Ranking the Disney Canon – 5: Alice in Wonderland

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“I simply must get through! ” – Alice
 “Sorry, you’re much too big. Simply impassible.” – Doorknob
“You mean impossible?” – Alice
 “No, impassible. Nothing’s impossible.” – Doorknob

Alice in Wonderland, much like Snow White, was a source that Walt always had his eye on for adaptation, and was the inspiration for one of his earliest successes, The Alice Comedies. Walt had planned for Alice in Wonderland to be another of his early animated features, alongside Peter Pan. Unlike Snow White, and even unlike Peter Pan, Walt and his crew had difficulty breaking the Alice in Wonderland story for adaptation. For much of the pre-World War II production on the film, this story crew at the Disney Studio had trouble finding the right tone, most of the time finding their art too creepy or too scary or even to difficult for the animators to draw in more detail. Because they struggled with the finding the right tone, they struggled finding the right story to tell, and it seemed for a while that Alice in Wonderland was going to fall the way of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, stories that just were not working for Walt Disney’s animation crew. It wasn’t until Mary Blair had her artistic awakening during the South America trip that the Alice in Wonderland that we know and possibly love today.

Alice in Wonderland follows our title character, Alice, who dreams of living in a world where up is down and cats can talk to here. During one particular day, bored out her mind from an english lesson, she spies a White Rabbit in a waistcoat exclaiming his lateness for a seemingly important date. Curiosity getting the better of her, she follows the rabbit down a rabbit hole, and soon falls into the world of Wonderland. In her chase to find the nature of the White Rabbit’s date, she encounters talking doorknobs, grows and shrinks in size, finds a Mad Tea Party, gets bullied by flowers, and tries to survive as a disappearing cat gets her in trouble with the bombastic Queen of Hearts.

STRENGTHS

I have a suspicion that some of you might be surprised that Alice in Wonderland made it this far up the list, so I can only hope that my arguments will share the reasons that Alice in Wonderland has become one of my all time favorite films.

But where should we start? Well, you might remember that in many, many posts on the blog, I’ve heralded Alice in Wonderland as a masterwork of episodic storytelling, and have teased that we would talk about it much later in the list. Well, we are much later in the list, and so it is time for the teasing to end.

Alice in Wonderland is a masterwork in episodic storytelling, and one of my favorite examples not just in animation, but in the history of film. What makes Alice in Wonderland’s episodic approach so good is the way the story  builds itself, and how this build gives Alice a wonderful progression and arc. Plot is a means for characters to change, and Alice in Wonderland represents this idea perfectly.

See, most of the episodic films we have seen on the list fall into one of the two episodic traps: they either remain stagnant for a while, not giving the characters much obstacles to deal with, and thus not building the tension, or they fail to save the biggest obstacle for the end, giving the audience an unsatisfactory ending. The Aristocats, for example, falls into the first trap, and becomes a particularly boring film. The Sword in the Stone falls into trap  two, and ends up having a boring ending.

Fortunately, and excitingly, Alice in Wonderland falls into neither of those traps and, in fact, powers through with two amazing fixes to both of those traps. Other films also avoid those traps, but what makes Alice in Wonderland so, so good is how exceptionally the traps are avoided.

Let’s start with the first trap. It’s easy to forget when writing an episodic film that everything still needs to build up throughout the film. The characters, the world, the tension, the action, all of it needs to continually increase as the story progresses. Even though each individual episode is something on its own, they still need to fit together and be able to have the same level of progression as a three act structure generally gives you.

Alice in Wonderland’s main theme is the necessity for order, and so the build of the film is focused on creating more and more absurdity as the film goes on. But I think the dynamic is also related to the relation between the situation and how absurd it seems. And once again, all of this relation goes back to how the world of Wonderland effects Alice as a character.

The film begins with Alice enjoying some of the more absurd situations she runs into, the ones least related to the world she knows in England. The White Rabbit, The talking doorknob, the Drink Me Bottle and the Eat Me Tin, the Dodo and the Caucus Race, Tweedle Dee and Dweedle Dum story, and the incident of growth at the White Rabbit’s House all seems highly absurd to Alice, and so she enjoys her situation and becomes increasingly curious at this world she has dreamed of being in.

And even these sections we see the progression of Alice’s frustration, and it is partially relates to the juxtaposition of the realism to the reality. The fall to Wonderland, and the talking doorknob and the growth and shrink, are probably the most absurd and unrealistic situation Alice gets herself into, and while it presents a problem to Alice, the solution to the problem is just as absurd that Alice, though upset when she fails, is still in the mood to push on to follow the White Rabbit.

This brings me, in a quick aside, to another thing that puts Alice in Wonderland above the rest of the episodic canon: every single episode presents a new problem for Alice to Overcome. To compare again the Aristocats, each situation the cats get into presents very little issue to them, which means it is a movie about them just walking around, not getting into much trouble.

By contrast, Alice in Wonderland give Alice an overabundance of problems to overcome. she must shrink to fit in the doorway, then grow taller to get the key to the door, then grow smaller again to get in the door, then to escape the bottle she fell into when she shrank, then to find her way out of the Caucus Race, then to escape the Tweedle Twins to follow the White Rabbit, then to find the White Rabbit’s gloves, then to find a way to grow smaller and escape the White Rabbit’s House, and so on and so forth.

As you can see, Alice is given so much to do in this film, and that’s what makes this great. Alice is constantly put into situations and places where she is in a pickle and much find a way out. Alice is always in action or reaction, never in static, and that creates a film where something interesting is always happening on-screen. Watching Alice react to the situations she is in is such a blast, mostly because everything else comes together, but we’ll get more into that later.

Back to where I was going before, Alice’s reaction to the situations are key to the build of the story. The more real the situations get for Alice, the more frustrated she gets, and this frustration is the biggest key to her character growth. As I mentioned, the doorknob scene is absurd, but so absurd to Alice that she can move on from it. Same with the Caucus Race. Though Alice points out the absurdity of both the Dodo and the idea of drying in the Caucus Race, she brushes it off once she easily escapes and moves onto the Tweedles, and even then, her motives are more in genuine curiosity, wanting to hear the story of the oysters.

The situation in the house, where she gets stuck in the White Rabbit’s house and is mistaken for a giant Monster, is the first we really see of the frustrations of Alice, though it is a small frustration at this point. This is because the growth in the house is the first situation where Alice could be put in a bit of danger, something that could remind her of the reality of her world. It also doesn’t help Alice that The Dodo, who is attempting to help The White Rabbit, has such silly and cowardly solutions that Alice would be stuck there forever. This is where Alice’s first frustration is, as she figures that logic is out the window, and finds her own solution of eating something else to make her grow smaller.

But really, the beginning of Alice’s change comes in her next incident, the meeting of the flowers. Here is a true bit of writing brilliance. Alice mentions in her opening song that in her new world, the flowers would talk to her. It’s absolutely brilliant that her first real frustration with the world of Wonderland is with these talking flowers. Her dream starts to crack right in her face with something she desired from the beginning.

And what’s also brilliant about it is how Alice’s interactions with the flowers starts off as well as she probably imagined it would be. The flowers treat her kindly, they have a sweet conversation, and they even sing a beautiful song together. This is what she imagined Wonderland would be like from the beginning. Everything seems perfect until the flowers determine that the genus “Humanus Alice” is a weed, and kick her out of their exclusive group. To me, this is brilliant on so many levels, because this rejection is the first real reminder of the real world to Alice, a world of rejection, but here it seems more frustrating to Alice because there is so little logic it all. It doesn’t make sense to Alice that the flowers would see her as a weed. And this is the beginning of her drive back to reality.

And what’s great about the situations that follow are how not only do they continue to remind her of real world problems, but how they relate to her life in a physical sense as well. Take The Caterpillar, for example. Broken down to his basics, The Caterpillar is essentially  a more absurd version of the education she was receiving earlier from her older sister. Not only does the randomness, vagueness, and absurdity of the Caterpillar’s “lesson” frustrate Alice, it is also her first reminder of home, and the frustration begins to build up, Alice wanting to return to normal size and to home.

It really at the Mad Tea Party, however, that all this frustration really comes to a head. The Mad Tea Party is THE scene from this film, and represents everything that is amazing about this film. The characters of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare are two of the greatest in Disney History (I want to hold off on the characters for just a bit longer, but trust me when I say they are insanely awesome), the humor is amazing (including a fantastic improvisation from Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter), the music is classic and top-notch, and most importantly for his discussion, Alice’s frustration grows to an upsetting point.

The Mad Hatter and The March Hare take something completely familiar and safe to Alice, the tea party, and turn it completely on its head. All Alice wants is a cup of tea. It seems simple enough. Pour here a cup of tea, let her drink it. Yet, The March Hare and Mad Hatter make it completely complicated. Again, at first, Alice enjoys it, as this crazy fun is something that she wanted from the beginning. But as the craziness interferes with getting anything done, that is where Alice’s frustration begins. The slow build of the scene, starting with Alice wanting to have some tea and ending with her leaving in complete frustration, is absolutely excellent.

If The Mad Tea Party is where Alice’s world really starts to break, then the next sequence is where it completely shatters. And once again, it is done completely brilliantly. This is a sequence where the Disney animators have a field day with design, with a ton of clever visual gags and weird and wild designs coming across the screen. Earlier in the film, Alice would have loved these creatures, taking great curiosity in their form and function. But at this point in the journey, Alice is weary and wants to go home, and really sees how silly this reality is. Her reaction to all of these weird animals is not curiosity but caution. She wants to get out of there. Badly.

But Alice is lost. And that’s the most real danger she’s faced yet: Never returning home. Again, at the beginning of her journey, Alice would have not wanted to return home. But all of the events she has gone through has led her to the point of missing home. One of my favorite moments in Alice’s journey is when she sees the path for the first time. Her infinite excitement over potentially finding her way signifies a huge change in character, as her excitement for logic and her old life to return is a huge, huge change. But, then she finds the path being erased by a Wonderland creature, and the heartbreak in Alice is, well, heartbreaking. Alice finally realizes the prospect of never getting home is real, and she realizes that there is a reason that up is up and flowers and cats don’t talk.

Alice, however, must face one final obstacle before she can properly return home: The Queen of Hearts. And this is where we finally fix the second trap of ending on a high note. The Queen of Hearts works on as the ending of the film for three reasons: it is extremely memorable in terms of music and character, it is the culmination of everything wrong with Wonderland in Alice’s eyes, and it is the one thing in Wonderland that can actually kill Alice.

The stakes are never higher than in the Queen of Hearts sequence, because Queen is the only thing in Wonderland that can shout OFF WITH HER HEAD and get away with it. Before, Alice continually got into situations where she could just walk away at the end, but here, it is a different story. Alice is likely not to get out of this situation alive, so now we have the greatest danger to Alice ending the film. The film was building to this danger, and it makes the whole film, and especially the ending.

The ending also works because the danger Alice is put in relates to the absurdity of Wonderland. The trial of Alice is a hilarious sequence, mostly because of Alice’s continued reactions to the meaninglessness of the trial, as witnesses and questions and answers that have nothing to do with anything are given great importance. And again, Alice knows that she is in true danger here, so it makes the trial all the more frustrating. One of my absolute favorite moments from the film is when Alice just exclaims “Oh No!” as the entire courtroom wishes the Queen of Hearts a very Merry Unbirthday. It’s just such a great moment that defines what Wonderland is supposed to be viewed as.

Of course, Alice’s verdict is OFF WITH HER HEAD, and the chase is on as Alice attempts to escape Wonderland. This is another well choreographed, intense sequence, as everything she has encountered in Wonderland comes up against her in some way or another. The music in this segment really brings it all together, as do the transitions between the places Alice arrives at, and Alice’s desperation to return home is the true culmination of her journey from Daydreamer to Realist.

Whew. Well. That ends the hardcore analysis of Alice in Wonderland’s structure. But, there are many other things that make the film a treasure.

And one of those things is the animation and design style. I wouldn’t normally advertise directly for buying Disney Blu-Rays, but one of my highest recommendations for a Disney Blu-Ray is Alice in Wonderland. Not only are the bonus features excellent (If you’ve never seen the One Hour in Wonderland Special from 1950, you are in for a real treat), but the Blu-Ray really makes you appreciate the design and animation for a couple of reasons.

The colors of this film are eye-popping, and the credit for that design choice goes completely to Mary Blair. Mary Blair is among my favorite artists to come out of the Disney Studio, and her work on The Three Caballeros, Cinderella, it’s a small world, the mural at the Contemporary Resort in Disney World, and many other personal works are among my favorite works out of the Disney studio. However, Alice in Wonderland is her masterpiece. I seriously recommend looking up some of her concept art for the film. It’s simple, but brilliant, and totally makes the film work. This film is brilliantly designed.

And another reason I recommend the Blu-Ray is because you get a chance to see some of the early concept art that didn’t work for the film. The early concept art of the film is more realistic and. honestly, more freaky, and this makes you realize why Mary Blair’s art style is so perfect for Alice’s story. Wonderland can’t be a place that is freaky to Alice. It has to be something that’s inviting to Alice, something Alice would take to, the kind of place Alice would actually take to. And that really defines the art style. There’s a reason Mary Blair turned the whole project around.

Alice in Wonderland is a film I love to show as an example of why I love Animation. Every single scene of this film in all aspects of the medium. As I mentioned earlier, the animators and artists of the Disney Studio really had a ton of fun with the designs of the characters, completely inspired by Mary Blair’s initial work, and it is among the best designed films in the Disney canon. The backgrounds are equally exceptional, and really add a ton to the tone and feel of the film.

Something that goes hand in hand with the story and design is the music, Walt made it a point that Wonderland needed to feel musical, so he pushed this film to be his most musical film yet. And it works tremendously. From short songs like the White Rabbit’s “I’m Late” and The Dodo’s “The Caucus Race” to the longer songs like “The Unbrithday Song”, “Golden Afternoon”, and “Painting the Roses Red”, this soundtrack is an absolute masterpiece, every song just as catchy as the next. At times, I feel it is underrated. This is among the greatest of the Disney Soundtracks. It is both different and familiar, and always awesome.

Oh, and the score! Oh, how I love this score. Oliver takes the songs of Alice in Wonderland and continues to reinvent them in ways which are awesome to listen to. A Highlight of this is the way he seamlessly mixes the scores of “Painting the Roses Red,” The Caucus Race,” and “The Unbirthday Song” together, flowing in and out of them like it was nothing special. That same brilliance is played throughout the film, and the score perfectly matches the action.

The music goes hand in hand with the script, which is absolutely hilarious. The psudo-intellectual/philosophical speak of most of Wonderland (A great example is Alice saying “I don’t think…” with the March Hare responding “If you don’t think, you shouldn’t speak!”) is hilarious, as is Alice’s dry reaction to most of it. I laugh more in this film than in Aladdin and Tangled, honestly. It’s not the most in your face humor, but the script is extremely smart, and holds up extremely well after multiple watches. The comedic timing in this film is insane.

And the script also includes an extraordinary amount of wonderful characters. The supporting cast is different from most Disney films in that they get relatively little screen time, this being an episodic story and all, but each and every member of the cast is so much fun to watch. Each character has his or her own unique personality that shines so brightly. This is a high energy film, thanks in large part to the cast.

In fact, most of the cast is underrated! Sure, we remember the March Hare, Mad Hatter, and Queen of Hearts extremely well, but The Doorknob’s philosophical joy, the Dodo’s fake brilliance, the flowers’ snooty gossip,  and Bill, The Lizard with a Ladder, are all so funny and so memorable. I love the characters of this film. Absolutely among the strongest casts in Disney History.

Of course, we have our star players as well.The Mad Hatter and the March Hare are fantastically written. The natural chemistry between the two is stunning, and they play off of each other so well, creating some of the funniest dialogue in the film and in Disney history. A special shout out to Ed Wynn, the voice of the Mad Hatter, who not only nails the role, but also improvised one of the funniest bits in the film, as he attempts to fix the White Rabbit’s Watch with Tea, Jam, Sugar, and Two Spoons, among other things (But not Mustard. Don’t be silly.) The couple of scene

The Queen of Hearts and the White Rabbit are both absolutely hilarious as well, but a special shout out to The King of Hearts (Yippie!) Another character we need to shout out is the Cheshire Cat, who’s trolling personality fits perfectly with Sterling Holloway’s odd but awesome voice to create his best role in the Disney Canon. (Hey! STERLING HOLLOWAY COUNT: 7!) Even the Walrus and the Carpenter, who have no direct interaction with Alice, are fantastic characters, and give me one of the biggest laughs of the film (THE TIME HAS COME!)

But of course, the star of the show is Alice. Alice is my favorite female protagonist in the Disney Canon, and ranks among my favorite characters of all time. Disney said that he felt that he made Alice a little bit too unlikable, but I disagree. Alice is so charming, so curious, and so funny, her commentaries on the world around her absolutely among the best in the canon. I love Alice so much, and could watch her run around Wonderland in a charming in British way all day. Her journey is so good, but I don’t have to talk about that again.

A final, special shout out needs to be made to the voice cast of this film. Kathryn Beaumont as Alice is a perfect, all time great performance, as it Ed Wynn as The Mad Hatter, Jerry Colonna as The March Hare, Verna Felton as The Queen of Hearts, Bill Thompson as The White Rabbit, and many, many more. There is a reason that this was the first voice cast to be completely credited within the film itself.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

My favorite song in the film is “Painting the Roses Red” and the subsequent score that comes after it. It’s so catchy and so much fun.

I talked about why the Mad Tea Party is the best scene above. Go watch it!

CLOSING COMMENTS

I feel like Alice in Wonderland is sometimes criticized because it is not exactly the book. And it isn’t. I give it that. But, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is its own brilliant thing, with amazing protagonist, a fantastic supporting cast, a perfect structure, and awesome design in animation and Music. I love Alice in Wonderland, so much, but we are just getting started in the Top 5!

(A note. I’m heading to Disney World for the new year! So no posts for a little bit, but I’ll be back! In the meantime, follow me on Twitter to follow my week in the happiest place on Earth!)

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4 thoughts on “Ranking the Disney Canon – 5: Alice in Wonderland

  1. This movie in general is definitely not like the book, the comedy is so outrageous that it can nearly drive you crazy, & there are times when Alice can seem unlikeable at times. But when it all comes down to the basics, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a charming, colorful musical delight with memorable characters and songs. It only makes sense that there wouldn’t be logic & reasoning in most of the film because Wonderland is simply a land of chaos, which in turn makes it a good way. Despite what people may say of Alice, she does take on the role of that ever curious little girl seeking a world of discovery, to look beyond the world & yet as soon as Wonderland starts becoming too much she realizes the error of her ways & wants to return to the world where everything makes sense once more. This is something we can relate to because we always dream up about what the world can be, yet there comes a time when we must respect why we have rules & laws for a reason for without it a world without sense will be just like Wonderland… Chaos. Alice in Wonderland is indeed a fun music-filled delight that’s definitely worth a watch or two (Word of advice: I’d DEFINITELY avoid Burton’s version, but that’s just me).

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