30 March 2012

Disney Daze: Week 13: Alice in Wonderland

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The longest-gestating story at the Disney Studios during Walt's lifetime was that of an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In fact Walt's affinity and appropriation of the story coincides with the birth of the studio itself, before the advent of Mickey Mouse or even Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Starting in 1923, Walt made a series of shorts called the Alice comedies, which featured a live action girl interacting with an animated environment, the first one called appropriately Alice's Wonderland. Later, when he had begun toying with the idea of creating a feature-length cartoon, Walt seriously considered Carroll's work before settling on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Immediately after that film's release, he planned on getting to Alice but the story was forestalled when he struggled to settle on a style of telling the story. Attempted versions included another live action hybrid, this time starring Ginger Rogers, and a faithful literary adaptation drawn in the style of original Alice illustrator Sir John Tenniel. It wouldn't be until the end of the 1940s when a more streamlined animation style and a loose interpretation of Carroll's two Alice books were settled upon and the film was put into production.

Alice in Wonderland is closest in narrative structure to 1940's Pinocchio due to its highly episodic nature. The film boasts a record thirteen credited writers, who were responsible for adapting both Carroll's original Alice book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. The adherence to the source material is - befitting the work's tone - done with little rhyme or reason. While the first third of the film follows the Wonderland book fairly faithfully, it is not long before it deviates rather extensively from the novel. Certainly several integral elements from the books appear in the film but they are more on the periphery, serving as a springboard or window dressing to a fast and loose interpretation. Whole chapters of the book are excised completely and separate plot threads are combined to streamline the story.

While the film relies on the continued use of rotoscoping, it does not suffer nearly as much from the stilted animation of its predecessor Cinderella, thanks in part to the abundance of non-human characters like the Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit, as well as a consistently exaggerated design for the supporting humans like the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter. Even Alice herself - though drawn from live action footage of her voice actor Kathryn Beaumont - has a more stylized design than that of Cinderella and her brethren. Miss Beaumont's Alice is also much more proactive than a lot of the women that fall under the incredibly loose Disney rubric of "princess". She is an adventurous dreamer who activates her own story by setting out on an exploration. Her stubbornness and inquisitive nature make her a more interesting and believable character. Beaumont's voice work helps distinguish Alice's personality and must have impressed Walt because she was immediately signed on to voice Wendy Darling in the studio's forthcoming Peter Pan.

In addition to Beaumont's fine work, the supporting cast of Alice in Wonderland is an absolute hoot, giving the Carrollian insanity the right amount of misplaced hubris and whimsy. The film is a veritable rogue's gallery of great Disney voice artists. After sitting out the last several features, Sterling Holloway returns in a big way, voicing the psycho-socio-pathic conscience the Cheshire Cat, arguably his second most famous role for Disney after Winnie-the-Pooh. Bill Thompson's White Rabbit and Richard Haydn's Caterpillar are equally stellar, but the show is stolen lock, stock and barrel by the great clown Ed Wynn, who so completely embodies the Mad Hatter that his interpretation is - for my money - definitive. Like Beaumont, Wynn was filmed as the basis of the Mad Hatter's mannerisms and despite the exaggerated line work of the animators, the cartoon version is a Wynn caricature through and through. His line readings are stupendous, with a degree of enthusiasm and glee that produces perpetual paroxysms of delight. My favorite line in the entire film comes when the March Hare and Mad Hatter are "repairing" the White Rabbit's watch. (It's two days slow.) The Hare passes condiments aplenty to a cheerful Hatter who proceeds to dump them into the watch's gears. This all comes to roaring halt when the Hatter receives a jar of mustard and with a pitch-perfect intonation of stupefied, gobsmacked indignation, Wynn's Hatter yells:

"Mustard!?! Don't let's be silly!"

The Mad Tea Party might be the single best scene in the entire film, although a close runner-up would be the raucous unbirthday's comparatively sane antidote, the tranquil floral choir that greets the miniaturized Alice with the great tune, "All in the Golden Afternoon". The scene is full of wonderful visual puns, starting with bread-and-butterflies and rocking-horseflies. The best gag showcases tiger lilies courting dandelions. The cast of flowers somehow look exactly like their real life counterparts while moving with intuitive anthropomorphized grace. There are roughly a dozen floral varieties on display, some appearing for just a brief moment, but they all have well-conceived, distinct personalities. The sequence is a master class in caricature, a truly astounding piece of work.

Along with the aforementioned gem, "All in the Golden Afternoon", Alice in Wonderland features the greatest collection of Disney tunes in nearly a decade. While Walt continued to commission the work of outside songwriters (as he did on Cinderella) he cast a wider net for Alice, receiving well over 30 different songs for the film. Many of these tunes, like the Cheshire Cat's "Twas Brillig" were interpretations of Carroll's prose and poetry, serving as something of a tenable link to the literary work as the film's story drifted further and further away from its source material. Most songs in the film appear for incredibly brief periods of time, sometimes just a mere line or snippet of melody. Only a handful of songs like "The Unbirthday Song" and "Painting the Roses Red" getting extended scenes showcasing them.

The film begins to lag a bit in the final third as Alice finds herself in the tulgey wood where she finally breaks down and longs to return home. The sequence may fail in part due to immediately following the splendid Mad Tea Party, but it also suffers from a lack of identifiable characters, instead filling the screen with a jumble of odd creatures like a bird with a mirror for a face and a family of mome raths, two-legged fuzzy stumps that point Alice on a vanishing path deeper into the wood. Finally the return of the Cheshire Cat ushers in the denouement as Alice heads off to the palace where the Queen of Hearts bellows orders of execution in between croquet games. The best part of this rather rushed climax is the dance of the playing card guards, that owes more than a passing debt to the still-untopped "Pink Elephants on Parade" hallucination in Dumbo. The film's stylized backgrounds, conceived in part by the inimitable Mary Blair, are on muted but effective display at the palace.

Alice in Wonderland is chaotic, episodic, and lacking in that patented brand of good old fashioned Disney warmth. And it's all the better for it. There is nary a trace of romance in the film, an element which has always been the Achilles' heel of most Disney productions. Another interchangeably bland prince would be completely washed away by the relentlessly hysterical shenanigans onscreen. The inclusion of a villain is practically an afterthought, as the Queen of Hearts doesn't turn up until literally the one hour mark in a seventy-five minute feature. This is a story that deviates from the Disney norm of wishes and magic and is more concerned with whimsy and lunacy, the true traditional hallmarks of cartoons. Unfortunately the public failed to appreciate the film's sensibilities and it was ultimately written off as a million dollar loss for the studio. Walt too did not see the merits of his belated attempt at translating Wonderland to the screen. That's a shame because like Fantasia, Alice in Wonderland is a singular film - both in the studio's canon as well as the wider world of cinema itself. It follows its own dream logic and while not all of it works, the film possesses an energy that the studio's output had sorely lacked for quite a number of years.     

1 comment:

  1. here is a site about Disney animated shorts, creators & rarities : Secrets of productions, unmade Disney, original documents... : http://facebook.com/tresorsdisney