Here we are at film number 18, Alice In Wonderland (1951)- an animated classic I’ve seen over and over. Alice, a young British girl, bores of her schoolwork one quiet afternoon and falls into a Wonderland, where nonsense and whimsy pull her deep into its confines until she wonders how she will ever return.
Alice and I? We have history. In 2013 I spent an entire semester waist-deep in this tale, as I wrote my final Literature Review before receiving my BA in English. Like many Disney classics, Alice in Wonderland is based off of a children’s novel. My Senior Seminar course focused on satire. I will tell you, satire in classic literature, it’s not exactly SNL. No knee-slappers or LOL’ing. You’ll be lucky to get a chuckle out of what you’re reading and then feel proud after because you actually understood a reference. Anyway, imagine my surprise when Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was on a list of classic satirical novels! I ran with it and spent the next few months digging through its history until it wasn’t fun anymore but finally found that “ah-ha” moment that keeps writers going. Then I turned it in and (plot twist!) became a Special Ed Teacher. But here I am seven years later and damned if I’m not writing about it again! (I love a good full circle moment.)
Lewis Carroll was the pen-name of a British fellow named Charles Dodgson. Dodgson was a product of the Victorian era, where strict morals, religion, etiquette, and education were held of foremost importance. Order was the name of the game. Dodgson developed a fascination with a young girl named, you guessed it, Alice. She was the daughter of the dean of his church. The story of Wonderland was birthed when Dodgson took Alice and her sisters on a boating outing. As they were on the water they asked him to tell them a story and, BAM, Wonderland. Now, from the outside looking in, (or through the looking glass, perhaps?) here is where it toes the line with creepy. Dodgson developed an obsession with the young Alice, and her parents banned him from seeing her. So Dodgson, the Oxford mathematician who had already authored a book on logic, pens a new type of novel as he pines for Alice. Many accounts of Dodgson’s character have said that while he checked all the boxes for a Victorian Male– educated, strong presence in the church, all logic and propriety–, he always had a certain affinity for the children in his circle. He was captivated by their innocence, their ability to experience wonder at things Victorian society might raise their nose at. Could this be why he was so taken with young Alice? Possibly. Here’s what I’m willing to wager. Alice and her sisters were excited by his stories. Magic and wonder, talking creatures and body-altering potions in the form of cake and cookies, all things that logic and order can’t explain away. He wrote the novel in hopes of reaching Alice despite the ban. In the story, Alice frequently dines on goodies that alter he surroundings. If Alice the child reads the book, she devours Dodgson’s fairy tale, his tale becomes a part of her, filling her head with frivolity, staving off decorum for at least a little while.
Ten minutes in to watching the movie Mr. Watch-Upon-A-Star goes, “This one is too random. It’s all over the place, there’s like ten storylines at once.” Exaaaaaaactly! It’s a satire, remember? Poking fun of Victorian ideals by quite literally turning them upside-down.
So why did Disney choose it? Walt had his eye on Alice’s storyline since his early Hollywood days in the 1930’s and he experimented with it in his “Alice” silent shorts. The concept of Wonderland is, as Dodgson intended, captivating to a young audience, and has consequently intrigued generations of adults as a byproduct, making Alice in Wonderland perfect Disney material. (And have you heard the soundtrack? Perfection.) While it didn’t turn a great profit at the box office, it has held its own through the years by children in age, children at heart, and maybe, watching from afar in a wonderland of her own, Alice herself.