Uncle Walt-a-thon: Alice in Wonderland

<– Uncle Walt-a-thon: Cinderella

After the insipid Cinderella, a part of me dreaded what lay in store for the rest of this series; would the rest of the classic Disney films fare as poorly as this? Luckily, these fears turned out to be premature, because Alice in Wonderland is a contender for the best film yet.

The contrast between Alice and Cinderella illustrates Disney’s strengths. No Disney film has a complex plot, so a work like Cinderella which relies entirely on storytelling, though children may enjoy it just fine (which I realise is the primary goal), will almost always bore an adult audience. However, when plot is largely set aside and the animators are free focus entirely on their own craft, as in Fantasia or Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants,” the results are almost always spectacular.

Now, as much as I enjoyed the bulk of Fantasia, the premise began wearing thin after a few segments. I can’t quite pinpoint why, but watching one unrelated short after another is more tiring than a single, coherent story. Alice hits a middle ground perfectly – though the action is essentially episodic and not much really gets accomplished in any one scene, we do have a protagonist with an identifiable goal, so that the audience at least feels like we’re going somewhere and there is a framework for the animators to work in, so that it feels more coherent.

Now, one of the highlights of Lewis Carroll’s work is how he takes full advantage of his medium with frequent wordplay. In fact, the Alice novels consist largely of people standing around and talking to each other, which works fine for a novel but rarely makes for a compelling film, as one reasonably expects more motion in a motion picture. Yet, the film is never dull, even when there’s not actually much happening besides dialogue.

The trick is that there’s almost constant movement. So, we have the caterpillar blowing smoke-rings, the Cheshire Cat disappearing and reappearing, the Mad Hatter and March Hare frequently changing places at the table and playing visual tricks with the tea cups, and so on. In addition, there is a lot of music, even more so than most Disney films, a lot of short takes, and of course fluid animation and detailed backgrounds.

If I may “cross the streams” a bit, the film could work as a prototype for how studio Shaft handled their adaptations of Hidamari Sketch or Bakemonogatari and its sequels. As I mentioned in my previous post, both are very dialogue-heavy and should be rather boring to watch, yet director Shinbou Akiyuki keeps them visually interesting by having the characters move around while talking, frequently changing camera angles or inserting title cards and unusual art styles, and so on. I could easily see Shaft and Shinbou successfully adapting the Alice novels for themselves with results similar to Disney, though they’d likely include a generous helping of fanservice (though I guess we did see the Queen of Heart’s underwear in Disney’s version?).

So far, this and Fantasia are the only Disney films I could see myself owning at some point, and I wish I’d been able to watch this on glorious blu-ray rather than DVD. The best works of art tend to be those that play to their medium’s strengths, and both Carroll’s original work and Disney’s adaptation excel at doing just that.

Uncle Walt-a-thon: Peter Pan –>

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