March 12th, 2018

Queen Alice

Invocations of Rule 42

It's hard to believe Disney's 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland is only an hour and fifteen minutes long. Not merely because it had more songs written for it than any other Disney film to date--over thirty songs!--but because it doesn't feel like a single film but like a series of short films. This is part of what's generally considered its greatest flaw, by its critics and by Walt Disney himself, that there were too many cooks in the kitchen so the film lacks a cohesive narrative. Yet it remains perhaps the most influential adaptation of Alice in Wonderland ever made and easily overshadows Tim Burton's big budget adaptation from a few years ago (and its swiftly forgotten sequel). Both Burton's and the 1951 version miss crucial aspects of Lewis Carroll's books but Burton's film goes a step further to carry a message of empowerment in direct opposition to the attitude of the original work. Frequently considered a parody of Oxford scholars and faculty of his time, Carroll's Alice books lampoon the self-seriousness and absurdity of the adult world while Burton's film ends with Alice taking a place of prominence firmly within that world. The 1951 film, for presenting a series of effective shorts, falls closer to Carroll's work by default except in scenes where an attempt is made to force some kind of arc on Alice. The "Very Good Advice" sequence, with a song that expands on a line from the book, is very good and sweet in isolation, but in the context of the film as a whole comes off as somewhat bizarre. Nothing in the Dee and Dum sequence or the Made Tea Party sequence had led us to believe that Alice was on the kind of devastating track of tragic hubris that would seem to justify a bitterly self-reflective song like that.

Alice growing in the Queen's court later on seems to have been changed in the 1951 film for a similar purpose. She eats the mushroom to grow large in an effort to escape her absurd persecutors but once she finds herself in a position of dominance she can't help but heap petty insults on the Queen: "And as for you, 'Your Majesty'--Your Majesty indeed! Why, you're not a Queen! You're just a fat, pompous, bad tempered old tyrant!" With each invective, Alice shrinks until she finishes up smaller than everyone else in the court. It's an amusing moment that clearly says something about the importance of remaining gracious when one is in a position of power but the book's version of the scene comes from a more effective idea.

Just at this moment Alice felt a very curious sensation, which puzzled her a good deal until she made out what it was: she was beginning to grow larger again, and she thought at first she would get up and leave the court; but on second thoughts she decided to remain where she was as long as there was room for her.

‘I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so.’ said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. ‘I can hardly breathe.’

‘I can’t help it,’ said Alice very meekly: ‘I’m growing.’

‘You’ve no right to grow
here,’ said the Dormouse.

‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ said Alice more boldly: ‘you know you’re growing too.’

‘Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,’ said the Dormouse: ‘not in that ridiculous fashion.’ And he got up very sulkily and crossed over to the other side of the court.

Alice becomes more confident in how she speaks to the court but she remains essentially polite. The transition is more subtle and the effect resolves into Alice finding herself at her natural size in relation to a pack of cards at the moment she wakes up, the impression being similar to the nonsense of a dream slowly resolving itself into reality. At the same time, though, the idea that Alice can't help but naturally be larger than a court contrived of abstract rules and senseless rhetorical manoeuvres has a very effective subtext. It's not that Alice is trying to make herself bigger, she simply can't help it--and, of course, the idea that a young girl might be more reasonable than a card Queen obsessed with who stole the tarts directly in front of her seems inevitable.

I've written about the Alice books a lot in my blog over the years and I've sought as many film adaptations as I could. None of them really get it totally right--my favourites are the Jonathan Miller version and the Jan Svankmajer version, the former because of how much dialogue it directly imports from the books to be delivered by great actors, and the latter because of how Svankmajor digests the themes of the books to create something very much his own. But I'll always love the 1951 Disney version, mainly as an example of what a great animation studio Disney used to be. It's a kind of 2D animated storytelling you don't see anymore and watching it makes Disney's recent Forces of Destiny shorts even more depressing.

This is all kind of on my mind to-day because of the Wrinkle in Time movie which I don't plan on seeing. The trailers look like Skittles commercials and many of the reviews remind me of exactly the problem I had with Burton's Alice in Wonderland--a lot of people are saying the film has almost the opposite message to the books. I read the Wrinkle in Time books when I was a kid, but not since then, so I only dimly remember them. What I mainly remember is that, compared to other books I read at the time, they had a remarkably cold quality, and I remember a lot of impressions of the lead character alone in some kind of dark and hostile realm. Nothing like the unremarkable candy riot trailers I've seen.