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"Alice in Wonderland": Down a Very Shallow Rabbit-Hole

Poor Walt Disney. He loved Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and for years tried to put them onto the big screen. The Alice Comedies, which more or less launched his company, took a clear inspiration from Carroll’s classics. In the 1936 short “Thru the Mirror,” Disney sent Mickey Mouse through the looking glass, to grow and to shrink and to battle playing cards. He started work on a feature-length Alice movie in the late 1930s, but had to shelve it because of adaptation problems and a little interruption called “The Second World War.”

It would be nice to say that it all ended happily ever after in an animation masterpiece. But even the film historians the Walt Disney Company puts on its DVD sets won’t go that far when describing 1951′s Alice in Wonderland, and if you listen carefully you may even catch them furtively admitting that it’s really not even all that good of a movie.

I don’t know how many people out there have even read the Alice books. In my experience, people will say they’ve heard of them, or that they’ve watched one of the many movie adaptations, but I’ve met few who can say that they’ve sat down with the books. If you don’t know anything about them, know this: There are two of them, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which share a common heroine and a common delight in nonsense and paradox, but which have quite different settings. Wonderland (which is the one with the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat) is a loose fantasia of interweaving incidents, climaxing in a trial over the theft of some tarts by the Knave of Hearts. Looking Glass (which is where you’ll find Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, and the poem “Jabberwocky”) is set in a mirror world where Alice travels across an enormous, anthropomorphized chess board. The second book is more rigid and features more (and more obscure) mathematical jokes, and for that reason is probably less popular. Both books portray Alice as a sweet, imaginative child, though one with a little girl’s impudent tendency to sass back when she doesn’t get her way.

There’s nothing very much wrong with Alice herself in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, except that she feels too much like a modern American’s idea of what a Victorian girl would be like. (The little girls in Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are, in spirit and attitude, far closer to Carroll’s Alice.) And there’s nothing much wrong with the episodes she lands in, which are mostly bright and fun. One should also forgive the liberties Disney took with the story, and the way that his adaptation carelessly smushes characters and incidents from the two books into one storyline.

But there is no overlooking its fatal weakness: the way it wanders about without any unifying theme, tone, or idea.

Now, you might argue that’s the fault of the books, which themselves aren’t much more than a lot of loosely connected episodes. That’s true enough, but in fact they do have some connective tissues. This is more obviously true of Looking Glass, with its organizing chess game. But Wonderland is also sustained by running themes and motifs. It worries constantly over the way she grows and shrinks, and its episodes lead inexorably into each other via dream logic. Wonderland hasn’t a solid structure, but at no moment do its shifts and segues feel arbitrary.

Disney and his artists knew how to get this kind of feeling across—”Thru the Mirror” is a worthy film to set next to the Alice books because it has the same dreamlike, free-associative charm. But his Alice film tears the book’s plot into little pieces and rearranges it, and so it feels very disorganized, and much longer than its 70-minute running time would suggest. Its only organizing principle is Alice’s pursuit of the White Rabbit, and that isn’t enough to give the film any real propulsion. It also doesn’t help that many of the sequences just stretch and repeat a handful of jokes. The Mad Tea Party, for instance, is little more than a dozen visual gags about how to pour tea. It—and the film as a whole—benefits from talented comics like Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna, but too many of its sequences devolve into boring vaudeville routines. As a whole, the movie lacks a dream-like atmosphere; and few of its parts have even a fraction of the energy or invention of a really good cartoon short subject.

In its best moments, Alice feels like an anticipation of The Jungle Book, another loose film that just strung some entertaining sequences together and called them a “story.” The Mad Tea Party has its moments; the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat are memorable; and the movie comes ferociously to life at the end when the Queen of Hearts appears. The Jungle Book, though, was stronger for being unapologetically episodic and ostentatiously unfaithful to its source material; it didn’t pretend to be much more than a jungle-bound Las Vegas musical extravaganza. Alice is at its flattest when it is trying to be faithful to the books—Carroll’s stories are not very cinematic; they rely too much on wordplay—and at its worst when it tries to goose Carroll’s characters into cartoony action. Disney, perhaps, would have been wiser to not tie himself so closely to the book, and to have relied more heavily on his own fertile imagination instead.

But then, it might not have been the “film version” he’d been trying for so long to make. Well, you have to expect paradoxes when working with a Lewis Carroll story, don’t you?

Disney recently gave Alice in Wonderland a somewhat under-the-radar DVD rerelease in a “Special Un-Anniversary Edition.” Alice may be a minor outing, but Disney hasn’t stinted on this DVD set. It lacks a commentary track and comes with the typical set of geegaws (like a “Virtual Wonderland Party” and “Adventures in Wonderland” interactive game) that are embarrassingly bad. But these are far outnumbered by the gems. A 15-minute featurette describes the background to its making. “Pig and Pepper” storyboards a deleted sequence. “I’m Odd” is a song written for the Cheshire Cat that was replaced by “Twas Brilling”: a mistake, I think, since “I’m Odd” is much more tuneful. Mickey Mouse’s own “Thru the Mirror” is also included.

And that’s just the first disc. The second disc includes three contemporary promotional featurettes, including an hour-long TV special (hosted by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy) that itself includes several complete Disney shorts and one extended scene from Song of the South. “Operation Wonderland” is an 11-minute documentary short from 1951 that goes behind the scenes of the movie. A 31-minute episode of The Fred Waring Show shows off some of the songs from the film. There’s also an Alice Comedy (the first one, “Alice’s Wonderland,” naturally); contemporary theatrical trailers; Walt Disney’s own “Disneyland” introductions to 1956 and 1964 television broadcasts of the movie; an art gallery; demo recordings of rejected songs; and yet another short documentary about a song written for Alice and then cut and revised for inclusion in Peter Pan.

Carroll fans won’t find much to cheer about with this movie. Children may be entertained by its color and energy, but they may also be bored by some of its longueurs. (I don’t remember being charmed by it when I was a kid.) But Disney completists will find much to treasure on this set. And for their sake I will end this review with a note of high praise: This is one of the best sets to come out of the Disney company, and you should reward the Mouse House by buying it. If nothing else, many of the animated bits in the bonus material are well worth having.

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