Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (18/50) -- Alice In Wonderland (1951)

What a strange, strange movie. This is seriously the only opener I can come up with when discussing Alice in Wonderland, Disney’s 14th Animated Feature based on Lewis Carroll’s duo of books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The film is so wildly weird and incredibly unconcerned with making any sense (narrative or otherwise), it’s something that you can only sit back and goggle at, an experience that makes Fantasia look positively grounded in storytelling.

To describe the plot of Alice in Wonderland is to miss the point, but here goes anyway. Alice is receiving study lessons from some woman who could be her sister (I could very well be wrong; the movie never explains who she is), when she sees a rabbit with in a waistcoat and trousers rush past her. Curious, and eager to be rid of her studies, Alice follows the rabbit down a very deep hole and into a Technicolor mindf@$# of a place called Wonderland. The movie then spends the next 70 minutes following Alice around as she gawks at everything she meets, before concluding so abruptly that I was reminded of the Package Films and their tendency to trail off, rather than end.

If you’re looking for a movie that follows a concrete “A then B” story, you should give Alice a wide berth, because this is not a movie where anything, in a sense, happens. There’s no conflict, there’s no overarching character development—it’s pure spectacle from first to last. But what a spectacle it is! Singing flowers, size-changing foods, anthropomorphized doorknobs, the whole movie is one big acid trip, and I have very little doubt that Alice, similar to Fantasia, saw a great following during the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” days of the 60’s.

This was a poster from Alice's 1974 re-release. Apparently it was marketed alongside Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit." Indicative much?

The movie tumbles head-first into psychedelic territory almost the moment Alice falls down the rabbit hole. As she drops, the colors start to turn funky, her shape distorts from wide to thin like a funhouse mirror, and she tumbles by several bits of levitating furniture. The extra bright picture afforded by the Blu-ray release (which is how I watched it) makes the film seem even more trippy.

Suffice it to say that the visuals are an absolute boon to this picture. The art direction is superb, blending the otherwise unfilmable images of Carroll’s books and the soft, lovely animation style of Disney’s Silver Age—the movie is undeniably strange, but is made all-the-more inviting by the charm Disney brings to the table. In particular, the doorknob is a fun and inventive piece of animation, and would be heavily referenced during Beauty and the Beast’s preproduction as an example of how to get inanimate objects to behave like humans.

The art style leans on the squash 'n' stretch a bit more than in most films, resulting in a more "cartoon-y" looking film.

Alice in Wonderland is the most song-heavy film in the Disney canon, with 14 (!) tunes played throughout the experience. Of course, not all of them are full-length Disney Tunes, and less than half of them break the two-minute mark; the rest are small blink-and-you-miss-them ditties, and even the famous “I’m Late” song lasts all of 45 seconds. The Did That Just Happen nature of having so many songs only adds to the sense of strangeness and befuddlement brought on by the movie.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the movie (to its detriment, I think) is how Alice reacts to the oddities around her. Specifically, how she doesn’t react. Alice is undoubtedly the most English protagonist out of any film in the canon, as she meets even the strangest sights by cocking her head and going, “Hmm, isn’t that peculiar.” Her distance as a character makes her hard for the audience to identify with, though her occasional deadpan remarks are fairly amusing (“Goodness,” she observes as she falls down the rabbit hole for a minute and a half, “after this, I shall think nothing of falling down the stairs.”).

The film also has the weirdest habit of periodically becoming super dramatic. Most of Alice is played as a lark, but occasionally, and sporadically, it will zoom in on one of the characters while the music becomes very loud and intense. Most of these moments involve either the queen or the Caterpillar (who is a bi-polar bug if there ever was one), but the most out-of-place one comes during the scene where the Mad Hatter “fixes” the White Rabbit’s watch by covering it in sugar, jam, and butter (don’t ask). The watch begins to spin and bounce about, while the camera zooms, the characters yell, and the music reaches an almost unbearable crescendo—it’s as if the movie is terribly frightened of rogue timepieces, and is trying to convince us of how scary they actually are.

The horror... the horror!

There are a few other flaws too. For all I have been raving and ranting about in regards to the movie’s unmitigated weirdness, I personally don’t have much use for it, and I find the movie’s total lack of any coherent narrative more than just a bit off-putting. The aforementioned songs also don’t leave much of an impact, with only “Golden Afternoon” and “Painting the Roses Red” really standing out as catchy to me.

Still, Alice in Wonderland is worth a look, if only under the pretense of being “arty.” Disney’s interpretation of Alice is arguably better-known than Carroll’s books, and Alice’s characters and imagery persist in popularity even today (culminating with, I think, Tim Burton’s live-action take on the franchise last year). Though the film can be disappointingly slipshod and absent of conflict (it also lacks anything related to the Jabberwocky, apart from a short poem sung by the Cheshire Cat), Alice in Wonderland is a cemented classic in Disney’s canon, and should be checked out if you haven’t seen it yet.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Golden Afternoon”
  2. “Painting the Roses Red”
  3. “The Sailor’s Hornpipe”

Favorite scene:

  • Alice's trial

Favorite character:

  • The Dodo

The Jar Jar:

  • Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (they function as a unit)

How I Watched It

I picked up the Blu-ray edition of Alice in Wonderland on first week special at Target, which comes with both the Blu-ray version of the movie and a DVD copy for the kids to use in the car. The film looks great in high def, and though it’s not as mind blowing as Beauty and the Beast or Fantasia are, Alice’s bright colors and clever art direction benefit greatly from the picture upgrade.

Alice in Wonderland has a good chunk of special features, the biggest of which is a movie-length documentary called “Through the Keyhole: A Companion's Guide to Wonderland.” “Through the Keyhole” plays the movie like normal, but is intercut with footage of Disney historians and animators (including Will Finn, animator of Aladdin’s Iago!), pencil tests, concept art, and live action reference footage; it’s basically a commentary, but taken to a whole new level, and is among the coolest special features I’ve seen in a Blu-ray release so far.

Also included is a host of deleted scenes, pencil tests, and even a few TV specials: “Operation Wonderland” is an excerpt from an old TV show, and details the process of how animation is created, while “One Hour in Wonderland” is a bit of a variety show designed to showcase Alice in Wonderland, featuring Katherine Beaumont and several guests, as well as a slew of Disney shorts. Lastly is the Mickey Mouse short “Thru the Mirror,” a Through The Looking-Glass-inspired cartoon where Mickey dreams that he goes through his bedroom mirror and dances with a set of playing cards. “Through the Keyhole” by itself would have been enough for me, but the well-over two hours of other bonus features also included on the Blu-ray are just icing on the cake.

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