Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske. Walt Disney Studios. 1951.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a 1951 animated musical about a young girl, named Alice (Kathryn Beaumont), who follows a white rabbit in a waistcoat (Bill Thompson), down his rabbit hole, to fall into a fantastical world where she must overcome constant confusion and bewilderment, as this world becomes ‘curiouser and curiouser’. She meets a myriad of merry characters (some helpful and some not), to learn how to get out of this wonderland after she stumbles upon the court of the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), who demands that Alice must be beheaded. Once she escapes, she wakes up to realise that it was all a dream, filled with everything from a chain-smoking Caterpillar (Richard Haydn) to a Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) singing at a tea party, to a fascist Queen who uses flamingos as croquet sticks.
This Disney-animated film is adapted from Lewis Carrols story, published in 1865, and has become one of the most famous stories in history. Almost a decade later Disney turned it into an animated musical. Being an animated film, the potential for animal presence is enhanced, for both real creatures, and fantasy creatures. In a live-action film, the ability to use animals is weakened, as the film-makers are restricted by the creature’s abilities, and basic animal rights. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ truly does take advantage of the fact that animation has boundless potential for making whatever mad and quirky creatures they desire. As far as the musical genre goes, similarly to animation, the film-makers can make animals and humans interact through nonsensical music that cannot be achieved through live-action film-making. Animation has been around since 1937, when Disney created ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, and musicals have been around since 1927, with ‘The Jazz Singer’. By the time ‘Alice in Wonderland’ came into development, both genres had been cemented in western culture as both enjoyable and successful. Disney has held the monopoly over animated musicals since the creation of ‘Snow White’, and has since become- arguably the most powerful animators in today’s culture, making over fifty films since 1937.
There is an overwhelming amount of animal presence in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, including- A white rabbit, a march hair, a dormouse, flamingos, hedgehogs, a house cat, a Cheshire cat, a caterpillar, oysters, a walrus, a dodo bird, a lizard, bees, butterflies, starfish, fish, lobsters, various bird species, a smoke crocodile and fishes, and bread-and-butterflies. Some play more important roles than others, but each contribute to the world that Alice creates, as she says “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what it is, it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would!” The main creatures that contribute to Alice’s adventures are the White Rabbit, The Cheshire Cat, The Caterpillar and the March Hare. Alice initially sees the White Rabbit, after she falls asleep in a field of poppies, therefore falling into a drug addled state. Being a children’s film, this is represented through her following the white rabbit, which just so happens to be wearing a waistcoat and pocket-watch, complaining about how late he is. Instead of being bewildered by a talking rabbit, Alice is more curious about how a rabbit could be late to something, therefore following it down the hole, leaving the only real animal- her cat, Diner, back in the real world. After a doorknob (Joseph Kearns) tells her to eat a cake that says ‘eat me’, and drink from a bottle that says ‘drink me’, she is whisked in an ocean of her own tears to meet a Dodo bird (Bill Thompson) telling a group of animals to run around in a circle to keep dry. Again, not being curious about how a dodo bird is in a suit jacket and still alive, Alice is intrigued by how running in a circle will keep them dry. The dodo bird is representative of Alice’s youthful creativity. The Dodo makes up songs and rules and words, but it is all controlled by Alice’s imagination. Being the first figure she meets in wonderland, the dodo represents her current ignorance and innocence, before she is forced to think about the reality of growing up.
After tiring of the dodo, Alice continues on to hear a story from tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum. The story they tell is of a Walrus (J. Pat O’Malley) eating a family of young oysters. What’s different about the walrus and the oysters is that they live in a world within a world, completely separate from Alice. They are only accessed through Alice creating Dee and Dum, who create the world on the Walrus and the Carpenter. This represents Alice’s depth of imagination, and how immersed she has become in this world.
She then swiftly moves on to meet a bong-smoking caterpillar, who repeatedly asks ‘who are you?’, and provides little help. It isn’t until he turns into a butterfly that he tells Alice how to change size. The caterpillar/butterfly is only helpful after Alice learns to calm herself and focus on what she needs to do to get the answers she needs. Similarly, when she interacts with Bill the Lizard (Larry Grey), he provides no assistance, while she is in a very vulnerable position, being the size of the house she is stuck in. It isn’t until the dodo says they should ‘smoke the monster out’, that she is forced to create a solution.
The only animals that provide any help for Alice are the two guiding figures, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire cat (Sterling Holloway), who lead her in very different ways. The White Rabbit is the more confused state of her navigation, whereas the Cat is a more focused (though still not very straight-forward) guide, which leads her to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. This is where Alice has the most interaction with animals, as she meets the Hare, the Hatter and the Door mouse. Not only do these creatures provide fun and quirky anecdotes and songs, but also contribute to Alice eventually meeting the Queen of Hearts. Their sudden change in mood and hospitality is indicative of Alice’s desire for information and acceptance, while still not being sure of whether she actually wants to be there. It isn’t until the final scene that Alice knows that she has to get out of this world, and by extension ‘grow up’.
Animals play the most important part in Alice’s adventures, as she would be stuck in this world with nowhere to go, if they were not there to guide her. Unlike real-life animals, wonderlands animals live in a world where being insane is normal, and being normal is insane. The quirkiness of these animal characters contribute to making this world a place of curiosity and mystery, while also providing humour and accessibility. In most films an animal has one purpose, but in this film, they provide the entire plot. Without the creatures, the film would be a story of a girl wondering around aimlessly until she stumbled across the Queens court. They provide every twist and turn in the plot, and make the film as clever and interesting as it is. Some creatures provide charm, some beauty, and some are just there to contribute the outlandishness of the world that Alice dreams of. It is only in wonderland that bread can be a butterfly, or that flamingos can be used as croquet sticks, or that flowers can sing and be sassy. This film highlights that animal’s aren’t restricted by their expectations of what they contribute to society, but can replace humans, in the imagination of a child. By telling the story through a child’s dream-state, there are no limits to what the creatures are capable of, and there are no restrictions to what anything is capable of.
Most film genres need certain aspects to fall under the classification that they do. But no matter what the genre is, there is always a place for animals. The only common factor in any film genre is its animal presence. Sometimes it isn’t a major role, but there’s usually always some animal presence. ‘Alice in Wonderland’, thoroughly explores the potential of what animation can do with creatures and people. The characters of this film have become some of the most famous in history, and people are still quoting the film, and still making adaptations. This film has been re-created on numerous occasions, highlighting the popularity of the films themes and morals that speak to generation after generation. Not many films analyse the importance of an animal’s presence as much as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ does, and does it with so much fun and personality.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Dir. William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce Ben Sharpsteen. Walt Disney Productions. 1937.
The Jazz Singer. Dir. Alan Crosland. Warner Bros. 1927.