Thursday, February 3, 2011

'Alice in Wonderland': Still Brillig After All These Years

Of the movies released during Disney's second "golden age" of animation, Alice is Wonderland is my favorite. Lacking the warm, gooey center of Cinderella or One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Alice is the most non-Disney of Disney feature films, an episodic farce that piles gag upon gag in rapid succession. You don't invest any real emotion in the characters, unless you count silliness as an emotion. You just hang on and enjoy the ride. Critics have cited this as a problem with the film. I say this is what makes it stand out, especially with the classic animation and iconic characters that the Disney artists derived from Lewis Carroll's original stories.

The familiar tale of an English girl's trip down the rabbit hole, where she encounters singing flowers, a perpetual tea party and an evil queen with a penchant for croquet, is brought vividly to life through the color schemes of Mary Blair and the inventiveness of animation director Ward Kimball, who was responsible for the most memorable segments in the movie, the Mad Tea Party and the Cheshire Cat. In the tea party scene below, watch all the funny business Kimball crams into it, from a clever distribution of hats to the March Hare's twitchy gestures to the miraculous pouring of an entire cup of tea:

It was common practice for Disney to use the voice actors as models for their animated counterparts. Watch how the antics of real life comedians Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter) and Jerry Colonna (March Hare) translate to the screen:

For all its inspired lunacy, Kimball was still dissatisfied with the overall feel of Alice in Wonderland. For him, it was a problem of too many cooks spoiling the, uhhh, tea. As Kimball told film critic and historian Leonard Maltin in his book The Disney Films:
Here was a case of five directors each trying to top the other guy and make his sequences the biggest and craziest in the show. This had a self-cancelling effect on the final product.
The only real "mad" thing in the whole picture, in my opinion, turned out to be the Cheshire Cat! Why? Because compared to the constant, all-out, wild gyrations of the other characters, he played it real cool. His quiet, underplayed subtleties consequently stole the show!

It also didn't hurt that the Cheshire Cat was voiced by Sterling Holloway. Holloway's distinctive rasp made him a Disney voice over favorite for decades, beginning as the messenger stork in Dumbo and eventually leading to the roles of Winnie the Pooh and the sibilant snake Kaa in The Jungle Book.

With all apologies to Ward Kimball, Alice in Wonderland doesn't have the grandeur of Sleeping Beauty or the adventurousness of Peter Pan, but for sheer entertainment it remains my go-to Disney movie.

The 60th Anniversary edition of Alice in Wonderland is available now on Blu-ray.

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