Having acquired the rights to the Tenniel drawings in the 1930s, Walt Disney hoped to star Mary Pickford in the first animated retelling of Alice’s adventures. The prospect of combining live and animated characters proved too daunting, however, and Disney turned to Snow White for his debut feature.
Pipped to a live-action hybrid by Dallas Bower in 1949, Disney decided to stick with the graphic approach (even though Ginger Rogers was keen to play Alice) and was promptly savaged by contemporary critics who dubbed it his unlucky 13th feature.
Following the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, Alice discovers a world that would captivate even Lewis Carroll.
There’s a doorknob with a nose. There’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with heliotrope cravats, and the Walrus and the Carpenter luring that poor family of dopey oysters with their talk of cabbages and kings and sealing wax.
The fabulous Mad Hatter, marvellous goofy lunatic, cavorts about in the unmistakable voice of the late, lamented Ed Wynn, while the Cheshire Cat with its accordion teeth (pictured), its removable head, its pink nose and its annoying way of confusing Alice just when she needs him most, is Sterling Holloway.
Richard Haydn’s snooty, conceited Caterpillar (pictured) is an adroitly complicated snob who perches on his leaf, smokes his hookah, and blows superior letters at Alice like “OOO . . . RRR . . . UUU?”
These were the days when the Disney studios were really cooking, and if you can’t tell the difference between the creations of real art they were turning out then as compared with the dull, movable line drawings they’re offering now, then you just flunked Technique Appreciation.
How we’ve changed since the good old days. Potheads, dopers, and cynical social commentators now find all sorts of rude things lurking behind the nursery school charm and innocence of Alice in Wonderland.
Some folks even insist it’s the first great “head” movie, and wouldn’t think of seeing it again without being stoned. When the flowers snub Alice because they think she’s a weed from some alien garden, some folks insist the story is a mask for racial intolerance and bigotry. Others point to references to drugs, such as hallucinatory mushrooms and hashish.
Children, who sometimes display more imagination and wisdom than adults, will have a grand time letting Disney’s imagery wash over them. And even if your tastes are more demanding, you’ll still appreciate the immaculate cinematography, the dandy songs, the luscious Technicolor, and the friendly pacing.
Queen of Hearts
J Pat O’Malley