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.