Released at the onset of Disney’s so-called Silver Age, where the money began to flow again (incrementally) in the ‘50s after the box office disasters of the early ‘40s subjected Disney to a handful of no-budget package films throughout the war and post-war years, Alice in Wonderland was a fitting rekindling spirit. None other than Walt Disney’s own childhood love and his original plan for a first feature film before things got sidetracked (as they do in animation), Alice was ironically whisked away from a fell purgatory without Uncle Walt’s own influence (perhaps he’d grown weary over trying to produce it again and again over the years), and perhaps for the better. The patchy, maniacal disarray to the look of the film and the semi-unwholesome, deliberately non-moralizing grotesquerie of the structure weren’t exactly Walt’s specialties, but one wonders what countenance his version of the tale might have born. Maybe Alice would have been a young Margaret Thatcher, and the Mad Hatter a starched-suit Joseph McCarthy and the impromptu hero. Alas, I do not suspect even Walt could have any sensible use for the bundle-of-id that is the Cheshire Cat.
So maybe Walt’s hand’s off role here (he adopted his usual hands-on-the-wheel tactics for this era’s Cinderella and Peter Pan) saved the film, allowing for something considerably more scatterbrained and disabused of morality and narrative cohesion. Although the film – a trim 75 minutes – naturally curtails Lewis Carroll’s mighty exercise in losing British society’s mind, there’s precious little overhauling, or even Disney-ification, on display here, least of all in the aesthetic. The quasi-realism Disney so loved is seldom seen, excepting in the opening tableaux of Victorian society where young Alice, all bug-eyed and cartoonishly misshapen, obviously doesn’t fit (aesthetically, her mutated features obviously belong in the nightmare to come, a stylistic harmony that paves the way for the film’s expression of how she is more comfortable in her imagination than so-called reality). Soon enough, however, she dozes off, goes down that old rabbit hole we all love, and wanders into a druggy haze of a soon to be cult object (although a box office failure at the time, unsurprisingly).
What Alice finds through the looking glass assuredly isn’t what Uncle Walt, protector of the most traditional secrets of mainstream, conservative society and your moral fabric, would have wanted, but it obviously affords carte blanche for the more uninhibited Disney animators to let their hair down. As a work of design, Alice in Wonderland is a little incalculable, but nonetheless lovingly unholy, a bedeviling, combustible brew of displaced quotidian objects and Art Deco lines and angles littered about a semi-non-representational land populated by geometry that feels more sentient than the otherworldly characters.
On sentience, the possibly all-together figures include the Mad Hatter and a continual toke of a bong-infatuated Caterpillar, as well as the obviously allegorical White Rabbit, the object of Alice’s quest. The highlights, though, are undoubtedly the Queen of Hearts (voiced by Verna Felton, animated as an almost unstitched collection of circular shapes ready to balloon out in explosive anger) and the Cheshire Cat (an early Sterling Holloway performance, a more venomous, scratchy, sharp-angled take on his soon-to-be defining role as Winnie the Pooh). Scrawled out in bulbous proportions, Ward Kimball’s feline creation is a highlight of his famously disobedient interest in conventional human realism (the realism preferred by Disney himself). A nasty grin and sharp-tongued angles attacking his puffy plumpness, the character feels subcutaneously violent with its physicality that doesn’t pay the slightest ounce of homage to the edict of realistic physicality. Within a couple years, Kimball, a sort of bad boy at Disney Studios, would be given carte blanche to direct his own short animations, freeing himself from the tyranny of realistic feature-length projects and the evil taint of human geometry, but Cheshire Cat is undeniably the highlight of his feature film career (which includes such wondrous creations as Jiminy Cricket).
But the film isn’t merely a triumph of characterization. From the expressionistic angles of the Queen of Hearts’ grounds, all disfigured shapes strewn about in a demented cross-hatch, to the vicious little skewers of pink masquerading as flowers outside the White Rabbit’s house, the film’s aesthetic finds Disney at its thorniest, eventually mushrooming into … well, there are a lot of mushrooms. Assuredly, Disney whisked the film away to be another skeleton in the closet, until the closet-dwellers and the skeletons of the world fell in love with it anyway.
Certainly, the deranged beauty here isn’t a patch of the lovely, rhapsodic Eyvind Earle compositions casually deconstructing physical space and nature into impressionistic suggestions and flutters in the highpoint of the silver age with 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. But Sleeping Beauty is a masterpiece, and Alice in Wonderland, if sabotaged emotionally by the very angled chilliness of its aesthetic, is the next best thing: an actual experiment. And not a passive one either; although it merely tickles full-tilt lunacy without careening into outré hysteria, it still summons a blissful, fangs-ready slackening of causality, promptly undermining and loosening any rigid, traditional conflict. A sketch of indeterminately collected scenes loosely stitched to a shell of a narrative, the film decouples cause and effect logic and dissolves traditional conflict-solution structure, not exactly erecting the pieces of a problem and setting about fixing it but instead sort of ricocheting between situations and images. It reflects a new mental, imaginative state where such worldly constructs, edicts and structures of civilized life to the film, don’t hold sway; linear narrative structure, now loosened, no longer presumes control over our lives, nor our films as incarnations of those lives.
It isn’t perfect, nor is it even as radical as Dumbo, Bambi, and Pinocchio, all shockingly under-obsessed with traditional dogma about conflict structure. But Alice extends the slackened beauty of those films which imply the rhythms of life (and, in Bambi’s case, the rhythms of nature exonerated of the need to subscribe to causal “this then that then that” structures that humans, the villains in the film, would probably want to impose onto animal life, allowing Bambi to formally deny – in its very scene structure – mankind’s governorship over the characters). At any rate, Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is significantly more evocative in its entropy than, say, Tim Burton’s bastardized, listless version of the stories where the pointedly meaningless texts are channeled into another trivializing superhero fantasy-land narrative about an individual besting their demons, or whatever.
Admittedly, if Alice is slackened, it’s also knotted up in mania, and proud to be meaningless outside of its formal embodiment of imaginative pandemonium. The years haven’t always been kind to Carroll’s two books, circumscribing their bedlam by conscripting the tales to enter the hazy nebula of adult meaning when they’d be better served dynamiting adult meaning altogether. Anyway, the original texts are more a dialectic of imagination liberation and imagination purgatory than any particular “argument”, something the Disney film, for its chilly faults, nails completely. Something like Alice bursts through symbols or higher meanings; its modus operandi is to spasmodically interrupt structures, not to create its own structures in return. A daydream-fueled paean to imagination and a scalding-hot interrogation of the havoc a full-on blast of imagination can wreck if you can’t emerge back out of the rabbit hole, Alice embodies the daily dialectic of childhood fear and imagination as well as any Disney animated film ever did.