Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Disney's Alice in Wonderland: Second thoughts

This month has been an absolute thing. And it's only just half over, too. Crazy. On the bright side, I have way too many cinnamon hearts right now and that's a really awesome thing, so... go me? Go me. :D

Anyway, now that I've got a bunch of discount burning candy, let's get into some second thoughts! Which I know you all love so much or at least tolerate cause I like writing them and pretending like there's super huge amounts of analysis to be done on Cinderella. Hey, there might be, I don't judge me. Except to say that I am awesome. And in a pretty good mood since cinnamon hearts.

If anyone would have told me, back at the start, that Alice in Wonderland would end up being one of the worst Disney movies I'd watch (to this point, anyway) I'd have laughed at them. The book just screams "animate me!" and it's such a classic in children's books, what could possibly go wrong? This is Disney working in their wheelhouse, no? How did it all fall apart harder than Toronto sans Carlyle? Cause... fuck, that's what it feels like. Sure thing, brilliant move, exactly what you should have done... what the smippity smoke happened?

I will tell you what happened, because I know, because I went back to read the book and then I thought a lot about this movie. This is what I do when I should be homeworking. In hindsight, that might be really dumb. Anyway. Alice in Wonderland is not a story. It's not even multiple episodes like Pinocchio. It's... well if someone told me Gygax got the idea for random encounters off of this book, I wouldn't be surprised. Because that's all it is, over and over again, and our "protagonist" isn't an actor so much as a kind of participating member of the audience getting jerked around by the clowns. This is all the original book, by the way.

Character design is fine, and frequently clever; the flowers were stellar (that whole part, really, is one of the best in the movie), Alice is cute and continues the trend of Disney characters with simple designs that really pop, everything has a ton of personality in presentation alone, and all of the oddities are exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to see - hammer and pencil birds, sweeping dogs, random furry pants-things, the mirror bird and the glasses-bug, it's all daffy and good fun.

Or at least it would be, if it didn't wear me out so much. Is it my problem? Am I just too much of an adult to appreciate it now? (Never tell me that.) I feel like it could be, but then I also think it's not that. I think it's the fact that none of these things are intended to get more out of you than a snort, a bit of a smile, that sort of "ha, that's kind of clever" that fades away. There's a lack of payoff, and oftentimes the presentation is kind of... I want to say not exactly eerie, but Wonderland itself, for the most part, doesn't look wondrous except at the very start and the very end. It's a forest, a dark one most of the time, that even when it's populated by tons of nonsense creatures is still surprisingly lifeless and empty. It's cold by comparison to the scenes of Cinderella, Snow White, Dumbo... the need to draw your attention to the nonsense seems to compromise anything else that might have diverted the attention being on the screen. So all we get is Alice vs. Nonsense and it's clear she's not enjoying any of it. At a certain point, why would we, either? It's frequently obnoxious and rarely interesting... kind of flat. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare defy that, a kinetic frenzy of nonsense with motion everywhere, ridiculous dialogue and sight gags that play second fiddle to the utter ridiculousness of the two characters - but then, just like with the flowers, that becomes a standout scene that only emphasizes how much the rest of the movie drops the ball.

Like with Cinderella, there's padding going on - the Walrus and the Carpenter, Tweedles, Alice bumbling around in the woods and singing about how sad she was, even the garden sequence. Conversely, they cut the Mock Turtle and combine the whole Queen of Hearts section into one, which at that point of the movie was a mercy more than anything. They also cut the Duchess, which after Pinocchio I'm really glad, that could have been traumatic. Point is, the goal would appear to be maximizing the noise going on, which... the movie may as well have been titled Wonderland and Alice, since that's how it feels. There's no role for the protagonist to play and no other characters to sympathize with... her motivation is pure dream logic and the little agency she has is all surrender, either "give in" or "give up."

Anyway, problems with the basic source material aside... what the fancy grapes is up with the music? There's like eighty songs in this movie and almost all of them suck. The flower song is the best, objectively, in music terms, while the Mad Hatter's song is the best animated and in theory the most fun but completely fails as music. And everything else... I mean, second place goes to Painting The Roses Red purely because it's a song. But hot damn guys, shut the fuck up sometimes would you. I lost count of how many songs there were and I don't really want to go back and check. All I know is that bloody choir needs to get shitcanned. Why put music in if it doesn't enhance the experience? I really feel like watching Star Wars again now, even just the first minute to get blown away by music in movies and how it should really be. Ball dropped.

Roomie helped me find the perfect thing to summarize my feelings on this movie. Here it is.


  1. The last few years this movie's experienced something of a revival and I just don't get it. There's some great character design, but that's most of what it has to offer, lacking as it does the narrative space for the clever and sometimes esoteric stuff Lewis Caroll snuck into the source material.

    It's not bad by any means, but it suffers from some glaring weaknesses that have no obvious solution.

    I will defend the Unbirthday Song, though, on the basis of its instrumental backing, which is also used for the "Mad Tea Party" teacup ride at Disneyland, and consequently is an essential part of my mental happy place.

  2. I am very much looking forward to whenever you reach the Disney Renaissance.

    1. I'm looking forward to his reviews of the rest of the '50s and '60s movies, including Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book.

  3. The Alice books have defeated pretty much every attempt at motion-picture adaptation, and I think you've identified at least one reason: they're episodic by nature, and grafting on an overarching plot just makes that more evident.

    At some point, though, you should track down DREAMCHILD (1986), which depicts an aging Alice Hargreaves, the inspiration for Carroll's character, as she relives her childhood memories and recognizes, for the first time, what he was trying to say to her. It's written by Dennis Potter, and once you're recovered and have put doctors behind you, his brilliant miniseries "The Singing Detective" awaits.