Alice in Wonderland (1951) Review
What do I know about the film?
So just why is a raven like a writing desk?
No wait, I have another riddle: How do you adapt ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there’ two books that famously defy coherent story telling and language conventions in favour of illogical nonsense and philosophical imagery?
Have you got it yet? Scroll down…
Answer: Why would you have to?
Despite the correct answer being the one above for many reasons, it has not stopped a whole rabbit hole load of people trying. Prior to this Disney version which was released in ’51 there had been six attempts to adapt ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ into movies. Each one had flopped. The lesson? Nailing Alice is a challenge. (Too easy…) Did Disney still want to give it a go anyway? Of course he did. But could he buck the trend and turn Alice’s contrariwise adventures into a film that people would actually go and watch?
Disney had a personal history with the material, which is not all that surprising when you consider it is still one of the most famous books in the world. He had read it as a youngster and then when he was a young man he was given his big break after he made a small film inspired by it. So when he became a heavy weight producer he was eager to make a live action adaptation and purchased the rights in 1932. But then Paramount released a version first so Disney went off the idea. In 1936 he produced a short cartoon version of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ with Mickey Mouse instead of Alice demonstrating that Wonderland was still very much on his mind.
After ‘Snow White’ made him the King of Cartoon Films, an uncontested appointment, it occurred to him that he could really do Alice and her pals justice in animation. Over the years his minions worked hard to realise the dream Walt had but the main man was not exactly renowned for his devil may care approach to his movies. He wanted perfection. And none of what his team presented him with was satisfactory. It was either too dark, too literal, too grotesque (I would love to have seen the art for that one…I am just picturing Walt looking from the exhausted animator to the drawings and saying: ‘Steve…seriously. What the fuck is wrong with you? Did your Mum not love you or something?) or too close to the original art work…Work finally began in 1946. 14 years Disney decided to do it. He supervised production personally from start to finish…Each director was told to make their bit the best part of the whole film…Walter did not want any mistakes…this is the happiest fucking place on Earth…I am sure he muttered all of these things and more as he roamed the House of Mouse with his eyes twitching angrily.
It premièred in London where it was met with derision and outrage by literary snobs who felt Disney had Americanised a British classic. Disney said he didn’t care, (according to my sources he gave this quote while wrapped in a snuggly blanket eating ice cream and crying,) claiming he made it for family entertainment not scholars. Despite this, the target audience were not keen on it either. The box office final figures were not great. And so the curse of Alice continued.
Despite all the time, all the effort and all the sacrifices our Disney’s Alice could not find a home. But then something wonderful happened: The 60’s. And with it came…well let’s just say ‘Alice in Wonderland’ experienced a resurgence in popularity with college students. I CAN’T THINK WHY?!? Ok. I can think why. I think it was the drugs and that.
It could have been anything really…
When Disney’s estate started seeing royalties they found out that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ had become one of the most popular rentals of the time. So in classic Disney style they withdrew all the rental copies, waited a few years and released ‘Alice in Wonderland’ into the cinema again. Making a fortune. Happy ending! Remember that Disney ethos always: When you wish upon a star…makes no difference who you are…DISNEY HAS ALL THE MONEY AND YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY OF IT SO CAUSE YOU NEVER THOUGHT OF GIVING A MOUSE SOME SHORTS DID YOU???
Did I see it as a child?
I really don’t think I did…Maybe when I was very, very young. Some of the images and soundbites were familiar from trailers on my old VHS films but the only bit that I felt I had seen before was the ending. But how did I wind up seeing the last scene but not the rest? Curiouser and…well you know the rest.
However I have a history with the books which may well have marred my view of the film. I say history. I have read them. I had ‘Through the Looking Glass’ on audio cassette, stolen from a school library one of several perks of having a teacher for a Mum. It was a dramatised version with a very old sounding Alice but it lead to me, many years later, seeking out the Alice books and having a particular fondness for ‘TTLG’ I enjoyed the chess motif throughout and have always felt the dialogue between Alice and the various people she meets is wittier than in the first book.
I used to stay the night at my Gran’s who lived near by and she had taped a 90’s film version of Alice in Wonderland off the TV for me and we watched it together a lot. The cast was just ridiculous…Seriously. The starriest cast EVER. Whoopi Goldberg, Gene Wilder, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd…I could go on. I always liked the way it combined much of what works from both books and while some of the performances are pretty hammy and it is definitely flawed it was a pretty successful adaptation from my perspective.
So with all this in mind…Did Disney meet the standard set by 90’s Alice, drama cassette Alice or just the original books all of which I had a fondness for?
Hmmm…There isn’t really a plot and nor should there be (Looking at you Burton!) Alice is a young girl who is bored. Her sister is trying to give her a history lesson but Alice is in a tree. I am sure teaching 101 is do not attempt to conduct a classroom if your only pupil has wandered off to climb stuff instead. But Alice just doesn’t care. She is all about thug life and wants something interesting to happen. Right on cue a White Rabbit runs past wearing a tiny pair of spectacles and a waistcoat. Alice is compelled to follow said Rabbit who is in a tizzy about being late for something. She chases him down a hole and into a world that where nothing is as it seems…Actually scrap that. Everything is pretty much as it seems. It is just how it seems is bat shit insane.
The colour pallet is amazing. While critics did not like the film they struggled to criticise the look of it and the art work have endured. When people talk about Disney animation, they often point to this film to show where the skill lay. I am not surprised it did well in the 60’s…That is not a joke at the expense of hippies I am seriously not surprised. The world was getting colourful again after many years of fear and hopelessness and it just shows how ahead of the times Disney Studios were, considering how much of this was made in the 40’s.
The scene with all the cards marching in particular is just unbelievably beautiful. Plus there are the flowers in the garden with the bread and butterflies, the rocking horse fly and the light up thistles. The chaotic finale where things all fall apart is staggering to look at and really brings to life the moments before you wake up in a dream.
A lot of the wit that makes the two books so special is left in tact and the Disney versions of Carroll’s creations are certainly memorable incarnations. Alice is a pretty believable straight woman to all the bonkers people she meets and the film does a good shop of abridging the various characters to the bare essentials. If I take off my ‘I read ‘Through the Looking Glass’ so often that I basically know it off by heart and therefore hearing Tweedledee and Tweedledum recite ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ in the wrong order hurt me inside’ hat off for a second I can say that the Hatter, the Hare, the Queen and the Cheshire Cat have all become iconic Disney characters for a reason. What I am trying to say is the balance between faithful to the text and original ideas is pretty good. Surprisingly, my favourite character was the King who doesn’t have much of a personality in the book but in the Disney version made me laugh out loud with his attempts to get the same kind of attention and adulation as his wife.
As for the Queen…Imagine the brattiest 5 year old you can think of. Then give her power. There you have the Queen of Hearts. She has to be obeyed and win every game or she will quite literally remove your head. We all know that child who would kill you if given the means. She is animated in such a way that she is both scary and funny. Funny because she really is just a petulant child but scary because there is never any suggestion that her commands are just humoured: When she finds out that her roses have been painted red because some cards planted the wrong colour she sends them off to have their heads removed…as far as we know that is their fate. It gives the silly idea of Alice playing croquet using flamingos and hedgehogs pretty high stakes.
The Hatter and Hare having an eternal tea party (the book snob in me CAN’T call him the Mad Hatter…that is NOT his name!) is one of the most effective scenes combining famous quotes from the original (‘Why IS a raven like a writing desk?) with improvised, totally unscripted runners from comedic actor Ed Wynn (the whole bit where he tries to fix the White Rabbit’s watch) I love the pace of this as you feel the patience it would take to try and have a conversation with them but a part of me just wants to give up and start drinking lots of tea and celebrating unbirthdays with them. (A concept that is actually introduced by Humpty Dumpty in ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Sorry.)
A lot of the dialogue is nonsensical and it was a brave move to commit to that and not try and give Alice any further motivation in the story other than curiosity. This is not typical family movie fare but it is also not too far up its own intellectual ass meaning children can enjoy an introduction to wonderland without feeling the need to question how they arrived at this point.
Overall, I would recommend this film to parents of children, fans of Disney classics and lovers of visually engaging films…But I did not like it. And here is why.
What Doesn’t Work:
Remember when I said there were stuck up snobs who didn’t like the fact that Disney had dared to tamper with a British classic? I am very sorry to say I am such a snob. Maybe if this film had been my first introduction to Alice and her dreams. But it wasn’t. Therefore I inevitably compared and contrasted it to the recordings/films/books I was familiar with. And it did not measure up well.
Now some of my problems with it, many of which were hinted at above, are totally my own and therefore we won’t spent too much time on them. I missed characters that did not make the big screen: the White Knight, Humpty Dumpty, the Sheep, the White Queen, The Duchess, the Cook, The Mock Turtle, ‘Jabberwocky’… Fuck me, I missed the Jabberwock, my son. Most of all I missed the chess game. Most of these are in the darker, less beloved and better written second book and don’t really fit with the tone of the film which is a shame. A lot of the Disney characters are given lines that don’t belong to them, the Cheshire Cat’s best lines are nowhere to be found for some reason and you do not want to get me started on what they did to ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ You really don’t. I got quite upset and nearly turned it off. See? Snob.
I understand why changes HAVE to be made when turning a book to a film. In TTLG, Alice read the poem Jabberywocky early on and does not know what it means. Later in the book she asks Humpty Dumpty to explain it to her so he goes through the first verse explaining nearly every word. This poem is of course written by Carroll. So he has a character in his book explain to another character in his book what the words in his book mean. This would not translate into gripping viewing but my eyes are welling up with joy just typing that. I am currently reciting the poem out loud. I love that book. And Disney, oh no I am going to say it, just doesn’t get it. Alice is not a story about a little girl’s adventures in wonderland. Even at the most fundamental and base level it is about the joy of words. And so much of that gets lost in this version.
I know I am not only being biased when I say the hacked up story and missing characters are an issue. Ok, you can’t keep it all and Disney films are often full of padding and filler where it is not needed so good on them for editing the scripts down…but…why so much of Alice on her own? When Disney was asked about the failure of the film he lay the blame squarely at Alice’s door claiming the ‘character has no heart.’ So even he agrees with me. So many adaptations fuck it up by making her the focus of the story. Alice is a blank slate and is really only a reactor not a player. But in this she spends a lot of time pissing around trying to figure how to get to the right size (one of the reasons I really don’t care for the first book is the tedious personal growth motif) and she even gets a Snow White moment when she cries in the forest and warbles while all the woodland critters look on with pity.
Speaking of singing: Easily the worst thing about this film is the music. Yes Disney tried to adapt as many of Carroll’s own poems as he could but they don’t really fit the Disney song format and the effort to combine the two is messy. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has more individual songs than any Disney feature, some of them only several seconds long, and yet NONE of them were featured on the 60th anniversary album that contained the best of Disney scores. I wrote down the names of some of the longer songs while I was watching it and I cannot remember how any of the following go: World of my Own, Golden Afternoon, Alice’ Sad Song which Probably has a Name but all I can think of is the Snow White in the wood song…It is a miserable collection. Genuinely and sincerely very disappointing.
Ultimately I agree with the many critics who say that it was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. There were a lot of directors and a lot of script writers and then Disney was there trying to get the tone of the thing right… The effort that goes into trying to make it seem authentically kooky leaves the whole thing feeling flat. Very little of it is bad, hence my appraisal in the what works section that compliments a lot of what I have criticised here, but it is not as good as it could have been. There is very little in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that I feel any affection for.
So the hunt for a faithful, beautiful adaptation of ‘Through the Looking Glass’ that really works with the material continues. I seriously love that book. Who is dreaming the story Alice or the Red King? If he wakes up first will she die? If she reaches the eighth square first does that make her royalty? Should you carve a pudding that you have been formally introduced to? And if you can see if a person is singing or not do you in fact have sharper eyes than most? How many impossible things can you believe before breakfast? Whoever said Fiddledeedee was an English word anyway????
I really love that book.
It works as a watered down cinematic version of two literary classics that has been created with the purpose of introducing children to Wonderland and it looks stunning. But as a fan of the books, especially the magnificent ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ it fails on too many levels to be truly appreciated by me.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count: 5
Walrus eating sentient oysters, some of the ways the Cheshire Cat disappears, the cards being dragged off to ‘lose their heads,’ the red faced Queen waiting for Alice to slip up so she can murder her, and everyone running after her as she tries to escape.
Honestly? None of them. Instead here is Gene Wilder dressed as a turtle singing about dancing with lobsters. Whimsy, bitches:
NOTE: Sorry that every version of this song refuses to be viewed on my site. If you click the link you can view it on youtube at your leisure though.
Next Time: We find out why some people are not white and a marketing icon is born…Peter Pan (1953)