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"Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland": Nonsense of the Worst Kind

by on April 19, 2009

What are the great works of “nonsense”? Any connoisseur of the form, if asked to provide a list, would surely populate it heavily with cartoons. “Duck Amuck,” “The Great Piggybank Robbery,” the Betty Boop adaptation of “Snow White,” the Mickey Mouse cartoon “Thru the Mirror”: these are all brilliant works of animation whose brilliance has little to do with story or “humor” and everything to do with their surreal, free-associative anarchy. No surprise that cartoons should be a fertile field for nonsense. The freedom of the art form and its liquid expressiveness make it a natural canvas.

But “nonsense,” as such, has a much longer history. It flourished before cartoons and movies were even conceived, showing up in fairy tales and folk stories. Depending on how you interpret it, even the Bible gets into the act, with the story of Jonah and the whale either being an early example of the form or proof that God, even when He’s serious, isn’t above making His point with an antic sense of mischief.

The first really modern example of nonsense humor, though, is almost certainly Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass. The books condemn poor Alice to undergo monstrous metamorphoses and to suffer recitations of some of the most outrageous poetry ever concocted. They are beautifully crafted, with jokes and paradoxes that pile onto and lead into each other with implacable dream logic. Carroll was writing before the invention of cinema, but he even includes incidents that can only be visualized in “cartoony” ways, as when a suddenly squashed Alice can’t open her mouth because her chin is being pressed from below by the top of her foot.

But the Alice books are, ultimately, literary works, and most of their humor is built on wordplay, not physical comedy. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Walt Disney’s 1951 feature film adaptation should be loud, coarse, and only shallowly faithful to the originals. Gone are such delicate scenes as the debate over whether the Chesshire Cat, whose body has vanished, can be decapitated. (The King of Hearts argues that anything with a head can have its head removed; the executioner insists that a beheading requires a body that the head can be removed from.) But even when it tries to be merry and cartoony, the Disney adaptation mislays the books’ charm. The Fleischers showed how well cartoons can express a spooky, hallucinogenic atmosphere, which the Alice books definitely have; the Disney film is too often just rubbery characters bouncing up and down on the balls of their feet.

The great wheel of adaptation now turns full circle with the publication of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, by Jon Scieszka with illustrations by Mary Blair. Note well the possessory credit in the title, which leads to conundrums of almost Carrollian depth. Does it humbly segregate “Disney’s” Alice as a different (and inexpressibly inferior) work, or does it mark the final digestion and appropriation of “Alice,” so that she is now Disney’s and nobody else’s? And, given Disney’s ruthless dominance of the juvenile imagination, how could you tell the difference between the two outcomes?

The genius of the original books lies not in their events but in the way those events unfold, and in the details of the mad conversations and metamorphoses. Scieszka’s adaptation takes the flattened plot of the Disney films—which already loses most of these details—and further flattens it. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice listens politely as Tweedledum (or is it Tweedledee?) recites “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem that unfolds gradually to its bitter conclusion. (Final stanza: “‘O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,/
’You’ve had a pleasant run!/
Shall we be trotting home again?’/
But answer came there none–/
And this was scarcely odd, because/
They’d eaten every one.”) In Scieszka’s abrupt telling, the entire poem is reduced to: “The Oysters were invited to dinner by the Walrus. But they ended up being the dinner.” This is the idea for a joke, not the joke itself.

Little blame for this kind of folly can attach to the adapter, who had a thankless task. Scieszka is a skilled satirist and writer of children’s books in his own right, but it’s nonsense of a different sort to try paraphrasing something like the “Alice” books. It seems quite obvious that the purpose of this book is to collect the concept drawings that Mary Blair designed for Disney. These are, of course, stunningly beautiful, and one should be thankful to have them in any form. They are expressionist, almost abstract, and their deceptively simple distortions would be a graceful mirror reflecting and amplifying the corkscrew prose of Carroll’s original. In the present book, though, they float away and become meaningless. In a good picture book, the pictures add depth and detail to what the story describes. Scieszka’s adaptation is so barren, though, that the pictures have almost no content on which to draw. Because they illustrate only characters, moods or settings, which Scieszka can barely flesh out, they look arbitrary and purposeless on the page.

The Disney corporation seems to have a Cortez-like determination to colonize and exploit the childhood imagination, and Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is yet another frigate in the Mouse’s far-flung armadas. Anyone who gives this book to a child who has read Lewis Carroll will be giving them a minor treasure in the form Blair’s drawings. But anyone who gives it to a child as a substitute will not just be cheating that child. They will be impoverishing them.

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