Alice in Wonderland

I needed something short to watch Saturday night, so I doubled up on the Disney last weekend and watched Alice in Wonderland. This is another one I experienced mostly through the “story and songs” record album, and this is definitely one that didn’t use the actual movie soundtrack for the songs. The record is very different from the movie. I’m not entirely sure I’d seen the whole movie before. It looks like it was rereleased when I was a small child, but I was shocked by how different what I remembered of the record was from the actual movie when I saw bits of it on the Disney Channel, back when I still had cable, and while I still knew most of the songs by heart watching it this weekend, there was a lot of it that was totally unfamiliar, so it’s possible I’d never seen the whole movie before.

On the album, the songs are a lot more polished. Alice’s songs are done almost as torch songs, like you’d sing them in a cabaret. I used to love to sing along with them, and “Very Good Advice” was one of my favorites. In the movie, they’re done more in character and in the context of what’s going on in the story. Alice is frequently off-pitch, so she sounds authentic for a little girl singing (the actress was 13 when she recorded the movie soundtrack, and she apparently had a lot of trouble with the singing). Then she sobs her way through “Very Good Advice,” so it’s not even singing. I wish I could find a good recording of the version on the record. There’s also a full version of the “Twas Brillig” song the Cheshire Cat sings bits of, done as a full-on big band jazz number.

Like most of the “classic” era films, there’s a whole segment in the middle that’s essentially a standalone cartoon short dropped into the movie, the Walrus and the Carpenter story. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that these pieces were ever shown on their own (though I haven’t done extensive research). I wonder if it’s just that in the early years of the studio, the cartoon shorts were what they were familiar and comfortable with, so they started there and built movies around them, or maybe they thought the audience would get bored with the whole movie and threw in something that could stand alone in the middle. In Snow White, there’s the whole bit about the dwarfs washing up for dinner. In Cinderella, there’s the mice trying to get past the cat to get corn from the yard. The bit with the cake and dress in Sleeping Beauty is a little more integral to the plot, so you couldn’t just cut it out the way you could those other segments, but you might be able to show it on its own as a funny cartoon short. And then here’s the Walrus and the Carpenter, which is an entirely separate story that has nothing to do with Alice. It’s just a story someone tells her.

Needless to say, Disney got a lot more rigid about story structure in the revival era. There’s no three-act structure, hero’s journey, or anything else like that going on in these older films.

I’ve got to say, this movie is kind of boring. It has some fun moments, like the tea party (which makes me want to set out tables under the trees and have a fancy outdoor tea party) and the croquet game, but it doesn’t all hold together. Apparently, Walt Disney himself was afraid it lacked heart. The book itself doesn’t have a lot of structure. It’s a bunch of incidents strung together, so there wasn’t much to work with. I think the idea of Alice and Wonderland is more interesting than the actual story, so you’re almost better off not trying to follow the book and just making something up. That seems to be a lot of what Tim Burton did with his version, and I quite liked the Wonderland spinoff of Once Upon a Time, which follows an adult Alice who went back to Wonderland to get proof that she’d actually gone there.

I may try Peter Pan this weekend. I turned it off midway through the last time I tried to watch it on the Disney Channel because the sexism of “all the girls hate each other because they’re jealous of each other over Peter” got to be a bit much, but as I recall, it has some fun music.

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