ALICE IN WONDERLAND: Of Unbirthday Presents, Tea Parties, and a Cheshire Cat

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (1951) – Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske – The 13th Walt Disney Animated Classic – Starring Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson, Heather Angel, and Joseph Kearns.

What do you want out of an animated film?

If you want a film that makes a high degree of narrative sense and is full of engaging characters, Walt Disney’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND is not the best choice on the shelf.

If, however, you want a visually engaging film and prefer your narratives to be surrealist to coherent, then Disney’s 1951 animated version of ALICE will fit the bill quite nicely.

Personally, I’m conflicted. I’m not a huge fan of ALICE’s story or its characters, but simply as a visual treat, it’s really pretty great to watch. The Disney animation crew lets loose with some really wild sequences, but they don’t come together to form a cohesive whole. That’s not surprising – ALICE is credited with four directors and thirteen separate writers.


ALICE feels like a core concept was agreed upon and then people were sent off to fill in the blanks and then the directors (all four of them) just stitched together whatever came in and tossed the movie out for public consumption. The movie opens with a bored Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) being very uninterested in her sister’s book reading. Cause learning is for losers. She talks to her cat about wanting to live in a nonsensical world called Wonderland. At the bank of a river, a white rabbit in a waistcoat goes hopping by and Alice follows. She falls down a rabbit hole and all of the surreal bits stop happening, including a doorknob talking her into taking several magic potions to shrink small and grow tall. Alice ends up inside the magic potion bottle and is washed through the key hole in a torrent of her own tears. And then the really weird stuff starts happening:

First, she encounters the Dodo, who basically just ignores her. Then he’s on the beach and others are dancing in a circle around him. Alice tries talking to the Dodo and his fellow animal dancers and they largely ignore her, but then the White Rabbit goes hopping past, so she ditches the beach and enters the woods.

In the woods, she runs into Tweedledee and Tweedledum and they tell her the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. This section completely sucks.

She leaves them and runs into the Rabbit at his house, which she enters, eats some more food, and grows giant-size, filling the entire house. Then it’s on to the Caterpillar and then the Cheshire Cat, and then the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the Tulgey Wood, and finally the Queen of Hearts tries to cut off her head.

Each section is more or less fine, but combined, they give the movie a pseudo-vignette feeling. That there’s a narrative that connects them actually makes it harder to enjoy for me than a movie like FANTASIA, which has disconnected parts. There’s a lot of similarity between the two films as Disney’s 3rd and 13th films both allow their animators to cut loose with wild visuals, but where FANTASIA offered fully-realized short stories, ALICE’s connected nature makes each vignette feel incomplete and unsatisfactory. The Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway – most famous for providing the original voice of Winnie the Pooh) is awesome and mischievous and all, but there’s no arc with him. He just instigates and leaves.

It would be acceptable if this was just one character, but it’s all of the characters – including Alice.

Here’s what Alice does: first, she whines about how learning is stupid. Then, she chases after the White Rabbit through a bunch of adventures until she gets bored, and decides to go home. That’s when she runs afoul of the Tulgey Wood and the Queen of Hearts. She’s put on trial and escapes, running into the doorknob, who tells her this is all a dream.

Now, I don’t get upset when it’s revealed that the story I’ve been watching is “fake” because I’m watching a movie to get a good story, and I don’t really care if the story is entertaining or if the story within the story is entertaining. Unlike, say, The Wizard of Oz or The Usual Suspects, however, the story here isn’t very good. Alice is just a spoiled brat and it’s not like she learns anything on her journey through Wonderland. This is just a movie where stuff happens and then it’s like someone went, “Okay, we’ve got an hour of story in the can, let’s wrap it up as quickly as possible.”

Even though the story is kinda blah, though, the visuals make ALICE a film worth watching over and over again. Alice, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, and the Queen of Hearts sequences are all deservedly iconic. I just wish they were more than great visuals. Only the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit have characters that match the visuals.

To defend the narrative, it is a dream and dreams don’t always function like a tightly conceived and executed narrative. Just because you can justify something, however, doesn’t mean I have to like it, and the story of ALICE just does not work for me.

What I’m left with, then, is a movie that I like watching but it’s also one that doesn’t move me, doesn’t engage me, and thus only kinda sorta entertains me. I’m a guy that reads comics for the stories more than the art, though. If you’re a person who’s more interested in the art than the story, I can totally understand you loving ALICE IN WONDERLAND.


SAFH 01 04

My latest book, STUFFED ANIMALS FOR HIRE: THE CHRISTMAS OPERATION is now available for purchase in PAPERBACK and KINDLE formats.

SAFH is a kid’s espionage novella, but it’s also a tribute to the television shows I watched as a kid: The A-Team, Magnum PI, Knight Rider, Hardcastle and McCormack, Riptide, Dukes of Hazzard and generally any show where Post and Carpenter did the music. Recommended age? If you let your kid watch superhero cartoons or Knight Rider reruns, SAFH should be age appropriate.

Here’s the back cover description:

Jurgen the Gorilla. Throne the Lion. Bronze the Golden Eagle. Ray the Brown Bear. Bottle the Dolphin. Dev the Lynxwoman. 3 the Triceratops. Ptera the Pterodactyl.

These eight stuffed animals make up the Return Squadron. For seven months they have worked together to return disconnected stuffed animals home. But now … on their final mission, the Return Squadron seek to steal the legendary Map of Everything.

Before Christmas morning arrives, three of the Squadron will turn traitor, four will be stranded, and one will never see another Christmas.

One thought on “ALICE IN WONDERLAND: Of Unbirthday Presents, Tea Parties, and a Cheshire Cat

  1. In fairness, that’s a problem with the source material–the Alice books are largely a string of unrelated vignettes. I dislike the Disney version because I don’t think it catches Carroll’s particular skewed reality well, but the vignette problem is common to almost all film versions.


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