Thursday, September 20, 2012

Alice in Wonderland

When I sit down to watch Alice in Wonderland, it is a struggle.  As you may have deduced in reading this blog, I love stories and storytelling.  Alice is not a film that focuses on story.  It is a bizarre romp through colorful characters that meanders from one scene to the next, with barely a line of dialogue or visual to connect the scenes.  It makes for some amazing visual filmmaking that fails to tell a story.

The film ostensibly tells the story of Alice following the White Rabbit through a rabbit hole into Wonderland.  But the problem is, the White Rabbit is mostly absent during the course of the film.  The idea that this is what drives Alice becomes lost about halfway through the film, and leads to a wandering and lost Alice.  It’s a shame, because the work done by the animators here is very good, and the combination of visuals, music and voice acting is quite excellent.

Start with the visual feast that is Alice in Wonderland.  The imagination on display is fun to look at, and flows naturally from Mary Blair’s designs.  The brilliance of the flowers sequence, where the flowers sing “A Golden Afternoon” to Alice, is one of my favorite things in the entire film.  The use of puns on the bread and butterflies, the rocking horsefly and others supplements the whimsical designs and voices.  But anyone who has seen the film knows that two sequences stand out more than any other.

The mad tea party that is joined by the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse is probably the most recognizable sequence of the whole film.  Ed Wynn’s performance as the Mad Hatter was so memorable that he is the main character outside of Alice to appear as a character in the Disney parks.  It makes for a fun and very entertaining bit of film to watch them demolish cups, sing songs and do things that are physically impossible.  Alice’s astonishment and look of wonder is a stand in for the audience watching these proceedings and trying to figure out what is going on in this crazy world.

That’s the issue with the film, though, is that the audience spends most of their time trying to figure out what they should look at, where they are and what’s going on.  The place where this is the least applicable in the film is the very end, when Alice finds herself in the court of the Red Queen.  That sequence has a fairly straightforward flow – the queen gets upset about the roses, meets Alice and engages in a cricket game.  When Alice gets sabotaged by the Cheshire Cat, she is sentenced to die and has to find a way out of that predicament.  It all flows one detail to the next.

Contrast that to the early scenes where Alice flows from floating in the ocean to the silliness of the caucus race to the confrontational nature of Tweedledee and Tweedledum and over to the Walrus and the Carpenter story.  All of that in about 15 minutes!  The film is schizophrenic to say the least.  What ends up making it memorable for me is the music.

Many don’t realize it, but this is the Disney film with the most songs.  The reason for that, as I wrote yesterday, is because the filmmakers wanted to pull in as much of the poetry from the Carroll books as they could.  What happens is many memorable songs, like “A Golden Afternoon,” “The Unbirthday Song,” “March of the Cards” and more.  These are songs that are played to this day at the Disney parks, and survive as great memories.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make Alice in Wonderland a good film.  The lack of narrative flow through and depth in the characters makes it ultimately a bizarre accumulation of visuals.  I honestly find it hard to watch until it gets to the tea party, and have trouble staying interested, which is not a problem I typically have with Disney films.  Even Walt acknowledged that Alice did not turn out the way he wanted, and I have to say I agree with him.

1 comment:

  1. This is not one of my favorite movies but I disagree. When I watch a movie I don't sit in front of it deciding what I want(it would only be about my personal tastes), but I judge it for what it wants to give me(the artistic value). The narrative flow and character's depth are never a part of "Alice in Wonderland", and it's pretty clear in every scene and interaction. The movie is a psychedelic journey of a little girl in the wildness of the fantasy. And the movie does a very good job, even if not perfect.


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