Curiosity Often Leads To Trouble: Alice In Wonderland (1951)

It was an interesting task to consider which Disney vehicle I would incorporate into my women in film month, particularly considering the fact that female characters do occupy a considerable amount of the space within the companies near century of animated cinema.  My first instinct was to go with Mary Poppins, unfortunately, I was not able to obtain a copy in time and, instead, decided to choose Alice In Wonderland, a film that had long been sitting on my shelf begging to be revisited.  I remember moments of the film from my childhood, whether it be the croquet card scene, or the singing garden scene, however, there were many sections that I had seemingly forgotten all about, whether it be the oyster story, or the smoking caterpillar.  Suffice to say, Alice In Wonderland is an exceptionally trippy film, although this should be of little surprise considering that its narrative text does draw heavily from Lewis Carroll's book of the same name and history has shown it to be a piece of literature fueled heavily by some sever addictions to opium.  Yet simply having source material, by no means, explains the visual intensity of Alice In Wonderland, a world so magical that to call it expressionistic would suggest that it is simply some version of reality blown to extreme proportions.  The space of Alice In Wonderland certainly moves to grandiose terms, yet they are done so within a decidedly magical and notably subconscious state of mind.  Having watched Frankenweenie recently and been blown away by its stylistic choices, seeing Alice in Wonderland reminds me that even Tim Burton had to draw influence from previous examples and this highly visual film certainly had to have been such a point of reference.  If it were not to be notable for some rather intriguing considerations on the notion of a feminist awakening, Alice in Wonderland could certainly stand its own in comparison to some of my other favorite psychedelically based animated films, Paprika and Yellow Submarine.

Alice in Wonderland, with the exception of one additional character follows quite closely to Carroll's original text, and, as such, focuses on Alice, a young girl whose disdain for pursuing the learned things with gender attachments leads her to daydream about escaping to another world.  During one expose into dreams of another world, Alice witnesses a white rabbit with a watch run by her, feverishly concerned with making haste as to assure not being late for some meeting.  The curiosity of an anthropomorphic animal draws Alice into following him into his rabbit hole, an endeavor that quickly spirals into an inexplicable magical world of episodic encounters with baffling characters, whether they be a pair of gibberish spouting twins who tell her a story of decadence centered around a walrus and carpenter longing to eat some oysters, or a visit with a hookah smoking caterpillar who answers all questions with either repetition or even more perplexing questions.  All the while Alice finds herself attempting to learn the rules and intricacies of the world she has discovered, such as the trick of consuming food that either causes her to grow or shrink in considerable size as a result.  While most characters seem only passively concerned with her presence, the encounter with the cheshire cat, perhaps the narratives most famous character, aside from Alice of course, proves interesting in that beneath his clear veneer of playfulness he seems absolutely concerned with assuring Alice safely navigates the absurd world she has entered, one in which societal norms are disregarded by mad hatters and unconventional tea parties, as well as a place where authority figures are tyrannical, using their position to threaten as opposed to aid.  Ultimately, Alice finds herself needing to flee from the land when her life is threatened and when she reaches the exit of the rabbit hole she realizes that she has only been navigating a dreamscape, or so it seems, as she finds herself recalling the very real physicality  of her experiences, when talking to her tutor after awaking.

I mention this film being a text about an awakening of sorts, particularly in the feminist context.  It is no irony that the original book emerged from opium visions, something individuals initially engage in with the hopes of expanding their frame of reference or world vision.  Of course, as most drug narratives go the heavier a person becomes invested in said drugs, the more they will seek out an expansion, often becoming addicted or getting involved in more dangerous methods of achieving their new world vision.  Alice in Wonderland certainly considers these issues, however, I think it, ultimately, moves past this narrative and chooses to use the mind expansion rhetoric to help lead Alice from a state of internalized gender oppression to a larger realization of herself being the other into possessing her own space and identity, at times simply affirming that she is human when flowers berate her for not being like them, or in other moments actually growing to the point of bursting through trees, perhaps a pre-aware suggestion of bursting through a glass ceiling.  It would be one narrative is Alice simply travelled through the Wonderland with strict awe for all moments she witnesses, however, even in the moments of absurdism she seems keenly aware of oppression or illogical actions occurring.  She, in fact, is one of the few people who seems aware of the unchallenged power possessed by The Queen of Hearts, rolling her eyes at her tirades and enraged yelling.  The Queen shows Alice a problematic reference to ill-obtained power, that makes her reflect on everything she has experience up until this point and realize that her new discoveries of self-identity and the possibility of empowerment mean nothing if she uses these realizations as a means to appropriate power in her own terms and completely ignore a push towards egalitarian identities and societies in the process.  The closing scenes seem to suggest this understanding on the part of a young Alice and, undoubtedly, add a layer of feminist awareness to a super trippy film, a rather unusual feat on the part of the decidedly problematic Disney tradition.

Key Scene:  The oyster story is amazing and clearly serves as a point of reference for so many things produced by both Disney and later Pixar, not to mention it serving as a masterful story on the woes of decadence.

The DVD is already expensive, not to mention the bluray, but it is very much worth owning.  Yet should you find the money daunting, it is currently available on Netflix.

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