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Alice in Wonderland Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 8, 2011

    Alice in Wonderland Review

    Curiouser and curiouser ...”

    Rabbit-holes, impossible dinner-dates, magic pick-me-ups that shrink-you-down, drug-taking caterpillars, a menacing preternatural grin and a raving lunatic who could easily be the most unpredictable foe that Batman never actually faced. Welcome to the distracted, abstracted, twisted, topsy-turvy realm of Wonderland, the most colourful and insanely inspired corner of the imagination, spilled forth from the mind of Lewis Carroll and brought to vivid, hypnotic, kaleidoscopic life by his spiritual soul-mate, Walt Disney over a hundred years later.

    Don't be late, now … this is a very important date. You'd have to be losing your head to miss it.

    Disney's glorious 13th production was unveiled back in 1951, so now we can enjoy its frivolous splendour on region-free UK Blu-ray to help celebrate its 60th un-birthday! After Uncle Walt's brigade had astounded audiences with features as varied as Fantasia, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Bambi, Alice In Wonderland had been another of Disney's most cherished projects, and he'd even attempted versions of it back in the silent days of the twenties, but it had taken quite some time to get a dedicated, full-length animated feature off the ground. Based very closely upon Carroll's famously improvised tale, recited to the real-life Alice (the daughter of the Dean at Christchurch, Oxford University, where Carroll was a professor of mathematics) during a leisurely boat-trip and picnic. The fictional Alice, bored with her lessons by the lakeside, drifts off to sleep and falls into the dream-world of Wonderland, a surreal landscape of nonsensical riddles, bizarre characters and situations that would even confound the proprietors of The Twilight Zone, and learns to deal with her predicament via immaculate manners, infinite curiosity and the sheer tenacity of wit in the face of the utterly implausible. The original story, which the real Alice implored Carroll to write down and build upon, has become one of literature's greatest fantasies, and its tendrils have permeated modern culture with more timeless savvy than anything by Dickens or Shakespeare, yet there has been precious few actual film adaptations that have come close to embracing the sprightly, bewitched glamour of it. Tim Burton darkened things down with his highly anticipated, yet strangely wonder-less sequel interpretation. Elements of the story, including Carroll's own follow-up, Alice Through The Looking Glass, have been found on television, in cartoons, pantomime and, with terrific aplomb, even in live-action theatre-in-the-park shows (the story, itself, seems God-given to this sort of presentation). Yet, Disney's Golden Age movie remains the real deal because it gave life and substance to such a rich and incredibly varied roster of creatures and settings and stayed remarkably accurate to the original sketches and illustrations that Carroll, himself, was peculiarly good at creating. Lewis Carroll and Disney were surely a match made in … well, Wonderland.

    Alice spies the White Rabbit scurrying through the shrubberies and gives chase, intrigued by the fact that he is wearing a waistcoat and keeps referring to his pocket-watch and declaring that he is late! Naturally, one doesn't see this sort of thing everyday … but Alice's curiosity certainly gets the better of the young girl and, following his fluffy cotton-tail down his rabbit-hole, finds herself trapped in a land of talking playing cards, obese schoolboy-idiot twins, a grinning Cheshire Cat with the power to morph into thin air and materialise anywhere he pleases, a pair of deranged delinquents, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, and their long-suffering, teapot-dwelling dormouse, a bazuki-guzzling caterpillar and a talking doorknob. She will foolishly imbibe of suspicious looking phials of potions and grow to tower block proportions and shrink to the stature of a bug. She will blunder into the path of decapitation-addicted royalty and be serenaded by a chorus of flora. Her own tears will form a tsunami of innocence, and her iron-willed determination to remain polite and level-headed amidst such chaos and reckless tomfoolery will become a benchmark to any aspiring politician. Indeed, there is the consensus that the ever-witty Carroll was actually remarking on the young Queen Victoria battling away against the pernicious, back-stabbing hordes of Parliament, with Alice standing in for the beleaguered monarch.

    Although lost and very far from home - and Kansas, for that matter – we don't necessarily feel any anxiety or despair for Alice. This is because the story is designed to be cheerfully episodic, something or someone always comes along to interrupt any potential for wallowing in lonely worry. Not all of the set-pieces work, but this is the sort of baggage that is part and parcel of such a whimsical flight of fancy that depends on a chapterised, or segmented narrative. I've never been fond of that irritating duo of Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, or the tale of the Walrus and those oysters, or the second bout of growth spurting, when Alice disturbs a reproachful bird from its perch, which doesn't exactly go anywhere, other than up and down. But this is still a majestic tour through the labyrinths of a mind set free to explore its own unalloyed forms of expression.

    The astounding thing about Carroll's creation is that it can stand up to any sort of psychological investigation, any sort of interpretive probing from any standpoint or perspective. Whatever your beliefs, you can see parallels, affirmations, affronts or objections. Metaphor and allegory run as rampant as the spectrum in Wonderland. Yet none of these more complex thoughts and idioms matter one iota at the end of the day, because Wonderland is also its own thing – in and of itself, and it will happily defy all incursions. This is why it is so enduring … and also why, despite all the fun and antics of the weird characters that inhabit the place, it is also an environment that is quite scary and disturbing. You can watch Alice's adventures with the detached and untroubled humour that you can view almost any Disney film with, of course, but there are also a lot – a hell of a lot – of frightening notions and predicaments birthed within the ever-shifting walls of this rainbow-painted realm. Wonderland is a Pandora's Box left up in the attic, with the lid not fastened down properly, and bits of it tend to bleed out and play with the frayed edges of the imagination, luring you back for more. Disney knew that his visuals could become an intoxicant, and Carrol's tale was the perfect ingredient – like the secret formula hiding within the exquisite taste of Coke – that would lure audiences like a soporific drug, wooing them with dazzling images and then lulling them into a reverie in which Wonderland's actually quite subversive magic could then interfere with their own dreams.

    I have always found the Mad Hatter to be a frightening creation. Of course, we all know that an iteration of the character found his way into Batman's Rogues Gallery, but the truth is that nearly all of the Dark Knight's classic male foes owes something to the irascible nut-job who holds court over the insanity of an endless tea-party. There is the hint of a mischievous leprechaun about him. The manic humour of a malevolent clown. And the knowing connivance of a gypsy tinker. Although the March Hare has more to say for himself, there is an impetuous unpredictability about the diminutive, top-hat wearing basket-case. He may be jovial and tea-obsessed for the most part, but there's definitely something sinister about him. You just know that he could flip at any moment … and turn violent. This is precisely the model that has been used for many a screen maniac who has two faces, two sides and in spite of all outward appearances and pretences otherwise, just cannot be trusted. Just having the massively familiar voice of Ed Wynn, who had just come off the back of his own TV show, is not enough to sweeten the psycho-pill. This guy is a serious wacko.

    To my way of thinking, this is the perfect incarnation of the Mad Hatter. He is screwy, demented, obsessive, irreverent, flippant, cruel, garrulous and quite unapologetically, unrepentantly, unmistakably mad. This is one of the more crucial elements in which Tim Burton dropped the teapot in his dour and unforgivably gloomy re-imagining of the story. He gave the Mad Hatter, as well as the entire kingdom of Wonderland a backstory, a relevance and an emotional angst that the tale had never needed, and simply did not benefit from. But, despite turning this wayward magical realm into a quasi Narnia full of social hang-ups – which would have had Carroll in a spin – my biggest grievance was with his determination to humanise the Mad Hatter, to provide him with a haunted history. There are a million quirky characters in Burton's head, and the majority of them all unique to his own imagination. Why he felt the need to layer subtext, pathos and even conscience-fuelled heroism to someone as deliberately, specifically and undilutedly deranged as this, is beyond me. The template was here, and Wynn's wheezy, tongue-flipping characterisation of this renegade in an already wholly rebellious dimension was absolutely spot on. On paper, and certainly in theory, the casting of Burton's onscreen avatar, Johnny Depp, was truly inspired … but the elaborations that were made to the persona, and the psychological complications that ensued from them, were just completely and unutterably unneeded and unwanted. It was a lapse from absurdity and into reason that heralded Burton's film as a fall from grace for the acknowledged fantasy of Wonderland. We are lucky, then, that we still have Disney's eloquent, riddlesome, circuitous and avant-garde depiction to fall back upon.

    Alice, herself, is voiced with twee, era-laced grace by Kathryn Beaumont, bestowing upon the girl tones that are clearly beyond her years, despite the fact that the actress was only ten years old at the time! This works, however, because the upper class Alice, in whose mind all of this occurs anyway, is the one focal point, the one shining reminder that normality is trying to hold its own ground against such carnivalesque distraction. Then again, in Wonderland, normality is insanity, and to appear otherwise is tantamount to a refusal to conform. But Alice is the observer-conduit through which the audience can attempt to unravel all the contradictions, and salvage something out of the maelstrom with some degree of order. Beaumont would go on to supply the voice of Wendy in Disney's fantastic 1953 version of Peter Pan.

    The rest of the cast are just as perfectly attuned to the delirious situation.

    Sterling Holloway had actually played the Frog in Paramount's 1933 version of Alice, but the man who became famous for voicing Winnie The Pooh, would assume the role of the Cheshire Cat for Disney's superior adaptation. In a cute slice of pre-release marketing, he would even bring the tricksy feline to television on The Fred Waring Show, which became a great promo-piece for the film, with Beaumont and Disney, himself, appearing alongside.(In a brilliant little touch, this episode is actually presented as an extra on this release.) Disney would hire him once again to voice Kaa, the villainous serpent in The Jungle Book Richard Haydn's vowel-spouting, smoke-ring enunciating upper-class vernacular was supreme for the Caterpillar. Haydn would go on to appear in the lavish 1962 version of Mutiny On The Bounty opposite Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, and then get involved with the wonderful Young Frankenstein for Mel Brooks. The noble arrogance of the Caterpillar comes across like an insectoid blend of Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov (both would share awesome screen-time together in Spartacus), a blue-skinned and no doubt blue-blooded aristocrat who is, ironically, ambivalent to the scandalous liberal imbibing of his own intoxicating mixture. The intimidating Queen of Hearts was played by Disney veteran Verna Felton, who brought both her domineering tones from Dumbo's gossiping pachyderm troupe leader, as well as her more pleasant and placatory softness from Cinderella's Fairy Godmother, to the pot, enabling the croquet-loving harridan to move from simpering fake coddling to abject genocidal glee in one effortless, rug-pulling sentence.

    As you would expect, the animation is sublime and executed with the sort of dedication that only a world as surreal and as liberated as Wonderland could inspire in its team of artists. Carroll's flamboyantly descriptive text was a perfect well-spring to conjure from, but Disney's creative inkers were the ones who provided quintessential shape and depth to this warped lagoon of the bizarre and the impossible. We have the bravura fall down the rabbit-hole, a descent marked by the period furnishings of grand old mansions and other object d'art on the way down – something that actually brings to mind the scene in Dario Argento's Inferno when Irene Miracle takes an unwise dive into a sunken parlour room – and the marvellous size fluctuations in the locked box room that acts as a wonderful perception-twister. The maze that becomes a trap for Alice and a trio of paint-happy playing cards out to correct a dreadful error in their floristry is another wonderful construction. The perpetual grinning of the Cheshire Cat becomes a playful signature for the film, often seen as only a dislocated half-moon hanging there in mid-air with a mocking-cum-menacing anti-gravity aura. Crazy peripheral critters abound, such as the ever-industrious shovel-bird, a kindergarten of trotting plant-things, and the dog-like magic-path scuffler who can pass invisibly through obstacles like a janitorial ghost. In many ways, the menagerie on display now seems quite quaint and even under-populated – it is easy to imagine animators nowadays flooding the screen with beasts and faerie-folk – but there are still plenty of visual oddities to provide happily implausible footnotes along the way. It is also a film that took a necessarily unusual stance towards its animation style. Gone were the beautifully rendered backdrops that paid infinite attention to realistic detail, such as in Snow White and Bambi. Gone were the florid water-colour hues and hard-studied motion. This was a land of pure make-believe … so, barring Alice, herself, all bets were off. Geometry mattered little and credible depth was sacrificed in order to retain the off-kilter values of such an un-regimented and unnatural environment.

    As free and abandoned as Disney's Alice In Wonderland, there is so much scope for darkness and debauchery inherent in the story that it is actually good fun to postulate the scenarios that could be lurking just beneath that glossy colourful surface. Where most children's fairytales and folklore, from the Vikings to the Brothers Grimm, to Disney to Neil Gaiman, are cautionary and moralistic, or, as we find in more recent material, allegorical and empowering, the hidden dangers and warnings work on a subliminal level for younger minds. Of course they could always see the parallels, but never more so than in today's society when the superficial innocence of Disney is totally inverted by all manner of media saturation from Nintendo DS to Big Brother, and from Doctor Who to Lady Ga Ga. And, being the father of two young'uns, I am acutely aware of such influences, but what I'm saying is definitely not that your kids are safe with Disney – those veiled threats and dangers have always been there – but that the very things that we, as adults, spot as metaphor and think that the kids haven't picked up on … they've clocked too. They might not understand all the connotations, but a lot more of them are sussing the fact that there is something else going on behind the hippy-trippy visuals and the odd jaunty but nonsensical ballad. The queer behaviour of the adults and the world that they around them is a vibe instilled in them, no matter how innocent we believe their sponge-like minds to be.

    You can imagine modern interpretations that seek the metaphor behind the lunacy dumping Alice into some depraved Eastern European crack-whore den run by torture-addicts. Indeed, there were those toys that came out a few years ago that depicted Alice and the various characters that she encounters as sleazy, fetishistic demons and salacious, Satanic witch-hookers. A movie version of this highly corrupted, and highly intriguing variant seemed to beckon at one stage, though nothing, to date, has come of it.

    The theme of a young girl falling asleep and confronting her dreams and desires was also meticulously and symbolically explored in Neil Jordan's excellent werewolf fable, The Company Of Wolves, itself based on a tremendous literary source in the stories of Angela Carter. But before we get too far removed from what is, ostensibly, a carefree slip into a fantasia of possibilities, we should remember that Disney has always been about opening doors in the minds of children and showing them that, through bravery and strength of character they can meet and surmount most obstacles. It is nice, though not completely true ideal … but it is still one that is extremely worthwhile clinging on to.

    Alice In Wonderland is Disney through and through, but the fantastic thing is that Uncle Walt didn't actually have to do much to the source material in order to stamp his own mark upon it. Absurd, surrealist nonsense of the most adorable, captivating and thought-provoking kind, it is a film that is immediately entrancing, yet addictively frustrating at the same time, courtesy of characters who can either help or hinder. In my experience, this film, along with the original Fantasia and even, to a much lesser degree, Treasure Planet, is one of those from the Studio that most divides audiences. It may be based upon a book that will never go out of print and will continue to enthral the young, and the young at heart, until the end of time, but it is also an undeniably strange adventure that doesn't really adhere to the usual Disney format. In many ways, Alice In Wonderland was a stepping stone between the older style of the studio – the rambunctious and boisterous whimsy of fairies, witches and folk-tales – and the more straight-ahead yarn-spinning found in the likes of Peter Pan, The Lady And The Tramp and The Jungle Book.

    Without Alice having the courage of her convictions and pursuing that clock-watching bunny into oblivion, it is doubtful that we would ever have had Jim Henson's Labyrinth, Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask, Argento's Suspiria, or even the initial stories that would go on to form The Wizard Of Oz. Many of the works of Clive barker have been influenced by such a passage from a world of tedium to another that is filled with wonders and horrors. It is a garish free-fall into the asylum, a collage-like meandering through the halls of dementia. It is Alice In Wonderland, and it is as freaky, wacky, confounding and irrepressible as it has ever been. Walt Disney and his loyal animators created much better, more fondly recalled and more satisfying films that this, but that old twisted charm still works overtime, and this is a production that no fan of the studio, the original story, or of the genre in general, can afford to do without.

    It is highly recommended that you chase this rabbit down its hole!