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Alice's Wonderland

Walt Disney shows Alice (that mass of sausage curls in the corner) how "funnies" are created

 

 

Alice's Wonderland

1924. Directed by Walt Disney. With Virginia Davis, Margaret Davis, Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising


Between 1923 and 1927, Walt Disney made a series of shorts that combined live action and animation. The live action component was a little girl named Virginia Davis, playing a character called "Alice." She had adventures in drawn environments, interacting somewhat imperfectly with cartoon characters. There was Alice Plays Cupid, Alice the Toreador, Alice Hunting in Africa, Alice's Channel Swim, and about 40 more.

Alice got into cartoonland legitimately. Her initiation comes in the very first film of the series, Alice's Wonderland. She pokes her head into the Disney studio and says "I would like to see you draw some funnies." Walt invites her in. (Walt did like showing off his facilities!) He draws a dog and cat on his pad, and they start to romp and dance. Later on her tour, Alice joins a group of (real) animators pointing and laughing at a bunch of cartoon critters who are cavorting among the (real) jars of brushes and inks. These critters may be drawings that, like Walt's, have recently come to life, but it seems equally likely that there are just comical animals who hang out in cartoon studios waiting for the humans to harness them into a cartoon.

It's curious to consider that the laughing animators are the Disney crew—Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, and Rudolph Ising—who have spent many real-world hours choreographing and drawing the hijinks that they are now pretending to be delighted by. (I should add that I know what was involved in animating these creatures only because Walt Disney showed me, in great detail, when he took children behind the scenes at a later point in his career.)

There's a really solid gag that would fit into any "Out of the Inkwell" cartoon. After all those goofy-looking cartoon cats we see a real one, perhaps the resident studio cat. She lies imperturbably in front of a large pad as an animated mouse capers around on the pad threatening her with a sword. Finally the mouse discards the sword and uses its tail to stab the cat, at which point she jumps up and runs away.

For all its technical awkwardness, Alice's Wonderland has a sophisticated self-awareness about itself and the animation enterprise. It makes certain concessions to the truth of animated cartoons—we do see Walt Disney actually sketch a cat and dog on a blank pad of paper—but it quickly slips into the fantasy that, once drawn, these creatures move on their own and slip from their creator's control.

In the second half of Alice's Wonderland Alice goes home, falls asleep, and dreams that she visits "Cartoonland," a drawn place with drawn inhabitants. There's a parade, a lion threatens her, and it's fairly conventional cartoon territory except for the novelty of having a live-action leading lady. Or should we say a quasi-live-action leading lady? Drawn question marks emanate from Alice's head when she is puzzled, and printed words come out of her mouth. Sometimes she seems to be moving by stop-motion rather than cinematography.

This adventure sets the format for the many Alice shorts to come. But it can only take place after the Disney studio section provides Alice with a sort of passport to Cartoonland. She observed first-hand some experiments with the relationship between live action and animation; now she has become one of those experiments herself.

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein