Down to Tenniel.

by waxbanks

Yesterday we watched the Disney Alice in Wonderland. A couple of years ago I reread Carroll’s books, which are extraordinary, and I hadn’t seen the film in at least a quarter-century, so I was excited to show it to my wife and four-year-old son — it’d be their first time.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am: the movie is both absolutely wonderful in a mainline-American-animation lite-surrealist-whimsy kind of way, and a rather poor adaptation of the books overall. It comes down to John Tenniel’s canonical illustrations, really — his work defined the ‘look’ of Wonderland, which is unspeakably creepy, and the Disney film duplicates his designs without quite capturing their mood of barely-contained bedlam.

Tenniel's Cheshire cat.

The decision to interpolate all of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as recited by the Tweedles is explicable — the film is the Disney animators’ showcase and the sad tale of the oysters is a perfect setpiece — but it does sap the film’s momentum somewhat. Indeed, the first half of Alice feels surprisingly like Fantasia: a series of beautiful vignettes that never quite escape the family-entertainment gravity well. Once we meet the Queen, of course, the end is in sight, and momentum is restored. (Sidenote: Every climactic cinematic courtroom scene reminds me of Jumpers and The Prisoner because I am a damaged, lost human being, but in this case the link makes (non)sense.)

What’s missing, besides menace, is mathematics. There’s no chess here, no perverse hyperlogic…just the occasional bit of punnery and a parade of mildly freaky visions in grand gorgeous Technicolor that seem less (frightfully) alive than Tenniel’s black&white illustrations. Half the fun of Carroll’s tales is the fact that they’re puzzle books — the Disney adaptation’s rejection of that fun, of the possibility that kids could have a good time working through Wonderland’s very orderly brand of madness, shows a lack of faith in the audience that I didn’t find insulting until I saw it through my 4-year-old’s eyes.

He didn’t like the film, by the way. Neither did my wife. I enjoyed it well enough at the time, and am disappointed by how I feel today. Ho hum.

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