It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.
I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.
For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.
The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .
Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.
If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.
Final Score: A