When I wrote about The Sword in the Stone (1963), I discussed how it was one of two Disney VHS tapes my family owned. Given that it is a tale knights, chivalry, and the wizardry of Merlin (voiced by Karl Swenson), it was considered “my movie.” I also briefly mentioned how Alice in Wonderland (1951) was my sister’s. This was the situation years ago, when my sister and I were children still living in the suburbs outside of Chicago. My nostalgia has been triggered lately by a visit from my sister’s best friend from that time, a woman that we have known for more than thirty-five years. When you reconnect with such people after so long, it gets you thinking back on life. So, yeah, like I said, nostalgia. Anyway, after getting back from Mass and Adoration last Friday, I decided to indulge that wistfulness and watch my sister’s movie from back in the day. I have seen it a few times since I was a child, and each time I am left with one, overarching thought: what the heck was in the water at Disney studios in the late 1940s and early 1950s?!
It is difficult to describe the plot of Alice in Wonderland. There is one there, but its simplicity is masked by the sheer insanity of what goes on during it. Young Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) is being taught history lessons by her sister (voiced by Heather Angel). Or at least that is what Alice’s sister is attempting to do. Alice would rather daydream on this beautiful day as they lounge under a shady tree, indulge the fancies of her kitten, or fantasize about nonsense. In other words, do anything other than pay attention to her lessons. Soon, her kitten notices a talking rabbit (voiced by Bill Thompson) scurrying off, complaining about being late “for a very important date.” Curious (a theme of this film in every sense of the word), Alice follows the bunny into its hole and down it . . . and this is where everything goes off the rails. You see, before she began chasing the rabbit, which she will continue to do in some fashion throughout the next hour, she had been wishing that she lived in a world where nothing made sense. This is precisely what she gets by going down the rabbit hole. It also makes it all but impossible to describe. This is the “Wonderland” of the title. All living things, and some inanimate objects too, are capable of speech. Many of the inanimate objects that cannot talk are capable of getting up and walking around. Yet, all of them either talk in riddles, or around any of the subjects at hand. Alice seems to go along with it, particularly when her initial object of finding the white rabbit appears to pass unnoticed by whomever she is interacting with, or they speak in difficult to follow syntax. In the process of making her way through this strange place, she lurches from one set piece to another, which are really excuses for the next song Disney has written for that scene. Eventually, though, it all gets to be too much. At one point she complains that she does not want to be around mad people. Sorry, sister, but they are all mad. The climax comes when she is able to finally track the white rabbit down to the castle of the Queen of Hearts (voiced by Verna Felton). She is the maddest of them all. So afraid are her subjects of her, which are mainly playing cards, that they paint the roses that bloom white as red just to appease her. If they do not keep her satisfied, then out comes her most common phrase: “Off with his head!” This is usually shrieked at the top of her lungs. When the Queen first encounters Alice, the young girl gets blamed for the artificial coloring of the flowers, and is put on trial. Before her head can be separated from her neck, though, she is able to escape. As she frantically runs away, the picture dissolves and we see her back under the tree beginning to stir from a nap. Yes, it was all a dream, but it also presents the notion that we should be careful about the things for which she wishes.
I skipped over much in my description of Alice in Wonderland because it would have gotten repetitive. Alice is chasing the white rabbit. As she goes along, she meets new characters, each stranger than the last. Once she manages to satisfy her curiosity about the bunny there is a song, and then it is rinse, wash, and repeat. Still, I would not say that makes it a bad movie. It is just completely bonkers. There are no rules to Wonderland. Everything is arbitrary, and therefore defies explanation. I mean, how do you discuss the point of judgmental, singing flowers? Or a lazy caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe? And yet there is a point. Everything is meant to teach Alice that there is virtue in order. That might sound logical coming from a Catholic like me. However, Catholicism does invite its adherents to use their imagination when experiencing God. Like so many things in our God-given lives, too much indulging in the fancies that our brains conjure can be a bad thing. This is one of the reasons why I was so distressed by the film Silence (2016). Using all our senses in order to get closer to God, including our minds, is a hallmark of Jesuit theology, and something the film gets right. On the same token, we can be betrayed by them when put in difficult situations. Our Faith provides a foundation upon which we build our relationship with God, and that can guide us when our feeble senses fail. Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is put in an awful situation where he is told that if he abandons the Faith, he can save some people being tortured. Because he is a good person, he wants to help them. What he forgets in that moment is that his life, and those of the people under duress, are not their own. Like Alice, though in much more dire circumstances, he forgets who he is at the end of the day in order to choose the more expedient solution. For Alice, it is all about avoiding a boring history lesson. Much lower stakes, mind you, but also seeking to avoid pain.
Alice in Wonderland enjoys a bit of a cult following, particularly among those into drug culture, of which I am aware. Unfortunately, when I watch it as an adult, it provides a subtext that is difficult to ignore. The whole film can be seen as a bad acid trip. I doubt a child watching it would look at it the same way. I know these things did not occur to me at that tender age. As such, I am at odds as to whether or not I would recommend it, if for some reason you have not already. In any case, it is a strange one that, to borrow the phrase from the film, gets “curiouser and curiouser.”