How “Alice” went astray (DeDisneyfication, Part 7A)
In 1951, Disney Animation Studios released Alice in Wonderland to lukewarm response. The offering was overshadowed by the earlier Cinderella, which had been boffo at the BO and racked up a trio of Oscar noms to boot, making Alice quite the shabby younger stepsister.
Though far from a disaster it has to have felt like one to the Disney shop after betting big and winning on Cinderella—if the film had failed, the studio, already heavily in debt, would likely have been shuttered. Walt seems to have been something of a gambler, as this is a common refrain throughout his career. Even though earlier films, like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi had bombed initially, they would soon come to be recognized as classics, with multiple theatrical rereleases. But not Alice.
Alice was just not very good. Walt put the failure down to the titular character, saying she had no “warmth”.¹ I can’t say I disagree with Disney’s assessment—in order to avoid narration, his Alice talks a lot more than she does in Lewis Carroll’s books, dialogue which lacks purposefulness as well, and makes us question her motives. The studio’s reductivism also makes an appearance—Alice follows the White Rabbit, hoping he’s going to a party, rather than due to simple human curiosity and impulsiveness in the original.
In fact, there’s very little preamble to the book’s adventures: Alice is almost immediately thrown into a strange world. This effectively makes her an easily relatable cipher—we’re right there with her just as lost and confused. Or in my case, slightly more so, with a linguistic disadvantage in understanding what I’d later come to recognize as the idiom of roughly a century previous and halfway around the planet.
As to the Disney film, Walt’s comment could simply be expanded to the whole of it: nearly none of the characters are interesting, endearing, or appealing. Events from both Carroll books are thrown together into a nonsensical jumble, the songs are mainly mediocre boildowns of the original fantastic poetry—along with many others, I can still recite much of Carroll’s poetry by heart—and its quirky charms replaced with over-the-top wackiness.
One of the animators, Ward Kimball, characterized what he saw as the central problem with the production thus:²
[I]t suffered from too many cooks—directors. Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequence the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-canceling effect on the final product.
And this makes complete sense to what one experiences when watching it—it’s flat, with no structure, no buildup, no lulls; just a series of pointlessly bizarre incidents.
Turning to Rotten Tomatoes, their Critic’s Consensus unexpectedly nails it:³
A good introduction to Lewis Carroll’s classic […]
Yep. If you already have read it, this film will add nothing to your life, but if you haven’t, we can only hope you are inspired to. My precocious hipsterism having been discussed previously, of course, I knew the books well in advance of seeing the Disney version, so I immediately disliked it. And while I had a similar experience watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, that film had a glimmer I couldn’t ignore—mainly Gene Wilder’s charismatic performance, and while the songs were changed, they too were generally improvements, particularly Veruca Salt’s (Julie Dawn Cole) show-stealing number.
One critic summed up my feelings about Disney’s Alice nicely:⁴
In Mr. Disney’s Alice there is a blind incapacity to understand that a literary masterwork cannot be improved by the introduction of shiny little tunes, and touches more suited to a flea circus than to a major imaginative effort. […] a dreadful mockery of the classic.
Alice did grow on some people, though—specifically freaks and heads. The film experienced a renaissance among those who decided it was an awesome film to watch while stoned. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was a paean to the heaviness of this trip for the tie-dyed, face-painted counterculture of the ’60s.
I know my dislike of Disney’s Alice would seem to fit with the media integrity ethos I’ve already put forth, but I’d like to demonstrate I’m not an ideologue but an admirer of good art: Certainly there’s a lot to overcome here—Carroll is a skillful writer and storyteller, and, in Shakespearean fashion, an enricher of the English lexicon, creating such words as:
- looking glass
- rabbit hole
- Tweedle-dee & Tweedle-dum
All these can now be found in English dictionaries. But the original books have another kicker: Sir John Tenniel’s amazingly rich and detailed illustrations.
There are literally scores of works based on these books (Alice fitting again with Disney’s risk-averse pattern), with the first films appearing already in 1903 and while I haven’t exactly sought them out, there are a few worthy of praise.
An excellent film adaptation that incorporated both Alice books much more successfully than Disney’s version was the black-and-white Alice in Wonderland of 1933. In fact, Walt Disney’s plan for his own version of the works predated this film, stretching back to some shorts using mixed live action and animation a decade earlier. This mixed format was what he planned for his own feature film, for which he licensed the Tenniel illustrations, and identified Mary Pickford as the lead in 1932. But when he heard Paramount had their own version in the works, he shelved it in favor of Snow White.
The film features many stars of the day, including W. C. Fields, Edna May Oliver, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and others, all in makeup and costumery so heavy the credits feature images of them beside their characters so the audiences can sort out who is who. The practical effects in general are incredible—and not just for their day, when much of the language of the field was being created. One scene in which Alice flies down a flight of stairs, around a corner, then through the door and down the house’s front walk is particularly impressive. Another one that has stuck with me for the many years since I first saw it was the glowing, disembodied face of the Cheshire Cat.
The art direction leans heavily on Tenniel, but because it’s beyond their grasp, and the film is pre-Code, some scenes are grotesque and even disturbing. Perhaps for this reason the film was a massive flop at the box office, so much so the entire genre of live-action children’s fantasy was avoided until 1939’s Wizard of Oz proved it could be successful.
A more recent version was the also largely overlooked Alice Through the Looking Glass TV movie of 1998 from BBC 4. Again it had a stellar cast featuring Ian Holm, Penelope Wilton, Ian Richardson, Siân Phillips, and Steve Coogan, as well as Kate Beckinsale in the lead role. The film, in somewhat retro fashion, focuses on practical effects over modern VFX as well.
Furthermore, the dialogue in the looking-glass world is nearly verbatim, well-delivered by its cast, and even a scene omitted from the original publication, “A Wasp in a Wig”, is restored. It also closes with “Alice’s Poem”, a haunting verse spelling out the full name of Carroll’s muse as an acrostic through the initial letters of each line.
Best by far is Ian Holmes’ performance as the White Knight, as well as the titular “Aged Aged Man” in the poem the knight recites, which has always been a favorite of mine: full of genuine melancholy and also genuine absurdity. It is presented as a black-and-white film with scratches on the frames and scratchy sound as well, and irises to black when it’s over—a tribute to the early filmic versions of Alice.
To me it’s slightly marred by Beckinsale, portrayed as being the mother of a child of around Alice’s age, but then stepping into the role herself, donning a pinafore and proclaiming herself to be seven-and-a-half years old. Still, Charlotte Henry, who starred in the 1933 version, was 19, so Beckinsale’s not much older here at 25, and it’s typical of Hollywood to have an actress play someone younger.
My favorite, however, is Walt Kelly’s “A Report from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Who Stole the Tarts?” Apart from incorporating the characters from his Pogo comics, the work is straightforward with Carroll’s full text appearing as captions to Kelly’s brilliant illustrations. Kelly counts Tenniel as one of his main artistic influences and shows an excellent grasp of the material.
There is also some recontextualization involved in the presentation: Pogo often commented on politics and culture, leading to it being criticized and even censored in more conservative publications. Kelly considered himself a newspaperman and refused to compromise his principles. This piece was published in 1954 during the Army-McCarthy hearings as a commentary on those Kafkaesque proceedings—as Jorge Luis Borges notes of Kafka, his oeuvre seems unprecedented until you look around⁵—Carroll’s tart trial is just a more satirical version of Kafka’s The Trial (Der Process). Simple J. Malarkey was added to the regular strip as Wiley Katt’s even creepier cousin, and a clear reference to Senator Joseph McCarthy. He appears here as the King of Hearts, who leads the trial’s proceedings.
Funnily, Kelly had worked for the other Walt: from 1935 to 1941, he was an animator with credits on Pinocchio, Dumbo and Fantasia. Disney’s recommendation is essentially what allowed Kelly to start his own strip. One can only wonder how Alice might have turned out if he had taken part.
One I can get behind even less than the 1951 version is the Tim Burton-Disney live-action remake of 2010. Where most have sought to represent Carroll’s vision as well as they could, Burton’s is a reimagining, where characters with familiar names and traits are thrown into a setting seeming to borrow more heavily on The Chronicles of Narnia. The “literary masterwork cannot be improved” quote is relevant again here. Burton might well have a better imagination than many in Hollywood, but when it comes to Lewis Carroll, in the words of the Red Queen:⁶
‘[I]t takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’
Read subsequent articles in the DeDisneyfication series
Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation
Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt
Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan
Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War
Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”
Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred
Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”
Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions
Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio
Read previous articles in the DeDisneyfication series
Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”
Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak
Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes
Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest
Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle
Part 6: The Trouble with “Tarzan”
- John Reid, Films Famous, Fanciful, Frolicsome & Fantastic, 2006.
- Leonard Maltin, The Disney films, 1973.
- “Alice in Wonderland”, Rotten Tomatoes , retrieved March 2017.
- New Yorker, quoted in Maltin, 1973.
- Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka y sus precursores” (“Kafka and His Precursors”), collected in Otras inquisiciones, 1952, and in English in Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, James E. Irby, Donald A. Yates, John M. Fein, Harriet de Onís, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts, L.A. Murillo, trans., 1962.
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871.