Friday, August 30, 2019

Walt Disney, part XVI: Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards


Initially wearisome, but ultimately a fair bit of fun, Alice In Wonderland is still minor Walt Disney—as the man himself agreed.

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske

Spoiler alert: wake up, Alice

As we saw previously, when the Disney Studio's fortunes finally revived during the late 1940s, a decision was made to return to full-length animated features for the first time in eight years; and so was born Cinderella, released in 1950 to tremendous acclaim and (more importantly) tremendous profit.  What I neglected to mention, however, was that it was not the sole contender for that year's Disney feature slot.  No, there was one other, and it could have made the cut, had it only been ready in time.  This was Alice In Wonderland, and it arrived on Cinderella's heels in 1951 instead.

Both of the candidates had possessed the same basic kind of appeal for Walt.  Both had been long-gestating projects that had originally attracted his passion during the old Snow White days, when he was drunk on money and nothing seemed impossible; both were based on an old favorite of his, works of literature that had previously inspired him on his Laugh-O-Grams, all the way back in the early 1920s, leading to several cartoons that nobody watches today for the sound reason that they are awful.  Alice, however, may have even been Walt's own, personal preference—those live-action hybrid Alice Comedies, which had continued at the Disney Bros. Studio into the mid-20s, had been Walt's first taste of genuine success, and he had wanted to do Alice even before Snow White, perhaps even using the same live-action techniques.  Instead, Alice lay fallow for a very long time, though according to shareholder documents prepared in the mid-40s, apparently Walt had still hoped to have some kind of Alice out by 1950.

Then again, Walt was bound to tell his investors something, and Alice might've simply been the first plausible thing he could come up with.  In any case, the way I've heard it is that in or around 1948, Walt instigated a bit of competition amongst his storymen: whichever project arrived at a filmable plot first would be the one to have the honor of serving as the studio's big comeback.  But whether Walt willed it or not, that had the effect of stacking the deck against it, for Alice had been famously troublesome from this perspective—figuring out how to somehow wrangle the irrational and disconnected events of Charles Ludwidge "Lewis Carroll" Dawson's Alice In Wonderland (with a sprinkling of its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass) into even the most basic kind of functional story-shaped object had been baffling Disney's writers for almost twenty years now.  The ultimate solution, as far as I can tell, was that they simply stopped trying.  Meanwhile, as with Cinderella, Walt spent much of Alice's production abroad, more interested in his studio's forays into live-action filmmaking than the cartoons that had made him, then all but broken him.

It is absolutely for the best that Alice failed to win against Cinderella.  For the latter, I'd argue, is the most objectively important film Disney ever made.  It literally saved the studio, and its financial success laid the foundation for the whole Disney Empire as we know it today, from distribution to theme parks and beyond.  The former, on the other hand, was disliked by most of the people who saw it, including most of the people who'd worked on it, and it wound up losing an amount of money that might've been considered trivial by 1951—but would've been considered damn-near deadly in 1950.  And since I doubt it would have altered Alice's box office fate to have been released in Cinderella's stead, if it had made it to animation first, then that would've been pretty much it.  Disney would have likely ceased to exist, except perhaps as just another live-action film studio; and maybe the very best case scenario would've been that Joshua Meador and a few other effects animators would have still remained employed, the last remnants of an institution that had only a decade earlier produced works of art as beautiful as Fantasia.

Well, it didn't happen that way, so let's not trouble ourselves with such bleak could-have-beens.  The fact of the matter is that Alice arrived when it did, and it somewhat bombed, to be rehabilitated only two decades later (not unlike Fantasia, come to think of it) as a head movie for hippies.  At the time, it was also criticized (especially by Britons, and by the kind of American who would subscribe to the idea of an interest in British culture as a class signifier) as a desecration of the story Carroll wrote for and about his eleven year old, let's say, "buddy," Alice Liddell.  This is the part I don't quite get, since Alice is a reasonably solid adaptation of Carroll's teeth-grindingly twee novella, and while it arguably doesn't share with it all of its putative strengths (math jokes, absurdist whimsy, references you only get if you're familiar, as I'm sure we all are, with the buildings at motherfucking Oxford), it at least massages out some of its weaknesses, and its basic premise of "a cavalcade of nonsensical bullshit" was always likelier to be better-realized in a visual medium, anyway.

In the interests of disclosure, though I reckon I've already disclosed it: I don't like Carroll's Alice In Wonderland.  It's a drag to read, essentially a series of vignettes that typically follow the repetitive formula of an unstudious daydreamer, Alice, who meets Weirdo X, whereupon Weirdo X interrogates the underpinnings of the various ways we encode meaning by revealing that the structures of English, mathematics, and society obey various customs that we usually have the good manners to not bring up, and then when Alice finally gets sick of Weirdo X she proceeds to Weirdo Y, who either does the same thing, or recites a silly poem at her.  Occasionally there are references to, e.g., calculus, that are so obscure that I suspect that Carroll's later readers are inventing them; occasionally there are really funny gags involving non-base-ten number systems (tell us another one, you pedophile*); and occasionally you realize from where latterday British fantasy authors get their least-likeable tics.  The best thing to come out of it is a Jefferson Airplane song.  But anyway, despite some deviations, Disney's Alice replicates much of this narrative, and to get down to it, I don't especially like it, either.  But I do like it better.

The story scarcely needs recapping, to the extent it exists, but for form's sake, let's put it on the record that Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) gets bored during a lesson in an exceptionally realistic and well-animated field of flowers, and winds up chasing a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) down a hole in the ground and into the much more stylized Wonderland, where she grows and shrinks and meets several talking animals, and ultimately gets put on trial for her life by the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton).  It is fearsomely episodic, and it's indicative of the arbitrary structure that 30 songs were written for the film, eventually winnowed down to 13, and these were jammed into a 75 minute runtime in such a way that some of them are no more than 30 seconds long.   Other than the central figure of Alice, and the integrity of the aesthetic (which it maintains despite wildly-divergent settings),  it resembles one of Disney's package films more than any of their other monolithic features—which itself isn't too surprising, since that was close to how it was made.  Overseen by nobody in particular (even or especially Walt), yet irresponsibly armed with the broad mandate to visualize Carroll's absurdist scenarios however they felt like, the multitude of sequence directors tacked toward zanier and zanier ideas, while always seeking to out-zany everybody else.

Ward Kimball described the result of all this as "self-cancelling," and that's a fair one-word summation of the experience of watching it.  Every new situation Alice finds herself in basically amounts to its own short subject, uniformly shrill if not uniformly compelling, but the biggest problem is foundational, and that's that no one in all the years of working on it ever figured out how to generate a character or even an emotional anchor out of Alice and her struggle.  Which doesn't seem like it should've been remotely hard, but I suppose unwarranted fealty to the source material was responsible.  (Disney's Alice, lacking an inner voice, doesn't even quite manage the negative characterization of Carroll's own often-mocked, spurious dumbass.)

It's why Alice's subsequent popularity with the psychedelic crowd has always been curious to me.  Disregarding some stray moments that do live up to that hype, it's way less of an unintentional depiction of someone actually undergoing a magical mystery tour of her own than it is an observational portrait of someone who's sober and annoyed while everyone else does a bunch of drugs.  And not necessarily even interesting drugs!: the very hallmark image of Alice might be the look of sheer exasperation on Alice's face during her trial, which captures perfectly the moment that a teetotaler's boredom with the antics of a roomfull of loud drunks becomes anger.  Alice, animated by many (if perhaps more by Marc Davis than anyone else), is at least a solid vehicle for her constant expression of pique, with somewhat widely-set eyes that always look primed to roll right out of her head.  And so despite the multifarious nature of her authorship, she's a technical success, if nothing else—a piece of flesh-and-blood it's easy enough to sympathize with, even absent any real investment in her tale.  Beaumont's vocal performance finds the same register, and I don't know what it means that the young woman's contribution to the Disney legacy over the course of her two back-to-back films with the studio was to be typecast as the voice of the perfectly reasonable little girl who found herself treated like shit by the obnoxious denizens of English literature fantasy realms.

For the exact same reason it's not an enthralling piece of psychedelia, it's a fairly lackluster adventure film: Alice is neither much tempted by the joy of discovery nor threatened by the danger of the unknown, and with almost every conflict defined by Alice's irritation—before being quickly resolved by Alice's decision to simply walk away—the closest Alice gets to stakes before the last ten minutes is in Alice's despairing (and belated) realization that she's lost, and might be trapped in this bedlam.  Stakes certainly weren't going to arise from, e.g., Alice confronting a bunch of racist flowers who designate her a weed, but have absolutely no ability to hurt her.

But of course it has its compensations.  For one thing, despite their mostly-arbitrary arrangement, by either chance or design, it has the good fortune of its vignettes getting better as it goes along, mostly because its most interesting situations and visuals are backloaded.  But even early on, its visuals make it worth the effort of seeing it: one of the distinctive marks of Disney's Silver Age is the way the personalities of its films' chief art designers were so directly imprinted upon the finished product.  (This was not entirely without precedent: without Tyrus Wong, Bambi is not Bambi.  But it was more of a trend in the 1950s.)  The designer in this case was the woman as responsible as anyone else for Cinderella's success, Mary Blair, and while I don't rate anything here as highly as that film, Blair's more varied efforts here certainly come the closest, from the simultaneous day and night of the Walrus and the Carpenter's film-within-the-film (otherwise mostly notable for the film's best song, not a fierce competition) to the genuine delight of the card-based menace of the labyrinthine demesne of the Queen of Hearts, which is where the film comes most alive as a work of nutty animation, to boot (albeit one that blatantly cheats in some frown-inducing ways, because animating dozens of anthromorphized playing cards was clearly not a trivial task).

Meanwhile, sometimes it's not difficult to draw actual enjoyment from the story itself, that is, from seeing colorful psychotics abuse Alice in funny ways.  There are at least five definitive takes on the Carroll characters here, frankly better than they are in the novel: besides Frank Thomas's kinetic, bellowing Queen of Hearts, who doesn't merely demand beheadings as in the book, but actually gets them, there's the pair of characters who push the film the furthest toward genuine psychedelia, Eric Larson and John Lounsbery's mushroom-pushing Caterpillar (Richard Haydn) and Ward Kimball and Lounsbery's Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway).  The former is my favorite, puffing away on a magic hookah and failing to maintain a consistent color, and provided life by Haydn's twisted evocation of a vicious schoolmaster, constantly asking in an unmistakably existential way, "Who are you?" The latter is fun and one of the few entities Alice meets who seems like he could be dangerous, and while Kimball's abject recycling of Cinderella's Lucifer in the design is nothing to congratulate the animator on, the extreme anthropomorphic caricature of a feline works much, much better in the context of this daemon than in the context of an actual housecat.

The other two memorable fellows, of course, are the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) and the March Hare (Jerry Colonna), (plus the Dormouse (Jimmy MacDonald), I suppose, and like Alice they were animated by everybody).  Mainly this is because they represent the film's most effective comedy—from their perspective, Alice is the weirdo accosting them—and that is thanks to their being not merely zany, but actually creepy, in their particular shared mania.  Wynn's performance, especially, comes off as both amusingly wacky and unnervingly brain-damaged.  It doesn't hurt that they offer this cartoon its best cartoon gags, either.  Theirs is also the vignette that manages the most competent and pointed recreation of Carroll's own absurdism; so there's that if you want it, too.

And now that I've laid it out, it seems like at least half the movie is good (and mostly the crucial back half, at that).  And so I cannot say I dislike Alice In Wonderland, though I also don't quite agree with its contemporary reputation as a minor masterpiece of style, either.  Even if it does get better, it's one of the easiest Disney films to turn off twenty minutes in, and it's hard to say it ever becomes essential even once it does get good.  It may also be the median entry of Disney's Silver Age—which honestly doesn't say good things about Disney's Silver Age.

Score: 6/10

(*Yeah, yeah.  I realize that Carroll's pedophilia is not a proven fact.  I will say the alternative theory amuses me in its irony: Carroll's family, worried about potential scandal, suppressed evidence of his numerous affairs with adults, possibly including the grown Liddell women, which preserved his legacy at the time, at the cost of a whole lot of negative inferences about his sexual preferences today.)

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