a blog about film and writing

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland is the first animated film on my list, out of just few.  An old Disney classic, which I’d never seen, unsurprisingly.  (A friend told me yesterday she was surprised I’d never heard of Spencer Tracy, or seen a movie with Katharine Hepburn in it.  Well, I wasn’t raised on classic movies or anything, and like I say, this movie business is a new world to me, so I’m educating myself.)  Unlike probably all other Disney movies, this definitely falls into the category of antiplot, because of the source material, of course.  (I also found this much more worthwhile than the actual book, which, as a personal opinion, had no purpose and just pointlessly meandered from one bizarre encounter to the next.)

In this world-famous story, the bored young schoolgirl Alice falls down a rabbit hole and lands in a strange world called Wonderland, where nonsense rules.  She encounters “curiouser and curiouser” characters as she travels through Wonderland, trying to learn the logic of the place and find her way out.

Story analysis

Sequence: Alice falls into Wonderland

  • Alice sits in a tree in a field, being read a boring history lesson by her nanny.  The nanny chides her for not paying attention, but Alice complains that she can’t possibly pay attention to a book without any pictures.  The maid says this is “nonsense,” and Alice hits upon an idea: a world, her own world, governed by nonsense.
  • Wandering through the flowers in her field and fantasizing about this Wonderland, she suddenly sees a white rabbit running by in a hurry, carrying a large pocket watch and singing that he is late.  Alice chases him to find out who he is and where he’s going, but he runs into a rabbit hole and escapes her.  Telling her cat “We really shouldn’t be doing this, you know,” she crawls into the rabbit hole, and suddenly falls down a slope, then into a seemingly bottomless hole.
  • Artifacts begin floating by in the air as she falls: a lamp, a rocking chair, a portrait of a woman.  Looking at a map of the world, she hypothesizes she will come out on the other end where people walk upside down.  As she says this, she comes out, upside down, in a room, where she just sees the rabbit running off down the hall.
Sequence: Alice meets Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, learns about Wonderland
  • Alice pursues the rabbit through the house, until she reaches a tiny door with a talking doorknob.  The doorknob tells her to get small, she can drink the bottle on the table behind her, which both materialize when she turns to look.  She drinks it and becomes small; the door then tells her she also needs the key on the table, of course.  She takes a pill to grow, but grows way too large.  Frustrated, she starts crying; her giant tears flood the room.  Not wanting to be trapped, she drinks from the bottle again, returns to being tiny, and jumps in the bottle.  The keyhole then expands to let her through.
  • She floats in a sea, a helpless girl in a bottle.  She reaches land and finds a group of creatures singing and dancing in a circle.  They step on her, but do not acknowledge or help her.
  • She then sees the rabbit running away from the shore.  She follows him into the woods but loses him and meets Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, who sing to her the tale of the walrus and the carpenter:
  • In their song, a walrus and a carpenter find a group of oysters in the water by a beach, and undertake lure them away from their mother to eat them.  The walrus sings to the baby oysters and lures them away from their helpless mother, while the carpenter builds a full-size house for them to eat in.
  • In the house, the walrus and the carpenter prepare to eat the oysters, but the walrus distracts the carpenter by telling him to go get some seasonings, then eats the oysters while he’s gone.
  • The carpenter sees this, is mad, and chases the walrus away down the beach.
  • Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum finish their song, then try to make Alice listen and stay for another.  They get so caught up in their antics, though, that she is able to just walk away.
Sequence: Dodo tries to burn Alice
  • Alice finds the rabbit’s house and tries to speak to him, but he just calls her Mary Ann and orders her to bring him his gloves.  She goes into his house to look for them, but gets diverted by a plate of cookies, which cause her to grow again when she eats one.
  • She starts wrecking his house as she expands inside of it, and the rabbit, watching, panics and goes to get assistance from the Dodo.  The Dodo declares Alice to be a monster, and proposes to have Bill the Lizard, passing by, go inside and pull her out through the chimney.  But in the process, Bill makes Alice sneeze, which ejects him back out the chimney and up into the heavens.
  • The Dodo then proposes to burn the whole house with Alice inside.  Thinking quickly, Alice grabs a carrot out of the garden and eats it, causing her to become tiny once again, and she escapes.
Sequence: Alice discovers mushrooms to control her size
  • Alice gets diverted into a flower patch, where she discovers talking and singing flowers.  The flowers greet her, then ask her what kind of flower she is.  When Alice says she isn’t a flower, they cry out “Weed!” and shoo her off.
  • Alice then wanders upon a caterpillar sitting on a toadstool, smoking a hookah.  He asks her who she is, but then is testy with her, disbelieving her answers, and asking pestering questions.  After blowing smoke in her face, she leaves, but he calls her back.  He asks her what her problem is, and she tells him she would like to be larger.  This offends him greatly, and he evaporates in a cloud of smoke, then turns into a butterfly.  As he flies away, he tells her that one side of the mushroom makes her grow larger, the other smaller.
  • She takes a piece from each side of the mushroom, then tries one.  It instantly makes her grow to be taller than a tree.  She annoys a bird whose nest is on her head, then takes a bite from the other piece, and becomes smaller than an acorn.  She licks the first piece, and returns to a normal size.  Pleased, she saves the pieces in her front pockets, and continues on her way.
Sequence: Alice has tea with Mad Hatter and March Hare
  • Wandering through the forest, she hears singing, and encounters the hauntingly smiling Cheshire Cat.  At first, he helpfully tells her which way the white rabbit went,  but then he proceeds to play nonsense games with her.  Finally, he advises her to go to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.  She comments that she hopes they are not mad (in the British sense), and the Cat tells her that everyone is mad here.
  • Alice comes to find the Mad Hatter and March Hare together at a large dining table, having an Un-Birthday celebration.  They at first chastise her for sitting without being invited, then when they find out that it is also her un-birthday, they have her join in the celebration.
  • Alice tries to tell them what she’s been through that day, but they keep on interrupting her, never letting her finish a thought, to her annoyance.
  • The rabbit happens by the table, and they stop him.  He complains that he’s late and looks at his watch again, and the Mad Hatter snatches it from him.  He tells the rabbit that the problem is that the watch is two days slow, and designs to fix it.  He opens it up and decides it has too many gears and wheels inside, and starts prying them out, thend dumps in sugar, butter, and tea to make it work better.  When he closes the cover, the watch goes wild, to all of their great fright, and finally the March Hare smashes it with a mallet and “kills” it.
  • The hatter and hare then throw the rabbit out the yardgate, and Alice follows on foot.  She starts trying to look for a way home, declaring “I’ve had enough nonsense; I’m going home.”
Sequence: Alice gets lost, despairs
  • She enters an area called Tulgey Wood by herself.  The wood is dark and confusing; she sees lots of creatures, some menacing.  An arrow points her to a path, and happy to at least have a path to follow, she takes it.  Walking the path, she meets with a creature coming towards her, like a dog with broomheads for a head and tail.  The dog has been wiping the path away ahead of her; it passes her and continues erasing the path behind her, leaving her totally stranded.
  • Alice despairs and cries, wondering why she didn’t listen; she knew better than to go into that rabbit hole.
Sequence: Queen of Hearts tries to kill Alice
  • The Cheshire Cat appears once again, and tells her to go see the Queen.  Alice gladly follows his word, thinking the queen of the domain will be able to help her out.
  • The Cheshire Cat’s shortcut drops her into a hedge maze.  She finds three playing cards inside, painting the roses red.  They explain to her that white roses were planted by mistake, and they are trying to cover them up; the Queen would get very angry to discover white roses.
  • The Queen of Hearts suddenly approaches, announced by a great display and fanfare.  She notices the wet red paint on one of the roses, and is furious.  She sees the three suspect cards, and orders “off with their heads!”
  • Noticing Alice, the little girl, the Queen asks her if she’d like to play croquet.  They play a round of croquet, using flamingos as mallets, little rolly critters as balls, and the cards form the hoops.  The cards, flamingos, and balls all move together to make the Queen’s hit roll through a large number of hoops; they conspire against Alice and her hit does nothing.
  • Alice complains to the queen about the game, then the Cheshire Cat appears and trips the queen up, embarrassing her greatly.  The queen blames Alice and orders her execution; her timid husband the King intervenes and says there must be a trial first.
  • In the trial, the queen tries to sentence Alice before the verdict is reached, but the King interposes himself once again and says there need to be witnesses.
  • A series of witnesses appears, the March Hare, the Dormouse, and the Mad Hatter.  The Mad Hatter wishes the Queen a happy unbirthday, and begins to greatly flatter her.
  • The Queen is once again happy when the Cheshire Cat appears on her head.  Alice points out the cat, and the Dormouse hears the word, freaks out, and wrecks the scene.
  • The Queen becomes enraged once again, and comes after Alice.  In the nick of time, Alice remembers the bits of mushroom in her pockets.  She pops them both, and grows large.
  • Large, she speaks down to the queen and insults her.  Then, to her inconvenience, she grows small immediately, turns, and flees with the queen and the rest of her party in pursuit.
  • Alice runs through a shifting landscape, then back into the ocean, until she reaches the door with a talking doorknob at the end of a vortex.  She frantically asks the doorknob how she can escape, but the door tells her that she’s asleep in the real world.  Alice peeks through his keyhole again, and sees herself dozing under a tree.  She realizes she’s in a dream and just needs to wake up, but can’t do it.  With the queen fast approaching behind her, she starts calling to herself to wake up: “Alice, Alice, wake up, Alice!”
Resolution: Alice back in real world
  • Her voice changes into that of her nanny calling to wake her up, and Alice wakes back up, confused.  Her nanny asks her to recite her lesson, and Alice speaks nonsense.  Exasperated, the nanny tells her to come and take her tea.
The central plot, I suppose the only plot, of this story is that of Alice trying to get home.  The inciting incident is when Alice falls down the rabbit hole; this sets up an obligatory scene of Alice getting back home.  The climax of the story comes in surprising form: the discovery that she is asleep and Wonderland is all a dream is an anti-climax.  For a controlling idea, I suggest “Life is impossible when nonsense prevails.”
Since this is the first film I encounter with an anti-climax ending, let’s talk about it some, eh?  First, why do I even term it an anti-climax (a term that McKee doesn’t discuss)?  By the end, the story has escalated to the point where Alice is being pursued by the Queen and her whole retinue of cards, who would definitely kill her if they got their hands on her.  This is Alice’s ultimate confrontation with the forces of antagonism in her world.  Wonderland is throwing everything it has at her, and she has to find a way to beat it.  This, however, is an impossible task for Alice.  She has discovered no laws of logic for Wonderland, no systems of order (at least everyone speaks English, though!), and has not even met anyone who would count as an ally.  All she can do is run from the Queen, and she can’t do that forever, nor does that count as confronting the opposing forces.  She reaches the doorway, which would be  her avenue of escape, but it’s locked.  If she broke through the door, or figured out a way to open it, that would count as a regular climax: Alice draws on her own power and cleverness to escape Wonderland.  But she is unable to do that: rather she realizes she is asleep, and this world is all a dream, and she just needs to wake up.
The stakes are now thrown out the window.  She’s no longer in mortal peril.  Even if the queen got her and killed her in Wonderland, Alice would probably just wake up, as from a nightmare.  Alice yells to herself on the other side of the door to wake up, but doesn’t stir.  Shifting perspective into the real world, Alice’s voice in her dream becomes that of her nanny, who is actually calling her to wake her up.  Alice finally does rouse, and in an instant, all the trouble of Wonderland is nothing but a dream.
Is this unfair?  Did the writers take an easy out, expecting the audience to be wowed by the surprise plot twist?  Is this a deus ex machina ending?  No.  An ending like this is, in fact, the only type of ending possible for this story, I think.  Throughout her journey in Wonderland, every event is a non sequitur.  The only rule is nonsense, madness.  To quote from the Animaniacs theme song, “expect the unexpected.”  Along these lines, the sudden revelation that she’s in a dream and can simply wake up is consistent.
Moreover, consider if the ending was done normal, if Alice battled the Queen head-on.  It’s unimaginable that the story would have an ending where Alice loses, since that would probably mean she would be killed or enslaved or life in Wonderland — something excessively negative.  So Alice battles the Queen, battles Wonderland, and wins.  How does she do this?  Does she bring out a sword and start slashing through the cards, and eventually kill the Queen?  What about the other hostile inhabitants of Wonderland?  Given the apparently endless supply of cards, and the magical powers that the other characters all have, this is implausible to say the least.  If Alice finally discovered how to use magic in Wonderland,  if she finally murdered or fended off all the other creatures, what would be accomplished?  It violates Alice’s established character, an innocent child; it violates the rules of the world, in that Alice can’t understand them and therefore can’t use them.  Still, say she did this anyway.  Then what?  Is Alice now Queen of Wonderland forever?  What kind of resolution is that?  She wanted to go home.  Has she gotten any closer?
In truth, this ending would be the most unsatisfying one possible.  If the Disney story people had done this, even if they had managed to do it without being outrageously violent, we would have felt greatly cheated.  This is an instance where a surprise, anti-climax ending is the only one appropriate.  To be sure, anti-climax can be abused; probably most of its uses in film are inappropriate, which is why it has a generally bad name.  But this story shows that there are times where the unexpected anti-climax is legitimate.
The movie I’ve watched so far which bears the most comparison with this is After Hours.  Both are antiplot traipses of a protagonist into some dark world where nothing seems to happen according to plan, rules of the normal world don’t apply.  Both stories involve a wide cast of incidental characters exiting and reentering in unexpected ways.  Both protagonists have the same desire: to get home.  The Wonderland both get trapped in is scary and malevolent.  I personally favor the up-ending of this, versus the neutral-to-dark ending of After Hours, where the protagonist ends up right back at his work desk, unable after all his struggle through the night to escape his boring daily job.
A featurette on the Alice in Wonderland DVD talks about how the story was a challenge for Disney to work with, understandably.  The danger, it seems, with these antiplot nonsense forays is that when you have no rules governing the world, how can there be stakes, and how can the protagonist ever take meaningful action towards her goal?  The story has a tendency to become episodic, which has a tendency to become pointless.  As Alice drifts from one random encounter to the next, learning nothing, gaining nothing, being unharmed each time, we soon wonder “What’s the point?”  After Hours also grapples with this problem.  Alice in Wonderland does have a noticeable progression of danger, though.  At first, Wonderland is amusing: Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are funny characters who sing a fun song.  Wonderland quickly becomes annoying: the Dodo who has no good solutions for getting Alice out of the house, the caterpillar blowing smoke in her face and bombarding her with questions, the crazy Mad Hatter and March Hare who don’t even let Alice finish a sentence.  By the end, wonderland is actually threatening: the Queen routinely orders people’s executions, and before long she puts Alice on trial for execution.  By the end, Alice is literally running for her life.  This progression gives the story forward momentum, and allows it to hold the audience’s attention throughout the short total time of 75 minutes.
Alice in Wonderland is a movie worth watching.  The music and animation were both very good, trademark of Disney’s golden era.  It’s very different in feel from all those other old Disney movies like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio.  Maybe it’s just the male in me, but all those princess stories and fairy tales were so boring to me.  Alice isn’t about a princess story, or a simple moral tale like Pinocchio; it’s a reflection on the sometime boringness of the real world, the necessity of escape into imagination, and an overall lesson about keeping the two in balance.

One response to “Alice in Wonderland (1951)

  1. Pingback: All the President’s Men (1976) « Film-o-matic

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