Movie Odyssey Retrospective
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
There is an abandoned building at 1127 E 31st St. in Kansas City, Missouri. That 1922 building, made up of red brick and mortar, would have met the wrecking ball long ago, if not for its historical value. For one year, it housed the Laugh-O-Gram Studio, founded by Walt Disney and the first job in animated film for several people who would become instrumental in shaping the American animation industry. Alongside Disney, the Laugh-O-Gram staff included:
Ubbe “Ub” Iwerks, who co-created Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit with Walt. Ub stayed with the Disney studios as an animator or special effects specialist through Mary Poppins (1964);
Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, who founded Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies with Warner Bros. in the 1930s under producer Leon Schlesinger, later moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM);
and Friz Freleng, who joined Harman and Ising and Warner Bros and MGM as principally a director, while introducing or developing most of the central Looney Tunes characters.
All of these figures would shape the environment for animated talkies into the midcentury. But Laugh-O-Gram could not survive the financial obstacles that led to the studio’s closure after only a year. Go back and watch the Laugh-O-Gram shorts and you will find imaginative, rowdy stories paired with movements as fluid as animators not named Winsor McCay (1914’s Gertie the Dinosaur, 1918’s The Sinking of the Lusitania) could draw in the early 1920s. Laugh-O-Gram’s last film, Alice’s Wonderland (1923), was never released commercially to the public and – considering its hybrid of animation and live-action footage – demonstrates the influence McCay had over Disney and his fellow animators.
Later in 1923, Walt submitted Alice’s Wonderland to Margaret Winkler, whose Winkler Productions was the leading animated short film distributor of the time. Winkler had just fallen out professionally with Pat Sullivan, the co-creator of Felix the Cat. Needing a quick replacement and charmed by the animated frenzy surrounding the hybrid animation/live-action Alice, Winkler signed Walt Disney and his Laugh-O-Gram team (including child actress Virginia Davis) to produce the Alice Comedies short film series (1923-1927, including 1923’s Alice’s Wonderland) in Hollywood. These films, Disney’s first taste of commercial triumph, shared little resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, except for the curiosity of the title character and the fantastical situations she might find herself in. After the end of the Alice Comedies series and the formation of Walt Disney Productions (now Walt Disney Animation Studios), Walt wished to adapt Carroll’s books – which he had been familiar with since his childhood in Missouri – into a feature film. Outside forces delayed the project, including the box office failure of Paramount’s live-action Alice in Wonderland (1933) and the creative and fiscal burdens that his studio had to bear during World War II.
During this time, Walt resigned himself to the fact that any animated adaptation of Carroll’s novels, more interested in illogic and wordplay than any sensible storytelling, would not reach the artistic heights of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). His long wait to adapt Alice in Wonderland as a feature film would end in 1951, with the film co-directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske. A stellar voice cast, mixture of storybook and unusual animation, and an acceptance of its own absurdity make Alice in Wonderland one of the best non-Golden Age Disney animated features.
Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) is a child, probably ten years of age give or take. She is one of the youngest protagonists in Disney’s animated canon and a rare human female lead without monarchical ties or aspirations. Her story is simply a fantastical dream of her subconscious’ creation. Thus, freed from the limitations and expectations of the “real world”, Alice in Wonderland – and the novels it was adapted from – is an episodic series of nonsensical encounters of the various characters that inhabit Alice’s Wonderland. This posed a dilemma for the Disney animators and the army of writers on the film. How does one make Alice, whose only notable characteristics include her naïveté and incurable curiosity, a more interesting character than what Lewis Carroll wrote? With the animators and writers finding no answer, Disney’s Alice is just as reactive (as opposed to proactive) as Carroll’s characterization for her. Inane things happen to and around her, infrequently because of her own initiative; anyone expecting the studio’s first female lead to write down names, possess a sharp wit, and kick ass might need to recalibrate said expectations given the source material.
This discourse wades into questions about literary fidelity in cinema – no standard formula exists for how literature should be adapted to a film. To adapt Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as faithfully as possible would be to invite structural and tonal chaos. Carroll’s numerous poetic asides, extremely abrupt (and, to me, exhausting) tonal shifts, and his near-complete dedication to exposition whenever nonsense is not present does not make for a digestible film. The Alice in Wonderland that audiences have enjoyed since 1951 presents its developments far out of any Carroll’s narrative order. The tone and individual moments remain Carroll-esque, but, upon release, British critics savaged the film for degrading Carroll’s best-known works (more on this later). Yet by my judgment and familiarity with Carroll’s books (which, to reiterate, are not concerned about character development) Disney’s animated version is the best cinematic adaptation in line with the Carroll’s artistic intentions.
Alice in Wonderland is best seen as a quasi-Disney package film filled with one-upmanship in its animation. A distracted Walt was barely aware of day-by-day developments during production, and thus did not rein in some of the animated excess Alice in Wonderland is now justly acclaimed for. For the second consecutive entry in the Disney animated canon, Mary Blair’s concept art (1950’s Cinderella, 1953’s Peter Pan) is principally responsible for what the background animators would adopt. In the bookend scenes outside Wonderland, the lush, foliage-filled backgrounds recall her work during Disney’s package era, and are easily the most “realistic” backgrounds since the inimitable Bambi (1942). Once the film descends into Wonderland, the background animators, attempting to convert her concept art into cel animation, attempt (but fail to) replicate the characteristic flatness of her concept art.
But for everything else integral to Blair’s artwork – the lack of straight lines, highly stylized architectural and natural features, and detonation of colors – the background animators (who would be assigned specific scenes) faithfully render her style as closely as they can without completely making Alice in Wonderland a modernist phantasmagoria. The film is an overload of colorful experimentation. Just choose from any one of the scenes involving the White Rabbit’s house, the Caterpillar’s toadstool hideaway, the tea party, or the Queen of Hearts’ domain and one is subject to a visual cacophony of inspired production design and artistic audacity. It can be overwhelming, but Wonderland’s locales represent some of the greatest examples of settings-as-character in almost all of animated cinema.
Alice’s Wonderland, however, is nothing without the characters that dwell within. Some of the most impressive character designs of Disney’s mid-century animated films appear in this film, thanks mostly to two of the “Nine Old Men” – Ward Kimball (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and Frank Thomas (1940’s Pinocchio, 1977’s The Rescuers) – and Norm Ferguson (“Dance of the Hours” in 1940’s Fantasia, 1953’s Peter Pan). Because of the sheer number of characters that Thomas and Kimball designed and directed on this film (and this is not even mentioning several other fellow directing animators), I will focus on two specific characters of theirs.
For Norm Ferguson, he is the sole directing animator of the Walrus and the Carpenter, the characters from the eponymous segment imparted to Alice by Tweedledee and Tweedledum (itself an adaptation of Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” poem within Through the Looking-Glass). As a study of differences, the designs of both characters give their personalities away even if one were to mute the audio or view a still image. The Carpenter – scrawny, scruffy, and short – telegraphs his dimwittedness and gullibility from his opening moments on-screen. Adding to that visual characterization is that he shares a voice actor, J. Pat O'Malley, and a squeaky, honky timbre with Tweedledee and Tweedledum. O’Malley also voices the Walrus, but adjusts his delivery to a throaty bass, interspersed with the coughing one expects from a chain-smoker, let alone a chain-smoking walrus. The Walrus – appropriately rotund (as walruses should be) with a kitschy suit – is a charming fellow, but beneath that charm are his occasional all-knowing smirks that belie selfish intentions. Ferguson’s clashing character animation for both, in addition to the morbid comedy of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, are a brilliant complement the abridged poem used in the scene. Alice in Wonderland would be Norman Ferguson’s penultimate film with the studio before his retirement due to complications with diabetes.
With Alice in Wonderland, Frank Thomas is the directing animator for the movie’s antagonist for the second straight Disney animated feature. The techniques and artistry used for Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine and the Queen of Hearts – voiced deliciously (and boisterously) by Disney regular Verna Felton (Dumbo’s Mrs. Jumbo and the Elephant Matriarch, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother) – could not be any more different. Where Lady Tremaine was heavily rotoscoped in her movements and facial expressions, there is nothing realistic about the Queen of Hearts’ physicality. As a buxom bundle of waving limbs, she has arguably the most fleshy and expressive face in a 1950s Disney animated feature. In that face, in Felton’s iconic voice acting, we find a crazed monarch who desperately needs to see a therapist to contain her volcanic temper. Thomas’ character design sells the Queen of Hearts’ mood swings – perfunctory courteousness, egomania, pettiness, and bloodlust (“Off with his head!”). Thus, she becomes Disney’s closest analogue to the uptight and pretentious narcissists that the likes of Bugs Bunny or, to a lesser extent, Daffy Duck might have brought down to size in a Looney Tunes short film. How fortunate that the Queen of Hearts only appears in Alice in Wonderland’s concluding stages; an entire film dedicated to her (please do not pass this hypothetical along to a Walt Disney Company executive) would be a wearisome indulgence.
The last masterstroke of character design is thanks to Ward Kimball. Kimball, shortly about to revert his focus from feature animation to television and the Disney theme parks, was the principal designer of the Cheshire Cat. The wide-grinning Cheshire Cat, voiced by Sterling Holloway (Kaa in 1967’s The Jungle Book, the original voice of Winnie the Pooh), is a distinctive swirl of purple and pink stripes, his yellow eyes giving off a blazing glare. As opposed to the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat – no more or less peculiar than any other inhabitant of Wonderland – rarely stands on his hind legs. Instead, he prefers to perch himself, stomach-first, and limit his non-facial physical movements. With Holloway’s mellifluous voice acting, the physics-bending Cheshire Cat is not the sort to be vengeful or unleash verbal fire and brimstone. But with his capabilities of troublemaking for his own personal entertainment, he is the least predictable and perhaps most dangerous character of all. Depending on the viewer, the Cheshire Cat can be seen as a darkly comic figure and/or the film’s greatest source of malevolence, however restrained.
After watching Alice in Wonderland more than most Disney animated films over the course of my lifetime, I still struggle over how to categorize Kimball’s magical cat. Certainly, Cheshire Cat is an antagonist, but do his actions place him in the pantheon of Disney villains? Reading Carroll’s books and noting – however circuitously – Cheshire Cat helps Alice become “unlost”, perhaps being considered a trickster will suffice.
The soundtrack to Alice in Wonderland contains the greatest number of songs (sixteen from a potential thirty) in the entire Disney animated feature canon. That is partly due to the length of these compositions – clocking in, in several instances, at just under or over one minute – and that more than a handful of these songs are adaptations (partial or complete) of a Lewis Carroll poem. Disney hired a battalion of Tin Pan Alley composers and lyricists to pen/adapt songs around Carroll’s poems, but just over half of the songs were composed by Sammy Fain (“Secret Love” in 1953’s Calamity Jane, “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” from the 1955 film of the same name) set to Bob Hilliard’s (“Civilization”, also known as “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo (I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo)”) lyrics. Among their mostly original compositions, Fain and Hilliard are responsible for the title song, “In a World of My Own”, and “Painting the Roses Red”, among several other earworms utilizing Carroll’s poetry.
Debatably Alice in Wonderland’s ultimate earworm is the original song “A Very Merry Un-birthday” by Mack David, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston (the trio also composed “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo in 1950’s Cinderella). Because of this song’s affiliation with a certain ride at the Disney theme parks, you, the reader, might already be very familiar with the song’s melody without ever watching Alice in Wonderland. Sung raucously by the Mad Hatter and March Hare (incredible voice acting by Ed Wynn and Jerry Colonna, respectively) alongside Alice, the “unbirthday song” is even more jaunty, celebratory, and devilishly catchy than “Happy Birthday” itself. With this lengthy soundtrack, Alice in Wonderland’s songs completely overshadow and are referenced across Oliver Wallace’s (the notorious title song and score to 1942’s Der Fuehrer’s Face, 1963’s The Incredible Journey) score. For such a riotous and absurd movie, the film contains an equally riotous and absurd soundtrack to empower all of its nonsense.
The qualities that have made Alice in Wonderland treasured by many (including yours truly) today are the exact same ones that British literary and film critics took issue with in 1951. This Alice eviscerates Lewis Carroll’s literary vision and it is too “American”, these critics wrote. Walt Disney, years removed from his namesake studio’s Golden Age animated features (an era where he might have considered the words of academic and critics), now could not care less.
Walt’s distaste for academic and critics in the second half of his career began after musical and film critics pilloried Fantasia (1940). But his disdain for such individuals was fully realized after their response to the innovative and controversial Song of the South (1946) – which Walt intended as a hurrah for the American folklore that colored his childhood. Even upon Song of the South’s release, protesters and picketers decried the film for sentimentalizing the lives of black people in the immediate postbellum American South. “The master-and-slave relation is so lovingly regarded in your yarn,” New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “… that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake. Put down that mint julep, Mr. Disney.” Disney took this wave of criticism over Song of the South personally, and convinced himself that supposedly communist enemies from rival studios and hostile sociopolitical circles were inflaming these attacks against his films and his studio. How dare these people, Walt must have thought, tell the inventor of Mickey Mouse and the man who gave Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, and Friz Freleng their first jobs in animated cinema what he could or could not do artistically. Walt Disney could justly say he laid the foundation for American animated cinema in Kansas City – before Burbank, before the overcrowded studio in Hyperion – all those years ago, which must have fueled his pride and dismissal of his naysayers.
In an earlier decade, Walt – especially when noting that Carroll’s work was integral to his start in animated film in the 1920s – might have publicly lashed out to the polarized response that met Alice in Wonderland. Now, Walt had compartmentalized his feelings. And as Alice in Wonderland made its way through theaters, a long-gestating animated feature featuring a canine romance was finally moving forward. Another film, made possible due to the windfalls from Cinderella, had just been greenlit, and would not see completion until decade’s end.
Although not successful in its theatrical run, Alice in Wonderland became the first Disney film to rejuvenate its reputation in the popular mindset through television. TV became widespread in the United States and Britain after the Second World War and, with it, Walt Disney would use the medium to broadcast his older films, to alter popular perceptions of his own persona and personal history, and to employ idealized images and storytelling in telling the story of his namesake studio. Removed from the cultural discourse dominating airwaves and headlines in the early 1950s, viewers in the decades following Alice in Wonderland’s release can now appreciate the film’s role in the Disney animated canon. Alice in Wonderland is a demented classic that, because of its narrative-unfriendly content, has influenced few films following it. The film adjusts Lewis Carroll’s books in ways that pay homage to his writing, but also to chart a colorful course for viewers and Disney fans as cinematically as possible.
My rating: 9/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down. My interpretation of that ratings system can be found in the “Ratings system” page on my blog (as of July 1, 2020, tumblr is not permitting certain posts with links to appear on tag pages, so I cannot provide the URL).
For more of my reviews tagged “My Movie Odyssey”, check out the tag of the same name on my blog.
This is the twenty-first Movie Odyssey Retrospective. Movie Odyssey Retrospectives are reviews on films I had seen in their entirety before this blog’s creation or films I failed to give a full-length write-up to following the blog’s creation. Previous Retrospectives include The Kid (1921), Cinderella (1950), and The Sound of Music (1965).
Some additional dæmon!au headcanons, a continuation of this headcanon list.
Ok so I thought about it some more and decided to change Dick's dæmon from a Caracara to a Gyrfalcon. Still a raptor, but a larger one that has, historically, been used in falconry and hunting and is, in some European countries, a symbol of patriotism and national pride. Dick's daemon is a female, silver-streaked Gyrfalcon that settled sometime after college but before Fort Benning. Her name's Anahida, and she speaks like a queen. Like, literally, I imagine her voice sounds a lot like Helen McCrory's (gee, I wonder why). She's very large and eye catching, but she only speaks when spoken to-- which is rare. In a society as repressed as 1930s - 1940s America, I imagine speaking to another person's dæmon would be seen as rude or taboo. Because of that, Anahida barely speaks and thus, people often forget she's there. There are rumors too, that Dick's the son of a witch, because Anahida likes to fly far above and at a distance, farther than any human-dæmon bond should go. However, it isn't true. They just practiced a lot growing up. Dick's always wanted to fly, in some way or another, and practicing as well as testing how far they can both stretch from each other was their afternoon play time. It's weird. I know. But this is Dick we're talking about. Of course he'd do something like this.
Anahida is the only one allowed to berate Dick when he's being exceptionally petty or self-righteous. She keeps him in check. It never happens often, but it happens enough. Other than that, they're right as rain and very in-sync with each other.
Is anybody surprised that the only other person who will ever address Anahida directly is Lewis? Show of hands? None? Yeah, me too.
Liebgott's dæmon's name is Chaya and, after some pondering, I've come to the conclusion that she's a Bat-eared fox. Very chatty, too. She and Lieb are very blunt, but she's arguably the blunter one of the two. Where Lieb sometimes gives into the urge to hide or repress feelings, Chaya is willing to take more risk. She does this thing where she will boldly go one way, the way she knows is good for them both, stretching their bond even to its thinnest and most painful, just to get Lieb to finally concede and agree with her. They're both stubborn as all hell, that's the problem. Sometimes Lieb will deny himself things for a myriad of reasons. Chaya has no such qualms. She loves him, but she definitely thinks he's an idiot sometimes. It also sometimes extends to how Lieb gets really soft around people he cares about. In the wild, male Bat-eared foxes are the more nurturing of the young, while the females are the ones who go out and hunt. Kind of the same with Lieb and Chaya. Lieb takes care, he hovers and forgets that boundaries exist-- his own, and the person he's taking care of. But Chaya's the kind who remembers, and reminds Lieb that sometimes you can't give all of yourself away, no matter how much you want to. Does that make sense?
(Disclaimer: I gotta admit. The reason why I hesitated with Lieb was because I didn't want to accidentally be anti-Semitic. I grew up in a country that is primarily Christian and Muslim so I am only familiar with Islamophobic visual vocab, not so the anti-Semitic ones. I had to make sure the animals I assigned a Jewish man's literal soul to were not anti-Semitic or used in anti-Semitic imagery by Nazi propaganda in any way. So. Yeah. Um. Pigs, goats, lizards/reptiles, rats, rodent-adjacent, or any animal seen as "pests" or "vermin" were immediately struck out. Nope. Let's not.)
You wouldn't know it at first glance, but Web and his raven dæmon have a very intense love-hate relationship. Annabelle is a very act-first, introspection-never kind of thing. Web is the opposite. Sometimes, Annabelle will act before Web himself will, and she can be very, very vicious. Because of this, Web is afraid of her and Annabelle resents him. They never fight in public, they largely ignore each other, but often when they get into it... well. It gets almost... a bit too violent. Some of the others have never seen a human and a daemon hurt each other until they’ve met these two. Sometimes, Annabelle often thinks that she’s somebody else entirely, a completely different entity from Web, and sometimes, Web thinks she’s a changeling. That maybe some fae or other switched his real daemon out for this cursed one. It’s a really fractured, complicated relationship.
When they’re on the same wave length, though, they’re scary. The only thing they can seem to agree on is passionate and impulsive anger. Web will always regret it afterwards whereas Annabelle is always smug about it. They calm down after the war and they’re back home. During the war, though, they’re both a mess.
Joe Toye’s daemon is a doberman pinscher named Alessia who is just about as quiet and solemn as her human. Classic soldier daemon. He calls her Al for short. When he loses a leg, she doesn’t. I don’t think amputation in the daemon world works that way, at least not according to Pullman’s original text. Going back home with her after his amputation is easier because she’s there to encouraged him and hold him up when necessary. They make a good team. They share similar fears and insecurities so it’s easy for the both of them to understand each other and help each other through it.
Pat has a little american robin as a daemon. Which is really funny, honestly. Big tough guy like Pat, you’d think he’d have a big tough daemon for sure, but that’s not the case with him. He’s always been gentle and unassuming, Pat and so is his daemon. Her name’s Aoibheann (pronounced ay-veen). She likes to sit on his shoulder and rarely flies far away from him. When they jumped, she stayed inside his jacket at all times, tucked away and close. The only time she flies is later on at peace time, when she knows they’re both safe and she can leave Pat for a few minutes without it being too much trouble.
Johnny’s daemon is a mongoose named Corentine, but he calls her Cora. She’s fiesty. Sobel’s rooster daemon, Julius, wasn’t very fond of her. In fact, he was downright frightened of her. It’s why Sobel won’t mess with Johnny. It’s really funny.
Perco’s daemon is in the same family. A weasel. A tiny little thing he can hold in both his hands. Her name’s Jackie. I have no idea why. But it fits.
Ralph Spina’s daemon is a raccoon. It’s adorable. His name’s Nimaphael. But he hates it and everybody just calls him Nim. Ralph carries him around like a baby on a sling, strapped to his chest. Unlike Harry and Saoirse, you can tease them about this. They’re aware it looks ridiculous. They also don’t care.
Bull’s daemon is a sun bear. I know. I didn’t see this coming, either. But I thought about it and... honestly? It fits. Not to mention Bull’s pretty big. He can carry her no problem. Her name’s Xanthia, by the way. And she’s very sweet, if only a little gruff in showing affection. She’s also not afraid to do what needs to be done. If she needs to have a go at an enemy’s daemon, then you know she’ll do it. She definitely isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. It scares the replacements for awhile, until they realize that she only does it to protect her own.
I finally figured out what Merriell Shelton’s daemon is-- it’s a Jaguarundi. It’s a wild cat that looks to be a mix between a house cat and a mongoose. They’re fascinating and they hiss. A lot. It’s a perfect fit. Again, he name is Charlotte, but he calls her Lotte. Imagining them swaggering down the streets of 1940s New Orleans appeals to my aesthetic sense so much I cry just thinking about it.
Kitty Grogan’s daemon is, not surprisingly, a cat. But not a domesticated one. He looks like it at first glance, but he’s not. He’s an African Wild Cat and he’s a sarcastic little shit named Xaphania. Xaph for short. Send me a wink if you understand that reference.
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