Sunday, November 13, 2005

Alice in Wonderland (Geronimi/Jackson/Luske, 1951)

It is probably impossible nowadays for a reasonably sophisticated adult to see Alice in Wonderland without being aware of the parallels to psychedelic drug use made famous in the 1960’s by Jefferson Airplane. However, rather than distracting from what is essentially a film aimed at children, such subtext actually makes for a film experience that is extremely captivating as we notice the similarities in our childlike need to explore and the desire of an illicit drug user to push their brain beyond the limits of reason. For a film as mainstream as Alice, it has precious little plot and a complete willingness to indulge in extended digressions like the Walrus and the Carpenter sequence. A young, well-to-do girl, tired of her sister’s steadfast logic, desires to create a world of nonsense. Soon, she finds herself transported to this world where she, curiously enough, discovers that she is the one attempting to impose order on several colorful characters that resist such notions vigorously. Eventually, she wears out her welcome and hurriedly returns to a life of normalcy.

In many ways, Alice in Wonderland directly parallels The Wizard of Oz, which preceded it by twelve years, right down to a sung soliloquy early on in the film where the protagonist explicitly expresses her desire to venture outside of her humdrum existence. However, unlike its predecessor, Alice makes no attempt to provide the characters we encounter with anything resembling motivation or character development. In case it’s not clear, I mean this as a compliment. Indeed, Alice may just be the most mainstream example of surrealism of which I am aware. As Alice’s size fluctuates with every nibble of the enchanted mushrooms, we understand that there are adolescent fears being expressed without needing to be told explicitly what they are. By using dream logic, the filmmakers are able to venture into dark territory that may not otherwise have been palatable to viewers at the time. There is a particularly remarkable moment where one of the Queen’s guards (a walking talking playing card) expresses his fear of decapitation by drawing a paintbrush covered in bloodlike red paint across his throat. Other characters, such as the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat, possess an insanity that is somehow about two notches more intense than we probably expect. The result is a film that is not only very funny, but also steeped in danger.

The major disappointment I have in regards to Alice is the way in which the film ultimately attempts to explain away its warped perspective by placing all the events in the context of an elaborate dream. The reason for my objection is that such a notion seems redundant. We understand that we are viewing a film, something that allows us to transport away from the real world. The very process of watching a film is to enter into someone else’s vision. Why then do we need to be comforted by the notion that all we have witnessed fits into our preconceived notion of how the universe operates? The film’s ending undermines somewhat the subversive nature of the anarchy that has preceded it. Over a decade later, Grace Slick would make no such concession, declaring loudly that “logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.” It is one thing to envision a parallel world of disorder and mania. It is quite another to suggest such madness exists in the world in which we already inhabit.

Still, there is no question that Alice in Wonderland is top-notch Disney product and the kind of film that I wish they would try to emulate more often in the present.



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