Alice in Wonderland (Disney’s)
Of all the stories a family filmmaker could have chosen to adapt into a feature, why did Walt Disney pick Alice in Wonderland? Full of offbeat characters like a cryptic cat that vanishes except for his smile, a hookah-pipe smoking caterpillar, an insane milliner with a tea fetish and a maniacal monarch who is execution-obsessed, the tale hardly appears to provide the sorts of ingredients that typically delight children. Nevertheless, this version of Lewis Carroll’s literary work (with a few bits borrowed from Through the Looking Glass) became the emerging entertainment mogul’s fifth full-length animation.
In this telling, young Alice (voice of Kathryn Beaumont) finds her mind drifting instead of closely conforming to a history lesson being read to her by an older sister. Bored by the dates and details of the dreary lecture, she imagines a world free of rules, where nonsense reigns. But her daydreams are interrupted by a White Rabbit (voice of Bill Thompson) with a large pocket watch who is saying something about being late. Full of questions, and feeling his incessant muttering is more interesting than her sister’s droning, Alice decides to investigate. However, when she follows the tardy bunny down his hole, the ensuing adventure just gets “curiouser and curiouser.”
Those familiar with the novel upon which this movie is based will not be surprised by the portrayal of many of the famous elements of the story, like falling down and/or up, as well as growing small and/or large after consuming magical food. Iconic figures such as the twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (voice of J. Pat O’Malley), the Caterpillar (voice of Richard Hayden), the Mad Hatter (voice of Ed Wynn), the March Hare (Jerry Colonna), the Cheshire Cat (voice of Sterling Holloway) and the Queen of Hearts (voice of Verna Felton) all make appearances along the way.
Yet for youngsters, to whom this production may act as an introduction to Carroll’s writing, these characters may seem more alarming than charming. As Alice wanders through Wonderland, her encounters become increasingly strange and hostile. Pretty flowers quickly turn prickly proving her visit will be no bed of roses, she can’t even get a cup of tea at an un-birthday party and when she starts to cry she’s in danger of drowning in her own tears. Then, after an emotional scene where she confesses to being thoroughly lost and alone, she is directed to look for the way home by consulting the queen of the land. No “Disney Princess” this! Still, no one thinks to warn the searching child that the heartless ruler will undoubtedly order, “Off with her head!”
So why did the inventor of Mickey Mouse dream of animating this whimsical classic? And what accounts for the enduring nature of Lewis Carroll’s book, which has been translated into 125 languages and has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1866? And why, despite its nightmarish feel, has Disney’s adaptation managed to entertain audiences worldwide for decades? (It celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2011.) For me the whole attraction of Alice in Wonderland just gets “curiouser and curiouser.”