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Monday, March 19, 2012

Disneyear: Alice in Wonderland (1951)

I was surprised when I researched this, but Alice in Wonderland was a critical failure when it first came out. Most of the critics were literary critics claiming that Disney had "Americanized" a great book. Despite that, it had a lukewarm box-office run even though this was never re-released during Walt's lifetime. Overtime, the critics and audience alike warmed up to Disney's version and in the 70's developed a cult following (if you've seen the film, I think you'll know why.) Now it's regarded as a classic of not only Disney animated films, but of the many cinematic adaptations of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, this version is often the first one we think of when we hear the title. Read on to see why.

The film starts with our heroine Alice, played by Katherine Beaumont, in a field studying with her sister. Well, not studying but more like goofing off for Alice. Everything seems like a normal day until a white rabbit in a coat with a large watch. He immediately runs off yelling that he's late for something. Curious, Alice follows him to a burrow that leads her to a very odd place where logic has no meaning called Wonderland. At first this sounds cool, but Alice soon finds out that it's not all it's cracked up to be. Along the way, she meets some interesting characters like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare. Near the end, she finds herself in a royal courtyard thanks to the Cheshire Cat and manages not only to find the White Rabbit, but also the mean Queen of Hearts. Accidentally getting the Queen angry after a croquet match using flamingos, hedgehogs and even her own servants as hoops (they're playing cards, don't worry!), Alice is put on trial. Found guilty, Alice makes a run for it to have everybody she meet chasing her! She escapes when she wakes up, seeing it was all a dream. After a big sigh of relief, Alice and her sister head on home for tea time.

Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorites growing up. I just love weird imagery and this one's chock full of it. It's sort of like a road trip, it's more about moments and odd twists and turns that happen. There's also the memorable people that you meet on the trip. Trust me, it's hard to forget journeys and films like this and that's why it sticks to us.

The characters are really the best part of the movie. My favorites are your favorites: the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat, they're all awesome. They all also have these weird mood swings that range from friendly to almost violent, so you never know what the hell they're going to do or what they're really thinking. Half the time, I don't think they even know they're crazy. My favorite scene in the whole movie, though there's a ton of great moments, is the mad tea party. It's just a degree more insane than the rest. Plus, there's Ed Wynn and Jerry Colona as the Mad Hatter and March Hare and Ward Kimball animating. Need I say more?

Then you have the Queen of Hearts, one of the funniest villains around. She has a high position of power but acts like a spoiled five-year old with it. In an adult body, she's really funny. I just love how she goes from nice and calm to crazy and angry in a millisecond. She's kind of malicious in that her punishment for everything is by chopping off heads. The movie never shows it, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. That's pretty damn dark.

Alice herself is a nice character thanks to Katherine Beaumont's acting. She's really good at turning what seems like generic characters into somewhat interesting ones. Alice isn't supposed to be intriguing, she's more like a lightning rod for all of Wonderland's nonsense and brings logic to what's otherwise a world with no use for logic. She's still a nice, sympathetic person and I still like her and her voice.

The story itself is a good one. As far as movie versions of Alice in Wonderland go, this is what many folks consider the definitive version. It's our first exposure of the book like many other adaptations this one manages to make the transition to movie form, meaning that it stays close to the book but not too close to where it loses focus. After all, this book's dialogue isn't the easiest in the world to recite let alone show on screen. So if it isn't exactly like the book, just remember it's a Disney film, just take what you have.

The art in this movie is also very different. If you look at it, a lot of the backgrounds are very dark.
It's so that whenever color does show up, it jumps right at you. That's a clever idea. I should mention that most of the movie was designed by one of my favorite Disney designers, Mary Blair. Her influence is everywhere in this movie! She usually has this abstracted looking style that really fits the mood and atmosphere that the movie is trying to go for.

If you haven't guessed by now, I think this movie is a ton of fun. Full of great art, characters, and one of the better cinematic versions of this book, it makes for a movie that I see myself watching more and more of in the future. My only complaint is that I wish there was more, like how Disney would have done the mock-turtle and griffin or the Jabberwocky, but that's always a good complaint to have.

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