Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske. Starring Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Verna Felton

The story of Alice is one of the most frequently visited in English-language cinema, and the problem of how to represent the immense strangeness of her Wonderland is just about as vexing. How does one adequately represent the world beyond the rabbit hole? No one has ever really done it justice in a typical live-action film, although there must be a dozen attempts at it throughout cinema and TV history. (I have a soft spot for the NBC version from 1999 starring Tina Majorino, but I doubt that the pacing of that movie has improved with time, and even so it couldn’t shake the look of a TV movie.) The 2010 Alice in Wonderland bears as much resemblance to Felucia from the Star Wars prequels as anything else. And so I’m drawn to this animated version of the story, because it achieves what animation should be used to achieve. At its best, animated films do what no live-action (or, let’s be real, CGI-dominant) movies can hope for. Take the scene late in this movie where Alice and her rose-painting cohort duck down as a brigade of playing cards assemble around them. Many years later, it still dazzles, at one moment explicitly two-dimensional and flat and then in the next, as the decks of cards expand and split, three-dimensional and multicolored.

A much simpler animated tour de force, and all the more stunning for it, is the presence of night and day in the same sky. Tweedledee and Tweedledum tell the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter (and their unfortunate oyster disciples), and their faces become the Sun and Moon in their own halves of the heavens. The Walrus and Carpenter appear from the right side of the screen, toddling from darkness into light, and what could have been a perfectly simple scene takes on a perfectly surreal one instead.

Most direct of all is a simple little shot. The March Hare asks the Mad Hatter for a half a cup of tea; he holds out a teacup split perfectly in half, and the Mad Hatter pours. It’s a great joke, and while it’s possible even without CGI, the artifice would surely show or, worse, the audience would look for it. In an animated film, the artifice is the medium, and it frees us to laugh or marvel without having to ask how it was done.

It’s hard to believe that this is from Disney’s dullest decade when you compare it to the painfully straightforward work of Sleeping Beauty or Lady and the Tramp. It bears more of a resemblance to the actively episodic movies that Disney made in the wake of World War II. There are two differences between Alice and something like Make Mine Music. First, Alice has a protagonist, and second, the animation style is uniform throughout Alice where it is varied in Make Mine Music. Not every sequence in the film works. The movie has trouble knowing what to do with Giant Alice, who appears again and again to no real effect. Part of that is the source material, which doesn’t really have much of a plot other than “Alice wanders the earth like Gilgamesh.” The movie is a series of moments more than it is a story with any kind of recognizable arc; Alice may experience a great deal, but it doesn’t change her any, and the way the story is built that’s hardly a requirement. All the same, there’s enjoyable strangeness in many of them. The singing flowers and their butterflies (which are of course flying slices of bread with a pat of butter on top) stand out, especially when they reject Alice in their belief that she is a weed that has snuck into their bed. The caterpillar exhales smoke that more or less matches the words he says. And in one particularly bizarre sequence, Alice is marooned in a dark forest and is comforted by the strange little animals who live there; my favorites are the birds with the bodies of pencils. It’s a clear parody of Snow White, a movie which was less than fifteen years old at that point, and it’s at once funny and a little freaky. (In terms of its audience, Alice seems to collect people who are more like the electric purple bicycle horns of Tulgey Wood than they are the mischievous little bluebirds of Snow White.)

Some characters simply make more sense as animated people, and not just because they’re anthropomorphic animals. (Thinking back to the NBC version of the story is a reminder that any animal character is at least a little horrifying in the presence of actual human beings; the March Hare stands out.) The Cheshire Cat is an obvious choice for animation; in the film, his body selectively appears and disappears, leaving stripes or facial features or whatever else more or less at random. It makes the character dynamic and mysterious as opposed to frustratingly lugubrious. Alice is a less obvious choice, but must be an absolute casting nightmare if you’re looking for a flesh-and-blood girl. Choose a girl too young and the movie is simply another exercise in befuddlement; the satire of Victorian England that the seven-year-old in the original texts spearheads finds significantly less to impale a century later. Choose a girl too old and the wonder fades entirely, bled dry by the skepticism of anyone older than thirteen. The animated Alice of 1951 is somehow just the right age, able to be frightened and surprised and amazed and bored by what befalls her.

The film spends most of its time, relatively speaking, at the tea party and with the Queen of Hearts. While they are certainly the flagship elements of the film, neither one is particularly engrossing outside of those aforementioned art moments. (Oddly enough, what works in both is the fact that they have funny little animals. The former has the Dormouse, who is rocketed up into the sky with some fireworks and then parachutes sleepily back to the table, and the latter has the flamingos and especially the little hedgehogs who act as the croquet balls.) Above all else, both of those scenes are just loud. The tea party has all the chimes, beeps, and bells of a dozen carousels, which makes the sequence more annoying than purely chaotic. As for the Queen, she is something of a disappointment after the brilliant card trick that leads her sequence, and is probably even the least interesting piece of those sequences with the playing cards. The back-and-forth of yelling followed by sniveling followed by yelling again would be a little much even in a movie which hadn’t prefaced it with so much noise.

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