First Theatrical Release: July 26, 1951 (London, England)
First Home Viewing Release: October 15, 1981
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection. (It was the 2010 special “un-anniversary” edition.)
Bechdel Test Score: Passed! In fact, it passed within the first few minutes of the film, when we see Alice and her sister discussing her school work. (I always thought the woman at the beginning of the film was Alice’s governess, but the end credits name her as Alice’s sister. Strange that her sister is tasked with teaching her history. But, I digress.) There are other female characters as well, including female flowers and the Red Queen, all of whom talk to Alice about things other than boys or men.
Alice in Wonderland is one of those films I don’t remember ever seeing for the first time — it was just always there in my consciousness. As a child I accepted it without particularly liking or disliking it. One of my friends commented on my Pinocchio post on Facebook about how she always found that movie and Alice in Wonderland to be equally unsettling. I was not afraid of Alice as a child, but I got what she was talking about on my adult re-watch. I can now say that my mama was right and that Alice in Wonderland is, in fact, “creepy.”
And what it’s actually saying is different from what it feels like it’s saying, at least to me.
What It’s Actually Saying: Curiosity Will Get You Into Trouble
The overall message of the movie seems to be something along the lines of, “Curiosity will get you into trouble!” and “How horrible the world would be if you silly children had your way!”
The movie opens with Alice imagining a world in which everything is contrary, but the only specific detail she gives about her fantasy is that animals would talk. And indeed, she is lured into the world by following a talking rabbit. When she encounters Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, they try to prevent her from continuing her quest toward the white rabbit — but she tells them she wants to follow him because she is curious. The Tweedles shake their heads sadly and comment that, “The oysters were curious, too …”
Unable to resist the story, Alice lags behind after all for what is probably the most horrifying segment of the entire movie — one in which we see oysters personified as adorable babies in big bonnets and booties lured away by a pot-bellied walrus, ultimately to be eaten a couple minutes later.
While eating babies is certainly bad enough, I couldn’t help but feel this whole segment was a metaphor for pedophilia, from the way the walrus sweet talks the children away from their mother’s watch to the special shack he builds specifically for his pleasure, to the way he cuts his friend out of the culmination of his scheme, to the way he sweats and looks guiltily satiated after the deed is done. The speculation that Lewis Carroll may have been a pedophile may lend even more credence to this interpretation. (And now that I brought it up, I would be remiss not to refer you to my sister’s art series exploring this question, Lewis Carroll Might Be a Jerk.)
Later, Alice confirms the idea that she “brought it all on herself” when she collapses into tears after a creepy dog erases the path she is trying to take home, lamenting that she “gives herself very good advice” that she rarely follows. Her self-blame is especially evident in these stanzas:
Be patient, is very good advice
But the waiting makes me curious
And I’d love the change
Should something strange begin
Well I went along my merry way
And I never stopped to reason
I should have know there’d be a price to pay
Unfortunately, no one ever disabuses Alice of the idea that she is to blame for ending up in this totally creepy and unreasonable place, where she is picked on by every animal, flower, and human she encounters, referred to as a “monster,” a “serpent,” and a “weed,” and ultimately threatened with losing her head (literally).
This reminds me of that tired old phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat,” which has always rankled me. In one of the many cat books I’ve read, I came across the rebuff that, “Curiosity feeds the cat.” Cats’ curiosity makes them skilled solo hunters, prompts them to investigate potential danger, and, indeed, is more likely to keep them alive than to kill them.
So, too, with children. Humans have the most complex brains of any known species, and the only way such a complex brain can develop is through the drive to discover how to do and understand new things. Namely, we are the most intelligent of all animals because we are also the most curious — babies are born with an instinct to touch and stare and taste, and although we exercise greater discretion about what we put in our mouths as we get older, that drive continues to compel us. And while it will occasionally lead us someplace we didn’t want to go, far more often it will lead us to cure diseases, find the love of our life, and write great books.
So let’s steer away from cautionary tales about tamping down children’s curiosity, m’kay?
What It Feels Like It’s Saying: Being a Kid Sucks
Another metaphor one might read in to Alice is that of growing up. After all, Alice spends some time in a nonsensical world that apparently is in line with what she has fantasized about, and she finds out it’s a frustrating and degrading experience. Ultimately, it’s far better to live in the world of reason and logic than to live in one of imagination and impossibility. In making this decision, one might argue that by the end of the movie, Alice has grown up.
Except that, she doesn’t feel like a girl shaking off the frivolous world of childhood. She feels like a child confronting her powerlessness in the world of adults.
Because what struck me most in this watching of Alice was how utterly powerless she was. From dissolving into tears upon her arrival, to losing the path she thought would lead her home, to not being able to control how much she grows or shrinks and never feeling like she’s the right size or the right creature. (Puberty metaphor, anyone?) She is a child in a “child’s world” in which children have absolutely no power.
That sounds a lot like the adult world to me.
Perhaps this is at the heart of why Alice didn’t scare me as a child — the surreal imagery was not bizarre to a 4-year-old’s imagination, and the pervasive sense of powerlessness was not unusual. But I crumpled up a little inside to see Alice’s experience of the world invalidated again and again and again by the “mad” characters she encountered. No matter what she said, she was never right. She gets to the point with the caterpillar where she cannot even answer his persistent question, “WHO R U?” (By now she has already been called a “monster” and a “weed” and will shortly hereafter be called a “serpent.”) The citizens of Wonderland get angry with her when she doesn’t understand their seemingly arbitrary rules. No matter what she does or who she encounters, she can’t win.
But something changes when Alice encounters the queen. Although she is properly frightened, she doesn’t seem as powerless. Instead, she is annoyed with the goings-on, responding to the Queen’s rage and the trial and the demands that she “curtsy” with something of a “f* it all,” attitude. She has become the disinterested teenager who goes through the motions to keep her parents from knowing she’ll disregard their rules. Somehow, in these final scenes, she really does grow up. The transformation is subtle and somewhat inexplicable, but so gratifying. She gets to a place where she rejects a senseless world, just as every teenager rejects her parents’ worldview before developing one of her own.
I wanted to see more of this Alice back in the “real world.” Instead, we only see the same old dreamy girl who is not taken seriously by her buttoned-up sister. What a disappointment.
Although I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the movie’s message about the danger of curiosity, I can see why the Alice motif has endured. The Disney version experienced a resurgence of popularity due to the 1970s drug culture, and “the rabbit hole” has come to be shorthand for addiction or a downward spiral. We’ve all found ourselves, at some point in our lives, in places where we didn’t mean to go, in places where everyone but us seems to know the rules, in situations where the insanity of others makes us doubt our own inner voices of wisdom.
It’s not really clear whether Alice ever finds this within herself. But at the very least, her story promises us that there IS a way out of Wonderland —
even if it’s just forcing yourself to wake up.