Alice In Wonderland, 1951, 75 minutes
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is not the warmest book, in fact the book stays emotionally closed off, by and large, instead choosing to wax philosophical and send its protagonist on wild adventures. It makes sense, then, that this loose adaptation ends up being Disney’s most emotionally unavailable film, choosing to hold its audience at arm’s length. While most major scenes are retained, and even some aspects of the book’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass, are present, the film’s narrative is somewhat of a mess.
I was a big fan of the Carroll books when I finally got around to reading them in high school, and at the time found Disney’s adaptation to be a travesty, having so little in common with either book that its title was more of an homage to Carroll’s series than an adaptation. However, I admit that merely comparing the movie to the books on which it is based, especially because I have yet to do that with any other film, is somewhat unfair. I will talk about the movie both on its own merits and in comparison to the source material, but try to refrain from handing out demerits simply for diverting.
Alice is bored with the lesson she is learning from her sister/teacher, and gets distracted by a rabbit in a waistcoat. The movie that follows, of course, is completely insane, with each scene having pretty much nothing to do with what precedes it. Echoing the book, the movie’s dreamlike quality increases in time, becoming less and less coherent as it moves ahead.
Alice, as a character, is somewhat of a hothead, not showing a ton of warmth. She storms off from most of her situations, finding the characters’ actions toward her to be frustrating. While her reactions are perfectly justified, a character that is frustrated by the insanity around her before we know her is hard to relate to. The film tries to make her more sympathetic, there are two scenes in which Alice breaks down, crying, but they are somewhat unearned. Everyone is mean to her, yes, though her actions do not exactly invite friendliness from the people around her.
The musical numbers in this film are a somewhat mixed bag. First, there are three original songs, the first of which, the title song, is perhaps the best song Disney has produced since When You Wish Upon a Star released eleven years earlier. It has become a common jazz standard, thanks to Dave Brubeck’s wonderful arrangement of it, and it deserves it, it is pretty wonderful. Beyond that, we have two somewhat brief, though pretty songs sung by Alice herself. In a World of My Own and Very Good Advice are pleasant and nice, sure, but they do not add up to much. Certainly in comparison to A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes, or other classic Disney songs up to this point, these do not stand out a whole lot.
Other musical numbers in the film include the lengthy Walrus and the Carpenter number, which is quite disturbing, and Golden Afternoon, which is a wonderful sequence in which Alice is serenaded by a garden full of mean ol’ ladies. The rest of the songs adapted from the books are truncated, shorter songs that are only referenced briefly. How Doth the Little Crocodile, Old Father William, and most importantly The Jabberwocky, are all stripped of any elegance or poetry when they’re just sort of shoved into random scenes. Walrus and the Carpenter is actually one of the better, more imaginative scenes in the film, as is the Golden Afternoon, because they make complete use of the full verse, rather than try to squish it in somewhere else.
This is sort of Alice’s big issue. Instead of writing a straight adaptation, or an “inspired by…” film that simply uses motifs and scenes from a book, the movie sort of splits the difference. From a narrative standpoint, the movie retains the skeleton of the book: A girl, bored while spending time with her sister, dreams about an increasingly confusing and disturbing underground world which seems to be, more often than not, out to get her. Where the movie falters is that each scene seems to be dramatically crazier than what came before it. One-upmanship in a series of unrelated scenes can work in a book, as you are given more time between each scene to take a small breather and spend some time getting to know our Alice, but this film is 75 minutes long, and there is not a lot of characterization to Alice. She is polite, at least at first, and she cries when she is very upset, but there is not a whole lot else to know about her other than her affections for her cat.
Because of its unrelenting and fast-paced nature, the movie is exhausting by the halfway point. By the time we see Alice in the Mad Tea Party, we are already sick of the crazy shenanigans she has been through. I suppose this is why the second scene of Alice crying, and her song, Very Good Advice is inserted shortly after this scene, but somehow it does not quite feel honest enough. I’m not sure what exactly it is, but I do not really care enough for Alice in this moment to cry with her the way I did with Dumbo or Pinocchio.
Visually, the movie is quite breathtaking, as its very stylized nature lends itself better to Disney’s streamlined approach than Cinderella. The film’s sequences universally are beautiful, starting with Alice’s song in the beginning, in the daisies, playing with her cat, going into the hole and her descent down into the underworld, it all is quite fantastic. Unlike what we’ll see with Winnie the Pooh, the film takes little inspiration from the original illustrations that accompanied the book, instead going for its own wacky, 1950s style. This suits the film well, as each scene stands out without looking out of place.
Overall, Alice is more inconsistent than Cinderella was. That film’s issues stem from it being a good story interfered with by little rodents. This film’s issues go much deeper. Instead of a good story being interrupted by annoying asides, the film is almost entirely asides. The movie had too many sequence directors, meaning that virtually every scene was worked on by different guys, and it shows. Each scene feels almost completely divorced from what came before it. The film’s very short runtime simply cannot both contain most of the key sequences from the book and make a very compelling protagonist. It opts to do the former. It does retain the major stories of nine out of the twelve chapters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it is going through everything so quickly that the humor of the book’s combination of prose and poetry is almost entirely lost. Not to say it is not funny, but the film’s humor and the book’s humor have little to do with each other
Alice in Wonderland is not an essential Disney film. While it is a fun watch, it is blisteringly fast, and the movie’s ending is absolutely dreadful (Alice is on trial, and then chased forever until she finally wakes herself up, freed from eternal hell — at least until she inevitably falls asleep again). Too many cooks may have spoiled the pot a bit, but it is not terrible, just messy. As a fan of the Carroll books, I wish a bit more care was put into this one. It was sort of an inbetweener, as Disney himself was more focused on both Cinderella and Peter Pan while making Alice. He cared a great deal for Carroll’s stories, but the film, after years of being tossed around as an idea, ended up somewhat of a rush job. This was an effort mostly by the B-team of the studio. It shows, too. Those other two movies are better than this.
PS: Also, I forgot to mention, but 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, by Tim Burton was the first in the recent, annoying trend in live-action Disney movies to remake/reimagine old Disney films. Still, hat film, for all of its flaws, at least does something interesting with the source material, basing its entire plot off of the plot of The Jabberwocky. Again, it’s not a great film, but it’s an interesting alternate take on the book, doing something crazy with the source material, whereas this film sort of plays it safe. I didn’t mention the remake of Cinderella because I didn’t see it, nor have I seen Maleficent, so I probably will not mention that in the review of Sleeping Beauty, but I just wanted to acknowledge, at some point, that those movies exist.
Next up: Peter Pan