Monday, May 3, 2010

Wondering In Wonderland

“Little kids make the best philosophers. They always ask, ‘why.’”
I remember doing this a lot when I was kid. I also remember my parents saying, “because I said so,” a good deal of the time. My old philosophy teacher made a good observation, though. It’s one that Lewis Carroll, and in turn Walt Disney, seemed to have made themselves: kids’ curiosity make them masters of reflection.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, aside from recounting a little girl’s journey in a whimsical world, provides a rich philosophical enquiry. It ponders the bounds of logic, the power of language, the temperament of time, and the emptiness of etiquette among many other things. Alice, as a bright but bored young student, is the perfect adventurer for Wonderland. Her sharp reason makes her well-equipped to deal with the law of the land: logic.

Now, Wonderland has the bad reputation of being nonsensical. In actuality, the people of wonderland despise nonsense. One may witness an instance of logic’s governance when Alice shuts the Queen of Hearts up -- which the Disney movie shows is an impressive feat:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming “Off with her head! Off with --”
“Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent. (Carroll 93)
Wonderland is literally a place where people may wonder -- frankly, they have to. Dilemmas frequently arise in Wonderland since its citizens are rather odd. However, these dilemmas must still be solved. For example: how do you behead a disembodied head?
The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life.
The King’s argument was that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren’t to talk nonsense. (Carrol 99)
In my opinion, the executioner should just chop the head in two: he may not actually behead his victim but he will still get the job done. But that’s beside the point. And I like the Cheshire cat, so I would rather that his head were not cut in two.

Now, how does the master-mutilator of original stories, Walt Disney, handle this sophisticated material? Frankly, he’s not so bad with this one. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is uncharacteristically faithful to Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. True, he truncates the story by a lot. There is no Duchess, no Mock-turtle, no Grifon. It goes without saying, though, that he could not include all these scenes and make the film a reasonable length. What scenes he uses from the books are incredibly faithful to their counterparts in the novels, often replicating snippets of dialogue almost verbatim. Note the scene when Alice meets the Cheshire Cat. Here is part of the novel’s version:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t care much where --” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Then consider the movie’s dialogue:
Alice: Oh no no no... thank you, but- but I just wanted to ask you which way  I ought to go.
Cheshire Cat: Well, that depends on where you want to get to.
Alice: Oh, it really doesn’t matter, as long as I c...
Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go!
In this way, he is able to retain the whimsical essence of Carrol’s narrative voice. The Disney artists, however, were able to take ownership of the material and build upon it through use of visual cues.
Alice in Wonderland uses the animation medium well, compensating for the lack of narrator through clever visual keys. Since animation shows a story rather than tells it, there are certain elements that are lost from the novel. In the case of Alice, asides from the narrator and visual puns on language structure are some of the most significant losses. Showing a story, though, has elements of its own to offer. One of the most prevalent is color. This is emphasized when the White Rabbit’s watch is destroyed. As the watch begins to combust, the colors on the screen intensify and flash as the camera angles rapidly cut all over the table. Once the Mad Hatter smashes the watch, though, the screen is sapped of all color, intensifying the watch’s destruction and thus making the scene more powerful. The artists made further use of the medium in the scene where Alice meets the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Viewers’ attention is drawn to language when the caterpillar exhales the letters he pronounces. The scene is marked by the usual riddles and inquiry:

Caterpillar: a e i o u... Who are you?
Alice: I- I- I hardly know, sir! I changed so many times since this morning, you see...
Caterpillar: I do not see. Explain yourself.
Alice: Why, I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir, because I’m not myself, you know...
Caterpillar: I do not know.
Alice: Well, I can’t put it anymore clearly for it isn’t clear to me!
Caterpillar: You? Who are you?
Alice: Well, don’t you think you ought to tell me- cough-cough, cough-cough, who you are first?
Caterpillar: Why?
Alice: Oh dear. Everything is so confusing.
Caterpillar: It is not.
Alice: Well, it is to me.
Caterpillar: Why?
Smoke letters play on language in a manner similar to Carroll’s. Drawing audience attention to such play highlights the philosophical themes inherent in the story. It’s simply up to them to play along.

At the same time, though, Disney’s undying desire for his audiences to sympathize with his characters takes away from the film’s enquiry. By adding Alice’s desire to go home and despairing culture shock, the contemplative value is diminished. Her sadness is distracting, and it colors the riddles and inquiries as bullying. Though Alice is just as sharp as she is in the book, she seems to be a victim of inquiry rather than an inquirer. Though it adds a greater emotional arc and energizes the plot, it diminishes one of the key themes of Alice’s adventure.
In the end, however, Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland takes a story that is very much outside Disney’s comfort zone and owns it. Though many ideas may be wrung from the Disney studio’s other films, no other engages in philosophical enquiry so directly. Instead of relying on the usual battle against external factors, Alice must engage with internal conundrums. Disney is able to translate this well, though, by retaining much of Carroll’s dialogue and enhancing it with visual queues. The problem is not in being true to the material in content, but in spirit, as Disney injects emotional factors that distract from it. In that way, we may wonder if Disney is telling us to avoid such wonderment. Or else we might lose our heads.

Is he doing us a favor? Or asking us not to think so much?

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