Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Alice's Wonderland

With the Laugh-O-Gram studio struggling mightily, and debt piling up, Walt took the money he made from Tommy Tucker’s Tooth and invested it into a short that he could take around to distributors to try and get a new contract. It was an original Walt idea, but it would take all the efforts of his studio to pull it off.

At the time, there was a famous series of cartoons called Out of the Inkwell, where a cartoon would hop off the drawing board and interact with live action footage of human beings. Walt’s idea was to reverse it and have the live action person enter a cartoon world. He recruited a local child, Virginia Davis, to star as Alice, who would enter the cartoon world.

Walt turned to his fellow animators to make this happen. This was really the beginning of his producing career, relying on others to make his vision come true. This short is truly the beginning of the modern day Walt Disney Company, so it bears some careful scrutiny.

The short begins with the titular Alice making her way to a cartoon studio. Not really sure how or why she decided to do this, but it happens anyway. Virginia Davis is a charming girl, and you can tell how sweet she is just by looking at her.

Alice knocks and introduces herself to Walt, who agrees to show her around the studio. The first thing he shows her is what he was working on, which is an animation of the dog from the previous Laugh-O-Grams running around a dog house.

Then, they tour around the studio, encountering some different characters, like a band of cats, similar to our friend who had appeared in all of the fairy tales.
They also encounter a mouse that is desperately trying to get rid of the cat that has parked itself near the drawing board that the mouse is on.

Looks familiar, huh? You wonder if this is the precursor to Mickey, if that idea was already taking shape in Walt’s head. There are other vignettes in the office, like a boxing dog and cat, but what’s truly interesting is Walt’s role as the host. If you remember the Disneyland TV show, it would come as no surprise to you, but this is over 30 years before that first show aired. Walt here is seemingly the master of ceremonies of this magical studio where the drawings interact with the animators to create these magical cartoons. It’s an amazing glimpse into the future of Walt Disney that is beginning to take form in this short. For that alone, this is worth a watch.

Once Alice returns home from the studio, she goes to bed and immediately begins to dream of the wonders that she saw in the animation studio. Her dream puts her on a train headed to Cartoonland, where a welcoming committee of cartoons from the studio are waiting to greet her.

Alice arrives in the cartoon world in a mundane way from today’s perspective, but seeing her climb out of the train and walk in front of all these characters must have been very exciting for audiences in 1923, when this short finally made it to theatres.

The cartoons hold a parade for Alice, after which they share some dancing and overall fun and frivolity. This is probably the weakest part of the short, as there’s about 3 minutes taken up with very little story and not a lot of gags. It’s not that it’s bad, but there is nothing there moving the story forward or making you laugh.

Finally, the end of the short comes when a group of lions break out and start chasing Alice around, finally forcing her to jump off a cliff.

And then…it just ends. Why? Because during the making of the film, Laugh-O-Gram Films went bankrupt. The company ran out of money, and Walt had to leave the film unfinished. It’s probably not a bad thing. The short is much more interesting for its historical significance than anything else.

Compared to the Laugh-O-Gram fairy tales, Alice’s Wonderland is not a great example of linear storytelling or fine art. It is an example of great artistic innovation, and trying to push the boundaries, which Walt is known for doing in his work. But on the whole, not as entertaining as others Walt produced. This short is a great piece of American history, though, because after the bankruptcy, Walt took a copy of this film to Los Angeles, and used it to secure a new contract and found the Disney Brothers Studio, which we now know as the Walt Disney Company.

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