Sunday, December 9, 2012

Disney Canon: Alice in Wonderland

Last time we checked with the Disney Canon, 'Cinderella' had been the studio's biggest success in more than a decade. The cash was coming to the studio and it didn't need to make especially low-budget movies in order to break even. The following years, up until Walt Disney's death, would see what I call the Disney Silver Age. After many years of minor, 'package' films, the studio would go back to what it initially planed to do with its feature length projects. The determination to make movies that could stand head-to-head with 'Snow White' and 'Pinocchio' was back and ambition was running high. You can tell the attitude had change in Disney's very next movie after 'Cinderella': A feature-length adaptation of Lewis Carol's classic novel 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. You don't get much more ambitious than adapting one of the most beloved children's book of all time.

Now, here's the part of the review where I have to say I personally don't get the appeal of the Alice in Wonderland story. Yes, I am one of those people, I am familiar with the original novel, the film adaptations and even co-wrote a stage version back in high school. Still, I just don't get what is it about the whole thing that charms so many people. I think the Lewis Carol original is quite clever and amusing as much as word play and logical thinking is concerned, but as smart as it may be in parts, the story itself is way too episodic and emotionally distant for me. I don't care about Alice as a character. And why should I? After all, I know nothing about her personally besides the fact that she's a regular XIX century girl. Sufficient to say the original story is not my cup of tea. Now, that being said, I think this 1951 movie is probably the best adaptation of the novel we will ever get.

To get a great discussion about what makes Disney's the best possible adaptation of the book, you should listen to episode 73 of Tyler Smith's film-and-christianity themed podcast, 'More Than One Lesson'. The first part of the episode is dedicated to the wonderful Spike Jonze film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are, but the second part focuses on a discussion of Disney's 'Alice in Wonderland' so great I couldn't picture myself writing this post after I heard it, because I would have just said everything I had heard. Instead, I decided to link to the episode. That way, you might get to know Smith's great show, which by the way you can enjoy very much without being a christian. Case in point, I enjoy it and I'm pretty far from being a devoted christian. 

In the episode, Smith and co-host Josh Long point out a number of things that are undoubtedly the reasons why this is such a good translation of Carol's work from page to screen. Having adapted the story for the stage myself, I know the story is not a particularly easy one to adapt. It is also a very disturbing one when you think about it. Alice's personal journey is one of discovering a world without rules would be complete chaos. Disney is often accused of turning famous literary works into something very tame and family friendly, but he doesn't shy away from the weird in 'Alice in Wonderland'. If anything, his bright and puffy style of animation only makes the film creepier. Because, you know, a world immersed in complete chaos can be very, very scary. Especially for little children. I know my sister and I had a very off-putting reaction when we first watched the movie. The nice looking characters won't help you once you realize there is no way you can rationalize with these lunatics. 

As an example, here's Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum telling Alice a nice story about the Walrus, the Carpenter and some cute oysters. The ultimate fate of these oysters is just one of the many parts of the movie my five-year-old sister and I just couldn't handle and that contributed to us putting 'Alice in Wonderland' outside of our home viewing video catalogue.

As much as I dislike the story itself, trying to improve on it is a fool's errand and it's on Disney's credit that they decided not to tinker with it very much. If you don't believe me, just look at the Tim Burton directed 2010 version for proof. Trying to make Alice into a more dynamic, of-the-times character with a personal journey that goes beyond her reaction to the world she encounters won't make your film a better adaptation. And if you outright present the world of wonderland as quirky and dark and decide to make your finale an epic battle, then you have one of the worst movies ever made. At least in my humble opinion. 

What can I say? I admire the effort, but 'Alice in Wonderland' is just not the film for me. And again, if you like the film and want more discussion about it, listen to the 'More Than One Lesson' episode'. 

Next Week: Another big deal as far as literary adaptation go: Disney takes on J.M. Barrie's 'Peter Pan'.

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