I recently droned on about my excitement for Tim Burton’s upcoming adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. You’ve seen Helena Bonham Carter’s CGI-enhanced forehead haven’t you? It’s bigger than my television. The film will be super-weird, in the best possible way, I hope. Anyway, beyond my enthusiasm for the upcoming version, I’ve always loved Disney’s animated take. My girlfriend was really surprised that I rated it so high. She thinks that, especially for kids, it’s too trippy and twisted and, as she couldn’t remember much about it, unmemorable. I think I was partial to it for several reasons:
One–it was broadcast all the time on The Disney Channel when I was growing up. So, I got to watch it over and over and over, as kids do with films.
Two–it was an unconventional story. Typically, Disney animated heroines are pining for princes but romance wasn’t even on the cards in this tale. A literal pack of cards were though. An army of head-chopping cards. The simple but relatable goal here was for Alice to follow her curiosity–something that definitely inspired me.
Three–the music and animation are top rate. There are sequences in this film that are pure magic. And that brings us to today’s great thing:
115. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland
Lovingly overseen by Walt himself, who’d been trying to get the film into production for over a decade, this scene in particular is as joyous as fireworks and slick as oil. I don’t even like tea THAT much but watching this again makes me want to boil the kettle and toast some bread. It IS my unbirthday, after all. Let’s watch:
The DVD, which I got as a last-minute Christmas gift (after mentioning how much I enjoyed it as a kid) also came with a featurette called “Operation Wonderland” which was originally broadcast in 1951, the same year the film was originally released if you can believe that. The thought of what animators must go through to bring a story to life has always given me sympathy arthritis pains. I mean, I was the sort of kid that could barely make it through one picture when coloring it in. I can’t fathom having to draw hundreds of ever-so-slightly different panels in order to create one scene. Pass the Bayer. So, I’ve always admired the good folks that work in animation. It’s not only the drawing that fascinates me but it’s also the scientific measures they go through to make the fantasy as real as possible–for instance, hiring actors to don special costumes and walk around drunkenly like a walrus might for the walrus and the carpenter scene. It’s akin to watching how Willy Wonka makes his mythical Everlasting Gobstoppers.
The behind the scenes featurette illustrates not only how much work goes into a hand-drawn film but also, perhaps, how the concept of a ‘behind the scenes’ type featurette was so novel in 1951. Note the cheesy set-up for Walt to walk in on young Kathryn Beaumont who is:
A. Studying her algebra
B. About to be called to action
Also, look out for the scene which shows you the fantastic Ed Wynn as The Mad Hatter and Jerry Colonna as The March Hare and how absolutely inspiring they must have been to the cardigan-draped chortling animators. Oh, how I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and visit the set myself! And so that I could bet on winning sports teams and get rich (hats off to Biff from Back To The Future II for that scheme.)
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is actually an amalgam of two Lewis Carroll books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. Carroll was not only an author, a reverend, a mathematician, and a photographer, but also a logician. In a bit of synchronicity which has worked out nicely for my obsessions, a book that I’m currently reading–Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, references Lewis Carrol’s logic. Carroll wrote very droll syllogisms. Here are two that Martin mentions as especially inspiring to his comedic voice:
1. Babies are illogical.
2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
3. Illogical persons are despised.
Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.
I like that one because it also implies that babies are despised.
Another example is given:
1. No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.
2. No modern poetry is free from affectation.
3. All your poems are on the subject of soap bubbles.
4. No affected poetry is popular among people of taste.
5. Only a modern poem would be on the subject of soap bubbles.
Therefore, all your poems are uninteresting
Maybe later, when I put my brain in, I’ll try writing one.
1. Writing syllogisms is hard.
2. I am easily distracted when faced with difficult tasks.
3. Oh look, a squirrel.
Maybe I’m giving too much credit here, but I think the Mad Hatter sequence really captures that teasing Carroll lunacy. All of the characters that Alice encounters do nothing but give her shit–perhaps never more so than at the Unbirthday tea party. The girl never even gets a drop of tea.
Though this film took years and years to find its audience (it was not a hit when it was first released), it is rightly labelled as some of Disney’s very best animation.
And now, in closing, let’s look at a different take on The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and remember: it’s hard out there for a little adolescent Victorian girl.
P.S. Anyone see The Princess and the Frog yet? I’m really looking forward to it…out in Britain in February…