Now occupying a seemingly unchallengeable position as perhaps the single most dominant force in global popular culture, it’s interesting to remember a time when the Walt Disney Company was the red-headed stepchild of Hollywood. Long before anyone knew what “brand management” was, Disney did an excellent job of demonstrating the worst way to do it. A generation spent cranking out corny and cheaply-made live action pabulum, perhaps in the grip of a creative paralysis caused by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, had so tarnished the Disney name in the public eye that by the 1980s the company needed to start putting other studio labels on its films to get people to watch them. Now it spends billions on other people’s intellectual property just so it can slap the Disney label on them.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is going to bookend that fallow period for the House of Mouse by looking at one of Disney’s classic animated films and the far from classic live-action sequel made over half a century later. It’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) vs. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) in a contest between pen and ink mixed with heart and soul and a global corporation’s use of 21st century technology to exploit public memory.
"So...I don't even get a handsome prince?"
In case you were wondering...no, Tim Burton does not understand the meaning of "less is more."
Based on the novella by Lewis Carrol, the original “Alice in Wonderland” is one of the gods on Disney’s ancient Olympus…though it took a while in getting there. The film was not a huge success at the box office initially, probably because it was simply too darn odd. A largely plotless digression of whimsy and dream logic, “Alice in Wonderland” didn’t connect with audiences until it became an avatar of America’s psychedelic drug culture and one of the foundational films of the early home video library.
On a lovely sunny day, a young English girl named Alice (voice of Kathryn Beaumont) is bored stiff doing lessons with her sister. She spots a white rabbit carrying a pocket watch and follows him into a hole which leads her into the bizarre world of Wonderland, where Alice changes sizes like she’s a Marvel super-hero and encounters individuals and anthropomorphized animals in various states of insanity. Alice eventually has to flee for her life after running afoul of the maniacal Queen of Hearts (voice of Verna Felton) and scramble back to her animated reality.
Examining it objectively, you can understand why “Alice in Wonderland” left 1951 audiences a bit cold. Alice is no hero and the film’s villain doesn’t show up until it is almost over. The soundtrack lacks that one amazing song you know you’ll be randomly humming for the next month. And the film is plain weird at a time when American culture was almost obsessed with normality. But any subjective analysis makes clear that its critical and commercial resurrection was easily predictable. The animation is gorgeous and inventive, with Alice qualifying as the first big-eyed Anime girl of American cartoons. The music is adequately delightful. And the story makes a pure emotional connection with that child-like part of the brain that never wonders HOW the cow jumped over the moon or WHY the dish ran away with the spoon.
But through perhaps the most overtly childish story in the Disney canon, “Alice in Wonderland” (1951) may be one of the most profound. Most of the Disney villains are conventionally bad persons doing comprehensibly bad things. The Queen of Hearts is more primal than that. Her madness represents the arbitrary unfairness children can see and feel all around them. And the surreal and nonsensical view the film has of authority and order is something with which misfits of all times and places can identify. Its lack of structure and traditional narrative makes it eternally relevant no matter how attitudes or standards may change.
“Alice in Wonderland” (2010) is not quite as lucky. It was tremendously successful when it came out, racking up just over one billion dollars in global box office. When they made a sequel just six years later, however, it was a significant bomb. “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016) made over 700 million dollars less was savaged by almost all the critics. In fairness to the people who made it, though, the biggest problem with “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is that in the six years since the first film, everybody had figured out it kind of sucked and weren’t interested in a sequel.
The first of the new era of live-action remakes of animated Disney films, coming an inexplicable decade after “102 Dalmatians” (2000), the second “Alice in Wonderland” at least gets credit for not being a pedestrian remake. It is instead an actual sequel where a teenage Alice (Mia Waskiowska) flees from the marriage proposal of an insufferable twit and finds herself back in Underland, even as she’s long dismissed her original adventures as nothing but a dream. And yes, they do call it Underland in the film, which only makes sense if you remember all the naming gyrations from Wizard of Oz remakes like “Tin Man” (2007).
Alice is reluctantly roped into a generic fantasy plot where she is the chosen one to free Underland from the despotic rule of the hydrocephalic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and slay the monstrous Jabberwocky (voice of Christopher Lee). There’s a lot of desultory running around and a full butt-load of CGI to try and disguise it, a Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) whose apparent conception as a PTSD sufferer gets lost in Johnny Depp doing another strange Johnny Depp performance, and Anne Hathaway shows up as perhaps the first actress cast in a major film specifically to take advantage of the fact that people genuinely don’t like her.
“Alice in Wonderland” (2010) is not funny. It’s not exciting. It’s about as far from smart as you can get. It might not be quite as much a creatively barren cash grab as its sequel but there’s nothing interesting for audiences to latch on to. Six years is a long time between sequels in the modern age and viewers had plenty of chances to see “Alice In Wonderland” again and again, taking something that was barely passable for even the most generous fan and forcing them to acknowledge how boring and uninspired it all was. The “Fast and the Furious” films may suck, but at least they are energetic, amusingly ridiculous, and committed to embracing a family vibe.
“Alice in Wonderland” (1951) takes this Throwdown and remains a beacon to a lost time when major motion picture studios could allow themselves to be occasionally unconventional. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) is a testament to the assembly line business model that has returned to dominate Hollywood, except they’re not churning out umpteen westerns on back lots any more. Now they’re spending ungodly sums on ever more elaborate spectacles that carry the risk of financial ruin with them. It’s hard to imagine now, in a world where Disney owns two separate cinema franchises that have made billions of dollars (Star Wars and Marvel), but no one in 1960 would have ever believed the Disney name could ever become a type of box office poison. People eventually tire of even the grandest spectacle. Not all of them and not all at once, to be sure. But with more and more films needing to make $200 or $300 million simply to break even, the slightest amount of audience fatigue could swiftly snowball into economic catastrophe.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Written by…oy vey…Winston Hibler, Ted Sears, Bill Peet, Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, William Cottrell, Dick Kelsey, Joe Grant, Dick Huemer, Del Connell, Tom Oreb, John Walbridge, and Aldous Freakin’ Huxley.
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske.
Starring Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson, Heather Angel, and Joseph Kearns.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Written by Linda Woolverton. So, if anyone ever laments Hollywood using multiple screenwriters on a film, this is pretty much the perfect counter argument.
Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, and Timothy Spall.