Sunday, March 18, 2012

Alice in Wonderland (1951): Why it Flopped, and Why it Shouldn't Have

It's appreciated now, of course. Like many flops that came before and after its release, Alice in Wonderland had a far more successful afterlife in revivals, particularly in that decadent, paisley-patterned era called the 1960s, where ironic proto-hipsters fancied themselves tuned into what Lewis Carroll was "really all about." (Answer: DRUGS!!) Where do you think the psychedelics got their decor from, Burton his spiral and stripe fetish? All here, daddy-o.

But flop it did in its 1951 release. This was an especially disgraceful shock at the time because it had the distinct honor of being Walt Disney Studio's first bona fide failure. Despite the hard work Disney (i.e., his animators and minions) put into the production--they had had the rights for ten years, and been in production for five--after the film's earnings proved disappointing, old Walt allegedly turned his back on the movie, echoing public disinterest. With what I can only assume was accompanied by a haughty, injured sniff, Disney said the problem with Alice in Wonderland was that "it lacked heart." That, he argued, was why the movie wasn't successful.

He was right. That uneducated opinion was what sunk Alice.

So soon after World War II, with babies booming all over the place, the public knew what they wanted from Disney. They wanted family stories. They wanted concrete lessons and morals. They wanted structure.

Alice in Wonderland has all the brightness and spunk of Disney's most beloved classics, but underneath that shimmering surface were none of those qualities.

The original material is not your average fairytale, of course. It's a skewered satire of a fairytale, of what would happen if the lost princess met individuals who were certainly some breed of enchanted, but were also distorted caricatures of the various warring Victorian classes, with such ludicrously garish behavior that you couldn't designate them as happy dwarves or snarling dragons--certainly not by Disney standards. And--worst of all!--they didn't particularly act as if they were enchanted by Alice, like the seven dwarves did to Snow White, or the mice to Cinderelly. No simpering adoration. Just mostly grousing inattention at best, active hostility at worst.

All this appears in the novel and the Disney film. Oh, they make a few noble tries at softening the story, such as Alice's mournful song about what happens when you don't follow the own advice you give, the flowers and pencil-headed birds weeping for her. And there's the holier-and-sweeter-than-thou chorus attached at the end, singing out "Alice in Wonderland!" in case we forgot the title. But they're fleeting moments.

That Cheshire Cat who keeps showing up, with the irascibly lovable but eerie voice of Sterling Holloway? The audience may have forgiven him being mischievous and sneaky, so long as it's shown in the end that he really does care for that Alice, and is serving as her genie-like protector, making her dreams come true. He can't be there just to torment her, that must be a front. He must really be charmed by that pert little girl. But no. He totally is there just to torment her. He almost gets her head chopped off by the queen, gleefully. The only reason he hangs around her so much and leads her haphazardly around Wonderland, it appears, is to seal her doom. Everyone's against her at the end, and the film lets loose and abandons any pretense of logic in order to corner Alice. It's a paranoiac's nightmare.

Post-war audiences instinctively led their children away.

So they missed out on one of Disney's absolute best. Also, one of the best adaptations of Alice in Wonderland.

It's the lack of that dripping sentimentality, the saccharine sweetness wafting around so many Disney films of the time and many future and past adaptations of the story, that helps make the film such a triumph. All the characterizations are spot-on: the pompous caterpillar, boisterous Hare and Hatter, heartless Walrus, monstrous Queen. And the energy is high and galumphing, which is often a highlight of even the most indulgent Disney movies, only innervated now by the mean and nasty spectacle that is Carroll's story.

The animation is also unlike anything Disney had done before, capturing Wonderland with just the right shades of mauve, spiraling shapes, striped and checkered patterns, and nightmarishly bright and detailed landscapes. But also, notice how the characters move, express themselves. Particularly Alice.

Alice herself is one of the best delights. If I have one criticism of the film, it's that sometimes the voice work borders too much on the clumsily cartoonish, which takes us away from Wonderland and into a Disney-clean rendition of Vaudeville (yeah, hate to say it, looking at you, Ed Wynn). But 12-year-old Kathryn Beaumont imbues Alice with a graceful assurance, a lovely, full voice and sweet British accent that makes Alice charming and naive without becoming too dreadfully twee.

The animators (including possibly Walt Kelly, of Pogo fame) studied her movements closely and applied them amply to the Alice we see onscreen: her gestures and body language are like a quiet, subtle ballet of the more dainty silent film stars. She draws back in surprise from the tinier and tinier doors, her small hands fluttering slightly, her walk frank and pigeon-toed as she explores the Queen of Heart's maze.

Alice is also the first Disney heroine with a discernible personality outside of innate goodness and charity. Again, the animation helps. The big eyes and tiny rosebud mouth with thin rounded eyebrows they gave all their leading ladies are unusually expressive here, more recognizably human and less blurred. And thanks again to the writing and Beaumont's mature but lively acting, Alice has more life and more depth than trilling Snow White, dreamy Cinderella, or passive Aurora (I was surprised to learn Sleeping Beauty was released eight years after Alice, it seems more dated in comparison--though it really is a beautiful movie on its own merit).

Alice, just like the one in the book, is curious, foolhardy, proper to a fault, and even face-palms.

Epic. If they had really allowed her to let loose, as she began to when she grows into a giant in the courtroom and berates the queen, relishing her new power, Alice had the potential to become almost a more even-tempered version of Basil Fawlty, frazzled and maddened when dealing with the staff. But Disney had to reign her in a little. So she's not quite as fiery as maybe we would have liked, but then, was Carroll's Alice? No. But she was a fun, charming little girl, one of the most endearing heroines in literature. In a fun, charmingly deranged world. Just as Carroll might have not-so-secretly liked it.

And frankly, in this one of Disney's few relatively faithful adaptations of its source material, I like the movie a lot, too. The audience wasn't ready for such adherence to Carroll's work in a kid's movie, however. Which is surprising in one respect, since I mean this stuff is pretty damn tame compared to what parents are leading their kids away from these days, people. Of course, I'm sure no parents actually thought Carroll's tale was detrimental to their young'uns, but it wasn't--to be cloyingly punny--post-war America's cup of tea. They wanted some characters to be nice to little Alice, and for the characters who weren't nice to get their comeuppance, darnit! But ah, Alice is out of Wonderland now, back with her sister. Certainly now the sister will comfort Alice, spelling out the moral: no matter how fun it is to wander off to Wonderland and get lost in daydreams, isn't it infinitely more satisfying to the soul when it's time to come home, little girl? That's the moral they're going to leave us with, right?

Nope. Alice wakes up, babbles the Jabberwocky, the sister shakes her head, they go off into the sunset, the chorus starts, credits roll, no moral explicitly laid out for us.

Because fuck you. Reality sucks, reality was the war you just fought. Let your children enjoy sick, twisted Wonderland, because at least it's dizzyingly unreal and vibrant and it's of your own subconscious's making. Let the kids have some control, even if it's only in an uncontrollable world of their own.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hot dog! I'm a wiener!

Rachel at The Girl with the White Parasol, a site that's far from unfamiliar in this neck of the blogosphere, has generously nominated me for a 7X7 Link Award. This arrives at an advantageous time for my humble site, since New Part-time Job + Stress + Natural Inclination Toward The Lazy = Long Stretch of Blogger's Block. The structured rules that result from winning blog awards is sure to get my writing juices flowing once more. The premise goes thusly:

* Tell everyone something that no one else knows about
* Link to one of my posts that I personally think best fits the following categories: Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, and Most Pride-worthy Piece
* Pass this award on to seven other bloggers

All right, first things first then, won't you?

*Tell everyone something that no one else knows about

I'm a Death Eater.

Ha ha, I kid! I barely know what that is (the Harry Potter phenomenon has always left me surprisingly cold). Let's see, I'm not too secretive.

Oh. I know. In my heart of hearts, this is the secret career I really always wanted, even with the risk of arthritis, injuries, drastic weight loss, and what have you:

With all the pressure, competitiveness, and striving for perfection inherent in ballet, I'd probably last all of two seconds. But in my dream world I'm automatically good at it and graceful as a freaking swan and everybody can kiss my dainty little ass.

* Link to one of my posts that I personally think best fits the following categories:

Most Beautiful Piece

I'll go with The Mummy: Most Romantic Movie Character Ever? True love is beautiful. True love that spans the ages is beautiful. Madness and evil grappling with adoration is beautiful. And pictures of Christopher Lee's big, sad, dark eyes? Beautiful.

Most Helpful Piece

I share Rachel's befuddlement with this one. I suck at giving directions, so you won't find anything like that here. Guess I'll go with my very first post, Internet? Can I play, please? This bundle of first-time nerves wrapped up in a few scattered paragraphs did kinda sorta explain in its backward way who I am and what I'm all about, and gave a very vague idea what to expect from future posts (truth is I didn't know then, and I don't really know now. This blog was supposed to be about the best local fish canneries, but it got away from me!).

Most Popular Piece

Going by my stats, Great What-Ifs Vol 2, Electric Boogaloo: Batman The Animated Series in the '40s? AKA: Why do all my posts end in question marks? Lack of confidence? Or is it instead evidence of a quick, querying mind struggling to come to terms with the wacky world around her? Or is it the tender story of a rich little girl forced to live in the attic of her boarding house working as a scullery maid after her father dies and she loses her inheritance?

Anyways, I'm not surprised this one's so popular. I attract two of my biggest audiences here: the comics fans and the old movie fans, all framed by that goofy "let's cast this!" premise. I should do that again sometime. They're really, really fun to write. And they evidently make people like me! Boon!

Most Controversial Piece

I'd say Bogus Developments in TV Shows. In this one post alone, I blasted two incredibly popular Buffy couples, questioned the creators' motives in turning Willow lesbian, slyly hinted there might be sexism lurking behind the idea that Liz Lemon desperately wants to be a mommy despite her selfish, lovably immature character, and accused James Marsters and Sarah Michelle Gellar of having zero romantic chemistry. I know, cutting-edge, right? Look, I have no secrets and I have no controversy! I'm the easy-going blogger who wants everyone to be happy and think about Batman and Film Noir! Is that so wrong?

Most Surprisingly Successful Piece

Looking at my stats once more, apparently my brief piece Elke Sommer: Another in the long line of '60s blondes I pretended to be when I was little and even now a little bit is my second most popular post after the What-If Batman piece. I also apparently find really long and confusing post titles cute and quirky, adorkable in the nauseating extreme!

This flummoxes me. I mean, I know I love Elke Sommer, and she's certainly deserving of accolades and recognition. But I always kind of assumed her popularity these days was eclipsed by the Bardots, Welches, Ekbergs, and so on. Plus, I don't really say much that's new and edgy--hell, I don't even mention her long-standing feud with Zsa Zsa Gabor! What the piece boils down to is, "Hi! I liked Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark. She's really pretty. Don't you think she's charming? I certainly do." The video I embedded doesn't even play anymore.

I'm not saying it's a bad post, but my second most popular of all time? Really? Okie-doke, internet. You must really, really like your Germanic blondes.

Oh, wait. Of course you do. Never mind, I get it.

Most Underrated Piece

Literary Rant: In Defense of Dolores Haze.  I think the contemporary dismissal of Lolita's plight and character is harmful, and misses the point of the book entirely. I made some good points about the way Nabokov wrote her character and how the film versions handled the story, but received zip in the comment department. And again, looking at some of my stats, my suspicion is the audience this did attract were people looking for Lolita fashion. Or young girls dressed up as Lolita. I don't know what I was expecting writing about Lo, so there you go.

Most Pride-worthy Piece

The Dolores Haze piece is up there, but for variety's sake I'll say my review of Going Sane, 1994. Reviewing a graphic novel falls outside my normal territory, but I think I acquitted myself rather well. The scans are terrible, so don't look at them. There's like a smudge of something on one of them, another is crooked, and you can't even read the text on one. I t'ain't very scan savvy.

But I really love Going Sane, and thought I did a good job of balancing that love with some healthy critical objectivity (i.e. when I talked about how much the art sucked). I think I also gave a fair representation of the Joker, or at least DeMatteis's version--not cardboard, but not overly romanticized, either. Because seriously, how can you romanticize the Clown Prince? Depth is good, but let's not make him fall head over heels in love with Harley or anything like that to satisfy our disturbing fangirl urges, please. And this is coming from one of the most disturbed fangirls you'll ever meet (I think Christopher Plummer as General Chang in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is sexy).

* Pass this award on to seven other bloggers

As has happened the last couple of times, I missed out nominating the wonderfully brilliant Rachel for an award, since another lucky blogger beat me to the punch. Rachel is as generous to fellow bloggers as she is insightful in her posts. And on top of not being able to nominate her, that crafty she-devil already named a few other blogs I might have picked. But per usual, I'm still following more than enough delightful blogs to fit the required bill.

A Mythical Monkey Writes About The Movies: Balances really fun tourneys and events with well-written film analysis. Have a feeling the Monkey's paws are about full right now co-hosting the 2012 Favorite Classic Movie Actress Tourney, but this award is here when you're ready, Monkey!

All Good Things: Same to you, All Good Things! Thanks for all the pictures, trivia, and more!

By Film Possessed: I only recently started following esco's blog, but the films and opinions featured already impress me with their originality and depth.

Classic Movies: KC keeps me up to date on all the hot links and classic movie updates. Obviously has a deep passion for the subject, and generously shares all the best info with the reader.

I Think, Therefore I Review: Kristin knows her stuff and knows how to write to draw you in. Excellent blog, excellent and versatile list of subjects.

Movietone News: I've gushed about Matthew's writing before, so I'll simply reiterate: unique, fun, and superbly written. Always a joy to read.

Frankly, My Dear: Charming, spirited, and stylish. Rianna embraces her favorite interests and makes you love them, too.

Dang, seven went by fast! There are about a million more blogs that I follow I'd have loved including, so I might have to create my own award thingy one of these days. I can do that, right? What, you going to send the Blog Police after me? Is this an Orwellian hell we're living in, folks, or the CYBER REVOLUTION? You decide. I'm gonna go eat something.