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Disney Films

Alice in Wonderland

1951

Alice In Wonderland is unique among Disney animated features in that it is based on three books: Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Charles Dodgson's Through The Looking Glass, and Timothy Leary's, Your Brain Is God. Scenes, ideas, and philosophies from the three books are intermixed throughout the film, making it quite a mind trip, second only to the original Fantasia (re-released in "super-vivid black-light Fantavision" to Imax theaters in 2001). The mixture is so thorough and clever, that those who know the books will see and hear much that is familiar without ever really seeing or hearing anything that is completely from the source material. The resulting film is one part Kabalistic lesson, one part Tarot-card reading, and 1-2/3 part a Zen riddle which asks, "What is the sound of Alice clapping, if Alice is only ink on film?"

This is not the first time Walt Disney addressed the character of Wonderland's Alice. In fact, some of his first films were the so-called "Alice comedies" -- realistic films in which an animated Alice character was overlaid, both for comic effect and to make intensely complex (if subtle) commentary on controversial political and social issues of the day. A "through the looking glass" Mickey Mouse cartoon was also made, in which Mickey passes through a mirror into an alternate reality and discovers that everything he believed was real is actually just a dream conjured in his mind by machines that hold all of humanity captive to be used as sources of bioelectric power. In the end, Mickey triumphs over the machines using a combination of mental mastery and dance.

Alice in Wonderland is episodic in nature (a reference to the "episodes" experienced by frequent drug users). It begins with Alice (enchantingly voiced by the very talented Wendy Darling) outside on a beautiful spring day listening to her older sister reading passages from The History of the Peloponnesian War with great passion because she is too obviously intelligent to find a husband. Alice complains that the book doesn't interest her because it doesn't have enough pictures, and that those it does have are either maps or of great, muscly, bare-chested men-at-arms. She then wanders off, unnoticed by her sister who is later arrested for neglect.

Alice's only companion in her wanderings away from the reality her sister represents is her cat Dinah. Dinah's name is derived from the song "I've Been Working on the Railroad," a sly reference to the semi-forced labor of black, Chinese, and other marginalized laborers on America's railroads during the Western expansion, so when Alice chases the White Rabbit and falls down the rabbit hole without Dinah, she is symbolically leaving the self-imposed slavery of colorless rationality (Dinah is monotonal) behind.

Because Alice does not fall asleep to enter Wonderland but instead falls very, very slowly down a rabbit hole, the audience understands that the "trip" she is about to take is not a dream in the normal sense.

At the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice encounters a door, standing in for the door to her mind, which she must open to enter Wonderland (a drug reference or "DR"). Alice must first drink a mind-altering (DR, but, in this world of symbols, body-altering) substance to "get small" (DR, as in Steve Martin's opus to the drug-using lifestyle, "Let's Get Small"), but she only does so after giving herself some advice as a sort of warning (making the battle between her id and superego explicit). The dangers of drug experimentation are hinted at when the door tells Alice that if she takes too much she'll, "go out like a candle."

After getting small, Alice eats something that makes her big (or "expands her mind" -- DR) in an attempt to reach the key to her mind (DR), which makes her cry for no reason other than she's taken too many uppers (DR), but when she drinks the downers (DR) again, she's okay. The downers allow her through the mind door (she's literally devoured by it), making clear that it is what she drunk that is the key to Wonderland.

From this point, the movie is a series of encounters between Alice and bizarre characters, each of which stands in for either a fragment of her newly adjusted mind or of her perception of the world around her. We will examine a few of the most interesting.

In the woods, Alice encounters Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. They appear harmless at first, but it becomes apparent that they represent the twin evils of depression and more depression when they refuse to let Alice go on her way. The brothers Tweedle make evil grins when Alice isn't looking and entice her into hearing the depressing story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. The WC (not a drug reference) story involves a Walrus (Paul) and a Carpenter (Richard) who are so out of it (DR) that they don't know night from day. They sing about feeling like kings because their brains are turned to cabbages (DR), and then get such a serious case of the munchies (DR) that they devour a bunch of children. The story is very similar to urban legends of people "strung out" on LDS becoming so out of touch with reality that they jump off of a building because they think God is going to take them up.

This same "attractive things can turn on you" theme is also present when Alice encounters a garden full of beautiful flowers that are at first friendly but then turn on her when they find out that she is not one of them. The similarities to the proto-hippie movement and the problems it had with the mainstream are copious in this "flower power" (DR) scene.

A bizarre but unique character, the Cheshire Cat appears at several points in the film, standing in for the state of Alice's mind and highlighting it by fading in and out of existence and giving her meaningless instructions. At one point the Cat (voiced by Anthony Perkins doing a very poor Winnie the Pooh imitation) makes clear that Alice herself is not one of the sane when he reacts to her saying that she does not want to be among mad people by saying, "We all go a little mad sometimes."

The Cheshire Cat has some of the most memorable -- and most confusing -- dialogue in the film. Take, for example, this excerpt from a lengthy conversation in which Alice is trying to find out where the White Rabbit has gone:

Cheshire Cat: Oh, by the way, He went that way.
Alice: Who did?
Cheshire Cat: No, He did. Who went this way.
Alice: The White Rabbit went this way?
Cheshire Cat: No, He did.
Alice: Who?
Cheshire Cat: That way.
Alice: This is so puzzling. I don't know who went which way!
Cheshire Cat: Third base!

From her first meeting with the Cheshire Cat, Alice moves on to the mad "tea" (DR) party, at which she finds the Mad Hatter and the March Hare (even though the Cheshire Cat had said that these two were to be found in different directions), along with an extremely strung out (DR) Door Mouse (DR). The Hatter and Hare are "imbibing mass quantities" (as "head expansion" expert Beldar puts it) as part of an "unbirthday" celebration (a day in which one celebrates being unborn, or mentally returned to the womb to be part of the universe, q.v. the star child at the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey).

At several points in the scene, the Hatter and Hare attempt to "get clean" (DR) by moving to another space (DR), but they just go right back to their old habits despite the change in location. During the insane conversation, the Hatter famously asks Alice, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" The answer ("To get to the other side") is not actually revealed in the film. Nor is the subtle significance of the Hatter having five fingers on each hand while the hare has only four.

The White Rabbit intervenes on the "tea" party, complaining about the time as usual. The Rabbit's pocket watch, representing the last vestige of mechanistic accuracy and objectivity in Wonderland, is summarily dissected by the Mad Hatter, its works literally jammed and then smashed. Alice has broken the final chain with reality and can now become at one with Wonderland.

The rest of the film is just one drug/mind-trip (DR) reference after another, with the exception of a contrastingly straight-laced scene in which a caterpillar, smoking a pipe in a professorly manner while sitting on a mushroom with magic powers, gives Alice a spelling lesson. To this day critics and hopheads debate what a scene like this is doing in the film.

The film's climax takes place as Alice is beginning to emerge from the purple haze (DR) of Wonderland. She is beset by "the man" (or, in this case, "the woman") in the person of the Queen of Hearts, a card-carrying Temperance League member, who is constantly commanding that "head trips" (DR) be ended. The Queen makes no secret of the fact that she wants to judge Alice for her behavior, and condemns her because her expanded mind (DR) has made her "too big."

When Alice finally escapes the Queen and returns from Wonderland, the film ends rather abruptly – probably because the filmmakers knew that the straight world (DR) would be a harsh (DR) downer (DR) after Alice's heady trip (DR).

Much like Hair, Alice in Wonderland is a musical with a number of memorable songs, the names of which escape me at the moment.

Trivia: The Queen of Hearts' henchmen are a deck of cards, each of which animators carefully and meticulously tracked to make sure that each was correctly represented. All, that is, but the non-heart court cards, which are missing to show that the Queen is "not playing with a full deck."

More Trivia: Alice in Wonderland served as inspiration for four locations at Disneyland: the Alice in Wonderland and Mad "Tea" Party rides, Mad Hatter hat shop, and Main Street drug store.

The Last of the Trivia: It is often asked what the "10/6" on the Mad Hatter's hat means. It means "5/3."


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