Rixflix A to Z: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Director: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske // Walt Disney; 1:15; Color
Crew Notables: Lewis Carroll (novels), Bill Peet (co-screenplay)
Cast Notables: Kathryn Beaumont (Alice), Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter), Richard Haydn (Caterpillar), Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), Jerry Colonna (March Hare), Verna Felton (Queen of Hearts), J. Pat O'Malley (Tweedledum, Tweedledee, The Walrus and the Carpenter), Bill Thompson (White Rabbit, The Dodo), Heather Angel (Alice's sister), The Mellomen [Bill Lee, Thurl Ravenscroft, Max Smith, Bob Hamlin] (Card Painters), Stan Freberg (uncredited voice)
Cinema 4 Rating: 8

You might think my rating too high for what is generally considered to be mid-tier Disney, and it is certainly not the most faithful of Lewis Carroll adaptations. But the off-kilter design, the disjointed editing, and a neat snottiness at large in the film conspire to make this a very unique experience when compared against the remainder of the Disney slate. Even the most sober viewing of the film leaves one in a slightly altered state, so it's no wonder that this one was much sought out amongst the college psychedelic set in the 60s and 70s. Other film versions of the Alice books end up being, frankly, staid and boring, even with their all-star casts; the books seem to be far better read on a personal level than acted out by a cast, and when actors do tackle Carroll's wordplay, they often talk down to their audience, which is something Carroll would have never withstood for a second. Disney took the two books, threw away half the chapters from each, shuffled the decks together, and basically gave us a bouncy if mind-twisting romp through Alice's Greatest Hits. And dare I say, it retains some of that scary edge of which the early Disney films reeked. This is not going to be a mere walk in the park, despite the soothing choral music and pastoral setting at the film's opening.

Since it is so very well-known that Alice's adventures exist in a dream world from the beginning, the film never lets us think that she is not dreaming; she is clearly in her own head at all times. And this is precisely why she should be scared. The girl, like all of us, is a mess inside. But she will work out her fears and the conflicted emotions of her adolescence and battle her way through the nonsense, only momentarily surrendering here and there to the madness, as must we all, before plowing forward anew. But, because the film cobbles together the storyline from two different narratives, the cleverly laid-out puzzles in each -- the card game in the first book, and the chess game (who cares if its outcome is impossible without illegality? It's still fun...) in the second -- are tossed aside so that Disney can just toss about three dozen manic inhabitants at the viewer and Alice. Sometimes the screen is simply awash in characters, and with so many non sequiturs flying about on top of Alice's frustrated pleas while she tries to understand what she is doing, where she is going and who she is at all, its easy to lose your own place in the insanity. How I wonder where I'm at...

Sadly, after much hinting and building up by literalizing the poem's oddball verbiage, the Jabberwock never does show up. I think Disney slipped on that count, especially after the build-up, because I would love to see the creature brought to life in animated form, even if he only exists in the language of the poem. And we never get past the first verse of Jabberwocky anyway. But we are given many memorable scenes (some would say definitive) with numerous Carroll creations. My favorite? It's not hard for me to choose: of course, it's the Mad Hatter and his crazed cronies at the tea party. "Mustard? Don't let's be silly! Now, jam! That's another matter..."

1952 Academy Awards: 1 nomination - Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture


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