(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: In the hands of Disney’s extraordinary animators, Lewis Carroll’s immortal literary classic comes to life like never before! The surprises begin when a daydreaming Alice encounters a White Rabbit who is frantically running late. She chases him and falls into the magical, madcap world of Wonderland with its kaleidoscope of off-the-wall characters- including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat and the manic Mad Hatter, who invites her to a memorable tea party. The crowning confrontation begins when Alice meets the notorious Queen Of Hearts and her enchanted deck of playing cards. Tricked into a curious game of croquet, Alice, and her patience, end up on trial. Is there no escape from this whimsical escapade?
– From DVD production notes
(Note: 150-Year-Old Spoilers Ahead)
There are films we love, and then there are films that are a part of us. If you autopsied all of the art and culture I’ve consumed, getting deep down to the bone and grit of my childhood, you’d find the technicolor spine holding most of it together is Alice In Wonderland.
It started with an old VHS tape of my mother’s, a compilation of Disney’s Greatest Lullabies missing its cover and sporting a faded, taped over label. One of the songs featured was “A World Of My Own.” I was about four years old and became fixated on this image, watching it over and over.
Like Alice I wanted to disappear, even though my surroundings shouldn’t move or give way. But was it possible?
In this world it was.
I kept watching this snippet but didn’t see the complete film until a few years later. Both of my grandmothers were involved. One had an Alice Choose Your Own Adventure book that I read at her house; the other bought me my first video tape, the black diamond edition of the film.
Alice In Wonderland left a deep impression because it was the first story I identified with. Alice is not a princess, a hero or “the chosen one” found in a children’s story. She is just a little girl unable to understand her world (both waking and dreaming) and continuously finding herself in situations where she is being misunderstood, harassed and rejected.
Like many kids at that age, this mirrored my day-to-day existence. By the time I saw Alice I had moved five times and attended a variety of schools. I had been in speech therapy, rejected by my peers, publicly humiliated and physically bullied. Not being a part of anything and feeling unaccepted was part of my life. When you see someone who is experiencing similar things- no matter how strange they might be- it gets to you. I watched the film over and over again, even though I didn’t fully understand why.
Time has passed and now I do. Alice was that small inner voice inside of me while I navigated my childhood and onward. And it hasn’t gone away. It has persisted into adulthood as well as the various situations and people I’ve encountered along the way.
I’m not writing this to stir pity or sadness, but to describe a mental framework. When I wrote about Monty Python and The Holy Grail I mentioned how the film and Voltaire’s Candide influenced my thinking and philosophies as I grew up. The same could be said about Alice and its source material. One of the main reasons I like it is because it revels in not making sense. I see it as a parable about how the twists and turns of life are impossible to understand. What’s more, assuming you can understand is completely absurd. The more Alice tries the more situations shift and tip out of her favor.
This definitely has an effect on viewers. I have met people who regard Alice as one of the weakest of the Disney classics or deem it “weird’ and “creepy.” I see it differently because it addresses something honest and troubling. David Lynch puts it best, someone who definitely knows what he’s talking about: “I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.”
Alice definitely captures that feeling. The protagonist is often caught up in circumstances she can’t control while surrounded by puzzling and contradictory behavior. It becomes clear that her only choice is to keep moving, so she does, with each encounter leaving her more confused and alone than the last.
The characters Alice meet are paramount to her experience, and many of them- even without the benefit of this film- have become icons. The idea of the White Rabbit has bled into the fabric of pop culture, showing up in other media from The Matrix (1999) to Lost (2004 – 2010) to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (1967). His function is simple: supplying enough of a reason to follow, or at the very least posing a question that needs an answer.
Alice has hardly any lines with the White Rabbit but pursues him relentlessly. In the meantime the Rabbit isn’t aware of her and doesn’t give her the time of day. This is a situation many of us experience at some point in our lives, regardless of whether it concerns a person, a goal or an idea. The White Rabbit personifies that chase and it’s his only function in the story.
The other Alice characters are fairly universal and have the same singularity of purpose, which is mostly to serve their own interests. In short: they act out human behavior. When I watch this I see them as humorous stand-ins for countless people I’ve met during my life. They don’t want to know Alice as much as have her serve as their audience. They incessantly talk about themselves, their own interests and ultimately leave or discard her if she doesn’t meet their standards. In some cases she leaves them behind but they hardly notice her absence.
It could be said that these characters are nothing more than distractions. The “contrariwise” appears as the Cheshire Cat, who quickly sets himself apart in several ways:
- He is the only character who approaches Alice, not the other way around.
- He seems to be the only character who understands what’s going on in this world, not only concerning Alice but the other inhabitants.
- He is also the only one who knows that Alice’s quest isn’t that important.
During their conversation he offers her advice and observations that are true… Well, unpleasant but true. “We’re all mad here,” he remarks, sounding somewhat Lynchian in tone. “You may have noticed that I’m not all there myself.”
This pattern has already been established with nearly everyone she has met: Pat the Dodo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Caterpillar, Mother Bird and the Flowers. But there is more to come. One of the most memorable scenes is Alice’s non-sensical rapport with the Mad Hatter and March Hare during their never-ending tea party. It’s so over the top it’s ridiculous, and whenever she attempts to speak or participate she is either interrupted or ignored.
In Lewis Carroll’s book this passage has some of the greatest, non-sensical dialogue ever written. Although this is a children’s film Alice captures how anarchic and silly all of it is, even when the scene pulls itself into several directions. This is obviously the centerpiece of Alice’s story, which Disney elevates with a series of inexplicable punchlines, impossible actions and visual gags (i.e. Monty Python again). Still, it isn’t long before she finds herself outside of the situation without much insight. The outcome hasn’t been much different than anything else.
By this time Alice has gone deep into the forest and apparently there’s no way back. She decides to return home but it seems impossible (or “impassable”), particularly when she ends up in the Tulgey Wood and her path is literally swept away. But could she have ever made it back in the first place? Her journey is perplexing when you try to map her movement and various size changes. She falls down a rabbit hole, floats through a keyhole on a sea of tears and washes up on a beach which leads to a forest. Throughout the film you never get a sense of direction or familiarity, only winding paths and settings with little relation to one another.
This isn’t something viewers think about but feel subconsciously. In some ways exploring Wonderland is like exploring the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980), which Stanley Kubrick purposefully designed to make no sense. However, the inconsistencies in Wonderland are more child-like and direct, like when the Cheshire Cat supplies a “shortcut” through a door in a tree. It’s not only an extension of the film’s dream logic but suggests that Alice’s choices aren’t driving the story. The ending was always going to find her, not the other way around, and just when she had given up hope.
Of course an “ending” like this could be interpreted as death, and whether intentional or not the grand finale arrives with the Queen of Hearts and her violent temper. She is a grandiose, loud and tyrannical authority figure, ordering beheadings left and right to the delight of her subjects. The more death she brings, the more cheers she receives. And boy, does she love that adulation. It’s the only thing that humanizes her. I have met several Queens of Hearts during my life, and placing her at the end of the story is more than appropriate. She isn’t necessarily more powerful than the characters who came before, just the most extreme and threatening. “All ways are MY ways!” the queen shouts, and I always chuckle. I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of that threat before, whether spoken or implied. Haven’t we all?
It isn’t long before Alice is strongarmed into playing an unfair and disastrous game of croquet then put on trial for a crime she didn’t commit. All of the evidence presented is irrelevant or simply “nothing whatever,” as the March Hare suggests. “THAT’S VERY IMPORTANT!” the queen shouts in reply and the jury promptly takes notes, falling all over themselves. Nothing whatever. It’s one of the most important phrases of the film and perhaps all the story comes to, but not before Alice has to run for her life. She has been through a lot but the Queen is too much. She has to save her own life and get out of there. She has to get out, period.
The Queen of Hearts isn’t the typical villain; neither is the way that Alice “defeats” her (waking up). In fact, this isn’t the typical children’s film at all, so how could something so out there have become a Disney feature?
That’s as interesting as the film itself. The truth is that Alice was one of Walt Disney’s pet projects for decades, dating back to his time as a young animator and early Mickey shorts like Thru The Mirror (1936). The goal was to make a family film capturing the books’ whimsy and humor, but it was released to a middling and hostile response. As a result the studio kept it out of circulation for years and Disney deemed it a failure. It wasn’t made available to the public again until after his death in 1966.
Less than a decade later the film gained popularity among a younger, more psychedelic crowd. A new myth was born: “Alice In Wonderland is about drugs, expanding your mind and The Man.” It still disappoints people when I tell them that Lewis Carroll didn’t write the books while on drugs and wasn’t an opium fiend, just a mathematics professor at Oxford. For many the myth is more interesting, and every now and then I encounter something like a velvet blacklight poster of Alice surrounded by shrooms. This interpretation shows no signs of fading away.
But hey, like everything I’ve written here that’s all anyone can walk away with: an interpretation. That’s the power of art.
Because of the film I was slowly introduced to the world of Carroll and even more interpretations, beginning with Kyle Baker’s graphic novel adaptation of Through The Looking-Glass. From there I moved on to the actual books, their annotated versions and various biographies. I recommend In The Shadow Of The Dreamchild: The Myth and Reality Of Lewis Carroll and Dreaming In Pictures: The Photography Of Lewis Carroll, because they have some of the most updated and challenging information out there. Carroll has often been judged using altered (sometimes destroyed) information and out of context from his time.
Aside from that, the roots of the Disney Alice remain deep within me, even though I have mixed feelings about the studio’s history and its grabs toward the future. I see it as their biggest experiment and risk, a grand comedy and a comfort, a dream map to the confusion and dead ends of my childhood and beyond. Others have noticed this too, but I’m not sure why. Although I don’t talk about it very much my connection to Alice hasn’t been a secret. Here is a mere fraction of movie paraphernalia that has been given to me over the years.
This doesn’t count other items I have received, often featuring John Tenniel’s famous book illustrations: journals, t-shirts, lunch boxes, bookmarks, socks, stickers, pencil pouches, coin purses, necklace pendants, greeting cards, framed prints, DVDs, books and various publications. Some people have Star Wars, Tolkien novels or sports teams. I somehow ended up as a custodian for Alice, and am often pointed toward different versions like Pogo’s video remixes (astounding really), Tom Waits and Robert Wilson’s Alice (lovely, but not accurate) or Tim Burton’s Alice sequels (no thank you).
And last of all, I can’t ignore that Alice has either directly or subconsciously effected my own work. Its influence is evident in my short stories for Gargoyle 55, my triptych installation the treacle well and a tiny video project I did just a few months ago, basement memory, salem 1993.
This one harkens back to the time I first discovered Alice, spending an afternoon by myself while the VHS was on mute and a Peter Gabriel record played in the background. For a few seconds everything seemed to sync up and make sense, but ultimately it didn’t. It came and it went and was strange, not all that different from the dream Alice had on her golden afternoon. I was a child then, but I never forgot it.