Oh man, was this a tough one to sit through. It’s Disney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famed “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”, taking various scenes and elements from both stories to form a disjointed attempt at a narrative, but the result is either a complete failure, or far too successful.
The basic premise is as follows: Alice is bored listening to her tutor read and imagines a nonsensical world. While daydreaming, she spies a white rabbit running along who’s late for something. Since she’s terribly curious, she decided to follow him into a rabbit hole and winds up in Wonderland, a wacked out dream dimension of annoying and frustrating characters.
Let’s start with the obvious problem this movie has, and that is the entire narrative. It’s an honest adaptation of the material, and just watching this you can imagine what reading the book is like, but that doesn’t work at all for a film. There’s a feeling of frustration that arises early on and it sticks with you for much of the story. Alice is having a strange kind of nightmare, and therefore the world and characters around her follow that same dream logic, or lack thereof. She wanders from place to place, encountering odd and disconnected characters that do or tell her things which don’t make sense or mean anything.
It’s so episodic it retains the feeling of the previous short film compilation features, and what that really means is that the movie feels long. There’s really nothing to hold the audience in. At least we get Alice, and she’s a likeable and cute enough character. She’s well voice acted (by Kathryn Beaumont) and has a charming design, but she’s part of the dream world, so she still feels distant from everything, reacting in strange ways to things that should have her screaming.
The music is also a significant problem here, and it’s the weakest effort so far by the company. There are no songs that stand out; nothing catchy or memorable. Some of them are just plain bad, like the strange semi-spoken word ballad “Very Good Advice”.
It was a bold decision for Disney to adapt such an odd book, and do it so honestly. They really try to capture all that the book is, but that’s the problem. The material of the book, taken as it’s written, is probably unfilmable. It needs some kind of narrative structure or at least a consistency to it.
That’s not to say there’s nothing good about this movie. Like all Disney movies from the time, the animation is strong and there are some great moments found amid all the madness. The fall down the rabbit hole is a memorable sequence, as is Alice becoming a giant in the White Rabbit’s house. Another is the fun manner in which the human playing cards move, playing with their shapes and the fact that they’re an animate deck of cards. A major character highlight is the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Disney regular, Sterling Holloway). He’s visually interesting, has some great character animations and the best lines in the movie. There’s also a magic to his madness, and he’s ambiguous when it comes to his allegiance. He’s both ally and enemy to Alice. It’s a shame he’s not in it more.
The best scenes in the movie come late, and it’s when Alice finally meets the Red Queen. While the Queen herself (Verna Felton) is certainly a silly character, that’s not what makes the scenes good. What does it is the narrative stability. Rather than jumping around from scene to scene in a manner that can only be described as schizophrenic, the story slows down to a long continuous series of events, all connected by cause and effect. The story finally makes a certain kind of sense, and it’s the characters that are crazy, not the directors of the movie.
“Alice in Wonderland” stands apart from the rest of the classic Disney films, certainly as the odd man out when looking at them all. Even “Pinocchio”, which is an equally bizarre story, seems so straightforward and contained by comparison. It should come as no surprise this wasn’t a hit for the studio, and even now I’m not sure who this was meant to appeal to. It has weak music and a difficult story, but looking back it was an interesting attempt at very odd material. Something Disney would not try again for some time.