out of reach on the table. He suggests eating the cookie marked "Eat me." She does so and grows to about the size of the room itself. She begins to cry when she realizes she can't get out of the room. Her tears become so numerous that they flood the room. The doorknob pleads with her to drink out of the bottle again. She does so and becomes small again, riding the bottle through the doorknobs mouth. *Fun Fact*: The doorknob is the only character in the movie that is not in either of Lewis Carrol's books.

Alice is now floating on an ocean. A do-do bird, riding a black bird and being pushed by another bird passes her while singing, ignoring her cries for help. Everybody in this movie is singing half the time, just warning you. She sees several other birds on the ocean, all too busy being silly to help her out. She reaches dry land and finds the do-do and a bunch of birds and sea creatures are on the shore, running in circles, apparently taking part in a caucus race. The do-do is on top of a rock with a fire to dry him off, while the others are running in circles, constantly being hit by water from the tide. A caucus race, or political race so to speak is lampooned here, as the animals go around in circles, achieving nothing since they keep getting wet. The do-do tells Alice that standing still is no way to get dry and that she better start running in circles. She notices the futility in running with the birds and points it out to the do-do. "Nonsense," he remarks, and tells her that he's plenty dry. Alice decides to look further for the white rabbit and runs into an odd pair with the names Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum written on their bow ties. They hit her with logic and show her their love for making funny noises and telling stories. They tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, a tale of the mentioned characters tricking clams into coming on shore so they can be eaten. This whole sequence, including the Walrus and Carpenter tale are actually from Through the Looking Glass. Alice leaves the twins after learning nothing of the white rabbit or anything useful in her opinion. She finds the white rabbits house and is promptly mistaken by the rabbit as his maidservant, Mary-Ann. Alice is told to go upstairs and fetch the rabbit's gloves. As she is looking she helps herself to a cookie and grows exponentially, making her limbs jut out of the house. The white rabbit freaks out and calls for the do-do bird to help. He suggests that someone pull her out of the chimney, so they recruit Bill the lizard. Bill is hesitant but finally tries to make his way down the chimney. Alice sneezes from the ash and Bill goes bye bye. By that, I mean that he is rocketed up into the sky, never seen again for the rest of the movie. Poor, Bill. The d0-do bird decides the best thing to do is burn the house down to smoke the "monster" as they call her, out. Alice eats a carrot and shrinks down to three inches tall again, allowing her to escape and pursue the white rabbit.

From there, Alice meets a group of singing flowers, who at first are very nice to her, until an iris convinces the rest that Alice is a weed and must go. Alice is chased away and discovers a caterpillar smoking a hookah on top of a mushroom. She questions the caterpillar who continually asks her who she is. She sees that she isn't getting anywhere, so she stomps away, frustrated by the caterpillar's confusing manner of speaking. The caterpillar begs her to come back so he can tell her something important. When she does, all he tells her is to keep her temper. This angers her further and she exclaims that being three inches tall is being downright dreadful. This insults the caterpillar, who is apparently just that size and he decides to not follow his own advice. He becomes red with anger and eventually turns into a butterfly, explaining that one side of the mushroom will make her smaller and the other, bigger. She proceeds to eat too much and grows too tall, upsetting a bird, who thinks that Alice is a serpent. She takes a bite of the other side, which makes her small again. She finally realizes that if she simply licks the one side, she will grow tall enough to be normal size again.

Alice is then visited by the ever smiling Cheshire Cat. The Cheshire Cat, while continually singing and making parts of himself disappear, tells her that she should ask the Mad Hatter about the white rabbit's whereabouts. Alice doesn't like the sound of a "mad hatter" and decides not to seek his company. The Cheshire Cat tells her that she should then see the March Hare, who is also mad, as everyone in Wonderland could be described as mad. Alice sees that she cannot win and visits the March Hare's house anyway to find out about the white rabbit. This is probably the most entertaining part of the whole movie. She meets the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Door-Mouse, all celebrating their un-birthdays. Between constantly switching seats and singing a song about un-birthdays, Alice mentions her cat, Dinah. Hearing the word "cat," the Door-Mouse freaks out and the March Hare and Mad Hatter have to catch him. Alice is offered tea several times, but can never seem to get any, as she is forced to either change cups or seats when she is about to drink. The white rabbit appears, screaming about being late and holding his watch out. The Mad Hatter claims that the white rabbit's watch is broken and attempts to fix it by taking all the cogs out and putting condiments and tea in it instead. The best part about this whole sequence is that Ed Wynn ad-libbed the whole thing. They just happened to be recording the audio from a live practice and Disney liked it so much that he ordered the sound crew to clean it up, because it was going to be in the film. The Mad Hatter of course destroys the thing and the white rabbit bemoans that it was an un-birthday present. Hearing this, the March Hare and Mad Hatter grab the white rabbit and throw him into the forest. Seriously, nothing about this movie makes any sense, so it's hard to make any smart remarks on my part since it's so funny and bizarre already. The best part of the whole movie is that EVERYONE is messing with Alice all the time. She cannot catch a break.

Alice chases after the rabbit, but soon becomes frustrated by all the silliness of Wonderland and wants to go home. After a sad song, Alice is visited again by the Cheshire Cat, who informs her of a shortcut out of the forest to the Queen of Heart's castle. Outside of the Queen's castle, there is a large hedge maze, which Alice navigates to the source of singing. She finds a group of playing cards painting white roses red. She learns that if the cards don't hide the evidence that they planted the wrong color roses, they'll lose their heads. She agrees to help them paint, but is soon stopped when the Queen's procession comes into the clearing. It happens that the important date that the white rabbit was trying to get to was announcing the Queen of Heart's arrival. The Queen appears, along with the King, who is much smaller than the Queen. She notices the paint on a half painted rose and demands that the cards lose their heads. The Queen notices Alice and invites her to play a game of croquet with her. What Alice doesn't realize is the mallet is a flamingo, and the balls are hedgehogs. The Queen goes first, using the playing cards as wickets. They move to make her shot go through all of them. When it's Alice's turn, none of the "equipment" quite works, and she fails to get the hedgehog through any wickets. This is where the Cheshire Cat comes in. Wanting to have some fun, the Cheshire Cat makes the flamingo catch the Queen's dress as she is swinging, causing her to fall over. This of course makes her steaming mad and she demands that Alice lose her head. The King convinces her otherwise and suggests that Alice have a trial. They do, and characters from earlier in her journey come to testify, though they were not even around for the incident. The white rabbit, the Door-Mouse, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter, are all of no help to Alice. That is until everyone realizes that it's the Queen's un-birthday, which causes enough distraction for Alice to eat a piece of the mushroom she has in her pocket. She grows very large and begins to give the Queen quite a tongue-lashing. That is, until the effects wear off prematurely and she finds herself back to her normal size. The Queen exclaims "Off with her head!" and all of the inhabitants of Wonderland are chasing Alice. She runs until she finds the doorknob whom she begs to open up so she can get out. The doorknob laughs and tells her that she already is out. She looks inside his mouth and sees that she is indeed outside already, asleep. She begs herself to wake up and eventually the crowd closing in on her fades away. She wakes up to her sister chiding her for falling asleep during lessons. Her sister smiles and decides that Alice is young and she'll grow up a little later. That's right, she was asleep the whole time. It was all a very odd dream.

That was Alice in Wonderland in a nutshell. A story about a girl who dreams of silliness, gets it, then comes back from it basically none the wiser. Like the book, it's all nonsense with no real lesson at the end. The film, like all other Alice in Wonderland productions up to that point, did not do very well in the box office. While Disney did hit budget, it did much worse than Cinderella and was considered a dud when it released in 1951. However, years later in the 60's, the film became associated with the drug culture, as the book had, and become known as a "head film," along with Fantasia and The Three Caballeros. Those movies, along with Alice, were widely shown in college towns and became so popular that Disney pulled the prints they showed at universities and released it in theaters again in 1974, where it was basically advertised as a "psychedelic film." The re-release was so popular that they did it again in 1981. So that's Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland. Stay tuned for the second part, in which I discuss the novel it came from.

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