Airless in Wonderland

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I had never even heard of this 1949 British ALICE IN WONDERLAND. I have suspicions it may have been suppressed by Disney, but maybe it was just judged not entertaining enough. But if so, how to explain the 1972 ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, possibly the least entertaining thing since the Aberfan disaster, which got tons of airplay in my dim youth?

This one has wonderfully smooth stop-motion animation — their ways of integrating the live-action Carol Marsh (of BRIGHTON ROCK fame) are simple, but adequate. Split-screen predominates rather than matte shots or rear projection. Lou Bunin, whom I had never heard of, was in charge of animation. A Russian-born American and former apprentice to Diego Rivera…

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Unfortunately the script pursues some pointless conceit of Lewis Carroll’s characters all having real-life analogues. This extends the framing structure endlessly, a real problem since the movie also reproduces all of Alice’s to gain access to the garden of Wonderland — I’ve never seen the caucus-race presented on-screen before, and now that I have I understand why it’s usually cut.

Pamela Brown plays Queen Victoria and voices the Queen of Hearts. A couple of other popular actors do voice-only duty: Peter Bull (unspecified role/s) and Joyce Grenfell (Duchess AND Dormouse). There’s a preponderance of French crew, including Claude Renoir as co-cinematographer.

It’s curiously unaffecting, maybe because the material is so familiar and the film does nothing very effective to re-energize it. There’s an arch style of playing which nearly everybody adopts when doing Carroll (which is why Ian Holm’s White Knight is so startling), and you then need either magnificently odd production design or some other means of refreshing it. Here, the smoothness of the animation is coldly admirable but the designs and characterisations aren’t uniformly beautiful or charming, though there’s some nice use of Regency stripe and some of the flattened stylisation is pleasing in its approach to Yves Tanguy.

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Worse, it isn’t funny. Disney’s version is criticised for Americanizing the characters but it does have a certain slapstick energy. When I saw it as a kid, on a double-feature with CANDLEWICK, it made me feel stoned, before I knew what that was. It’s interesting that Disney couldn’t completely Disneyficate this unconducive material. One reason I hated the Tim Burton version more than I hate my own body is that it mutilates and malforms Carroll’s nonsense into a bogus “empowering” Disney princess tale. There aren’t enough thunderbolts in heaven to punish anyone who (a) thinks that’s a good idea (b) attempts to do it (c) breaks box office records by doing so. The only good thing is that schoolchildren drawn to the book by the Burton monstrosity are due to have their minds blown all over the nursery walls by the unexpected psychedelic hilarity.

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24 Responses to “Airless in Wonderland”

  1. Randy Cook Says:

    I looked forward to seeing this ( Alice! Stop Motion! Puppets that were faithful to Tenniel! ) but found it unwatchable when I finally saw it. Lou Bunin’s puppets had appeared a few years previously in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, jerking and popping charmlessly as they depicted several dead or unavailable Follies stars, so I shouldn’t have had high hopes.

    Uncle Walt sued Bunin to keep the puppet movie from competing with Disney’s typically vulgar adaptation, but at least their cartoon provided some antic moments and a few laughs, and the participation of at least one bona fide English eccentric: Richard Haydn.

    I am not sure whether Bunin was a promoter or did the actual puppet pushing, I suppose I ought to look into that.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Bunin

    Tough book to adapt, though, isn’t it?

  2. I would love to have a crack at Alice. Probably Looking Glass rather than Wonderland, because the familiarity of the former is a slight problem.

    My overall impression of this one was that there was considerable technical skill pulling and pushing in the wrong directions. If they’d had someone like Michael Powell in charge to rally the live action and animated sequences…

    An Alice cast with actors from the Archers’ stock company would be delightful! Roger Livesey as King of Hearts, John Laurie as Mock Turtle… no doubt it’s Pamela Brown here who made me think of it.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    OK, then. You can have Alice if I can have Gulliver’s Travels. In 3D.

  4. How long until the stench of the Jack Black has faded? Actually, I think it’s forgotten already…

  5. Randy Cook Says:

    That Jack Black misfire bore precisely the same relationship to Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece that Jurassic Park II bore to Conan Doyle’s LOST WORLD.

  6. I love the Disney version.

  7. It does have Richard Haydn…

  8. I’m in agreement with both Davids: with Carins, I believe the Tim Burton ALICE was an abomination. With Ehrenstein, I too love the Disney version.

  9. Of course they’re BOTH Disney versions — the Burton combines the worst, most tedious and thoughtless reiterations of his style with the worst of modern Disney.

  10. Quite. Moreover I don’t think the story can be rendered realistically by anyone. The Tenneill drawings got there first and have created Alice and her world as drawn fantasies — not living entities. Even Burton’s distortion of Helena Bonham Carter’s head fails to make her less “real.” And Johnny Depp as the Mad hatter is a classic Bad “Good Idea.”

    Disney’s cartoon rendition, though a hit, didn’t do quite as well as his previous cartoon features at the box office. He claimed that because Alice was British American kids couldn’t “identify” with her.

  11. The idea that we only identify with people like us would have rendered Dumbo and Pinocchio box-office disasters. Sure, they’re American, but…

    Obviously Alice lacks a coherent narrative, which explains why it might make a less engaging feature film.

    Of all the Alices, I prefer the BBC version I reviewed recently, and Jonathan Miller’s version for the cast, and for letting them act without masks. One benefits from slavish fidelity, the other from a theatrical sensibility which nearly works.

    But Dreamchild is the best.

  12. Randy Cook Says:

    If, as Mr Ehrenstein states (and I have no reason to doubt him) that Disney “claimed that because Alice was British American kids couldn’t ‘identify’ with her”, then Walt was bullshitting (dissembling, for our transatlantic friends). Alice: 1951. Peter Pan: 1953. 101 Dalmations: 1961. Sword in the Stone: 1963. Jungle Book: 1967…etc, etc. When Walt abandoned the Schwarzwald for Sherwood Forest and its environs he never looked back.

  13. Ah yes! I was led to this too, via that youtube sidepanel (there is also a DREADUL looking-glass TV special from the 60’s that I urge you to ignore despite the presence of Agnes Moorhead.) I think I enjoyed this more than you. I thought the framing driving was going to prove a real turn-off, but actually the idea of Carroll as some John Cabal-like modernist was odd enough to keep me interested, especially when we finally entered Wonderland and this conceit was brought to dingy but bold life. I adored the sets – they reminded me of Maurice Noble’s wildest work for Bugs Bunny – I wasn’t expecting them at all. And I’ve never scene that first scene leading to the pool of tears portrayed so… for want of a better word, cinematically: the disappearing doors, the pounding of the tears onto the glass table, that awkward blue screen matting Alice into the water – so much more effective than just plonking your actress into a pool – that water was THICK.
    I was expecting it to be absolutely dreadful, hence this rave, but Alice is so often played as nostalgia or psychedilia (or both) it was great to see it portrayed as determinedly forward-looking. Turn the volume down it could have been Russian. And was that claymation? I didn’t know they even had claymation.

  14. If you have clay, I guess you can have claymation. I don’t know what Bunin’s puppets were made of… They don’t seem quite flexible enough to be clay, but he’s not using substitute heads like George Pal (whose stuff looks like CGI, only made of wood). I think they have armatures underneath with maybe cloth faces?

  15. THIS song, which until today I had not heard since 1966, has never left my brain. The rest of the adaptation (including cameos by Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble as the (two-headed) caterpillar) is a total S.I.T.N.O.G., tho.

  16. Wrong link, Jeff!

    Here’s the Bunin entire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbAv1r4UqDM

  17. Simon, I DID mean that! David, that’s not only a wrong link, it’s an utterly inexplicable link. Wow.

  18. Still, an opportunity to brush up on your Lapp scifi movies.

  19. The Bunin Puppets were also used in a sequence of Minnelli’s Ziegfeld Follies.

    Didn’t like them there either.

  20. This got a lot of airplay at a Las Vegas TV station when I was a kid; I saw it several times, cut up with commercials, of course, and I liked it. It conjured the same feelings and sensations that the book did. Never saw the Disney version until I was an adult, and that’s the one I find unwatchable. The animation is superb of course, but the songs are abysmal and seemingly incessant. Haydn does provide some relief, Sterling Holloway too, Ed Wynn less so.

  21. Uncle Walt’s Alice was simply a spectator to cartoony loopiness around her; a problem that haunted other adaptations. Late in the film they have her crying in the woods, a desperate attempt to gin up some sympathy. I know every screenwriting book prattles on about making your hero want something, putting him up a tree and throwing rocks at him, showing him petting a dog, etc. But that would have helped this Alice. I’ve read that they toyed with ideas like re-inventing the White Knight as a romantic lead and imposing a standard storyline, but ultimately took their chances with Alice just wandering through.

    When the movie came to Disney’s TV show — a sure sign they didn’t expect to re-release it — Uncle Walt’s intro positioned it as a British pantomime, jokes and spectacle for a holiday audience. On those terms (and trimmed to fit an hour show), maybe it works better.

    Anyway, it’s better entertainment than Paramount’s star-studded stiff. Now you have to wonder if half the advertised stars are under those masks or did an afternoon in a recording booth.

    Burton’s Alice struck me as an utterly generic fantasy movie with a thin layer of visual panache. Real person in fantasy world! Horrible tyrant! Gather colorful friends, pick up info and weapons like in a video game! Battle! Return home with valuable lesson! “Wizard of Oz” put meat on those bones. Burton didn’t.

    A 60s TV musical cropped up on cable a few years back. It was full of stunt guest stars (Smothers Brothers as Dee and Dum, Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty, Eve Arden as one of the queens, etc.), and a plot about a nubile Alice rallying Wonderland against the Jabberwocky, placed by a singing Jack Palance. She was always being saved by handsome Lester the Jester. Upon waking, Alice realizes Lester is really her father! Happy ending and good night!

    If you must conventionally dramatize Alice, I hold it should be about pitting Victorian normalcy against Carroll’s rigorously rational madness. Alice could bring order out of chaos, like Milo in “Phantom Tollbooth”. Or she could triumph by understanding and embracing what lies beneath the unseemly lunacy.

  22. All those conventional approaches take away from the wonder of Alice rather than adding to it.

    The two major pitfalls seem to be

    (1) disrupting the fragile and diaphanous comic logic of Carroll’s creation, as in the 30s version which merges both books, kings ans queens piling up in an unseemly jumble, and throws in its own brand of nonsense until everything disintegrates

    and

    (2) trying to normalize it all into an adventure story with a villain and heartfelt songs. Anybody who shoves in their own songs in place of Carroll’s needs slapped awake. Anybody who tries to make it a drama not a dream is doomed to fail, or to succeed in reducing fantasy to the most mundane level, and should be slapped until unconscious again.

    Then you can go the Svankmajer route and create your own tone (recycled from previous shorts). His film is dreamlike so I approve of it, but it isn’t Carroll. Based on The Trial and Lady from Shanghai, I’d like to have seen Welles do Looking Glass (himself as Humpty).

    The various TV Alices on youtube boggle the mind. Jimmy Durante as Humpty, with a laugh track!

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