Director: Clyde Geronimi, Wilifred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Cast: Kathryn Beaumont, Verna Felton, Sterling Holloway, Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Bill Thompson
Plot: Bored of her mundane life, Alice (Beaumont) finds solace in the madcap world of Wonderland.
How much do you like nonsense? Because Alice in Wonderland delivers it by the bucketloads. Based on the novel by Lewis Carroll, Disney’s adaptation of the crazy universe of Wonderland, is considered by far the greatest. Mainly this is due to the animated feature being the best way to truly convey the nonsensical fantasy of Carroll’s vision. Like a constantly shifting dream, Wonderland is a nightmare to depict visually. Alice wanders through a forest full of birds made out of instruments, takes on a card soldiers and aristocratic flowers, all while traversing a path that makes little to no sense at all. It is a must for children who want to be visually stimulated for an hour, a magical treat for anyone who is willing to let go of reality and reason for a short period of time.
Of course, these days, Alice in Wonderland doesn’t quite hit the spot, one of those classics that sits better in your memory than revisited. The truth is that the entire movie might be bursting with ideas and boundless waves of imagination, as a story it lacks a fundamental plot. For a time, this helps build the sensation of Wonderland being a force of ridiculousness, not bound by the usual requirements of a story. However, as it hits its second half, the lack of logic begins to frustrate and exhaust the viewer. It doesn’t help that Alice is a bit of wet sponge of a character. People criticise Cinderella, the last Disney heroine I had the pleasure to spend time with, but Alice has turned into the most frustrating Disney hero so far. In theory, she should be the grounding factor in this movie, the normal girl in the centre of this insane, and at times nightmarish, universe, but for some reason, the writers choose to make her as dream-like and absurd as the rest of the world around her. She stumbles into Wonderland with the casualness of someone who read Carroll’s novel herself and only in the final stages of the movie, does the severity of her situation catch up with her? It makes her a narrative device rather than a protagonist, a window into this world. More time is spent developing the supporting cast, although without a story to assist them, they are merely strange and wondrous to look at. The Red Queen benefits from being the star of the finale, as does the Cheshire Cat, who ends up connecting the dots in the final minutes, but for the most part, Alice in Wonderland is a series of amusing sketches, not a movie. The entire Disney movie feels like a jigsaw that someone has given up on halfway. Nonsense works to a point, but as Alice rightly points out in the film, herself, it is easy to have enough of it after a time. This is also the first time since I have started re-watching the Disney movies that I have come away without learning something. The older movies like Cinderella and Dumbo taught me something about myself or tried to inspire a good personality trait in me. Alice in Wonderland is so preoccupied in marvelling its audience, it forgets to better them. As a result, this could be the weakest Disney feature as of yet.
Mind you, Alice in Wonderland is rarely boring. It is packed with memorable quotes and characters. Even when some of the more memorable figures don’t appear for as long as pop culture would have you believe (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum have a single scene, for example), they still get across everything you need to know about them. It is constant fun watching Alice turn a corner and wondering what exactly is waiting for her on the other side. Some of the best scenes are the lesser known ones. For example, the madcap tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare is the stuff of cult children’s cinema, but when a movie such as this preys on the unexpected, the moments you forgot about hit harder, the nonsense able to creep on you and delight appropriately. There is also the surprisingly dark imagery that Wonderland brushes under the rug. This is a movie begging for a dark retelling. A Walrus lures baby oysters away from their homes to devour. A caterpillar smokes in the woods talking rubbish and mercy to a foul temper. Every aspect of Wonderland feels like it is barely scratching the surface, Alice peeking through the curtains at these wondrous creations’ lives and running away out of shock, before we can truly get to know them. And perhaps that is part of their charm, that these characters can be who we want them to be. Is the Cheshire Cat a creature of random mischief or fuelled by something crueller? Is the Red Queen as vicious as the slapstick comedy suggests? Alice in Wonderland not only revels in its own imagination, but inspires it in its audience. And perhaps, that is what truly makes a good story?
Final Verdict: Wonderland is a great journey through madcap nonsense, but has little substance… or at least never properly embraces its own mythology.