Thursday, April 24, 2014

Alice in Wonderland


I and my guest judges are slowly winnowing down the field of possible contestants for my new reality TV show, American Idyll. I had no idea there were quite so many talented kiddies out there. We have had a number of stage mothers, however, who are stooping to the most outrageous tactics to try and curry favoritism for their offspring. I cannot be bought with flowers or boxes of chocolate – but the gift certificate to VanCleef and Arpels was rather tempting. Then there are the personal deceivers like the young lady of at least twelve whose mother outfitted her with patent leather Mary Janes and a pinafore in an attempt to pass her off as six. Our rules clearly state that this contest is only open to girls between the ages of four and eight and, Mrs. Johnson, I am most distressed that you put quite so much mascara on your son in an attempt to deceive our practiced eyes. He may be quite a little lady in his mannerisms, but he is ineligible. I will be more than happy to give you the number of Mr. Jay, my personal stylist, when he’s a little older so you may apprentice him out.

While the cast is still being assembled, I’ve been busy behind the scenes working out routines to teach the little darlings and assembling pieces to test their musical and dramatic abilities. Normy has been extremely helpful in this regard. His arrangement of selections from Wozzeck for tap chorus is likely to be a major highlight and I smell a possible gold record if we can strike the proper deal with Clear Channel communications. I’ve also hired a lovely Polish lady, Ania, to act as dramaturg for the project. As we’re working on creating a Shirley Temple for the new millennium, she’s hard at work on a textual analysis of On The Good Ship Lollipop so that the little darlings will be able to give the piece a proper respect. I’m not quite sure how she’s going about this, but she’s taken over the Rose bedroom at Chateau Maine. Her work appears to involve a large number of extremely heavy reference works, several computer terminals permanently attuned to Google and an enormous accordion file of papers in a rainbow of colors.

I had a spare moment today and settled into the home theater with a pitcher of Mai Tais and my to view pile. I wanted something that might give me a little more insight into the psyche of the young girl. I seemed to have a dearth of titles starring young ladies so had to settle for an animated feature, Walt Disney’s 1951 adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland. It has recently been re-released on DVD in a deluxe two disc edition as part of Disney's ongoing masterpiece collection.

Alice in Wonderland was adapted by Disney from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass written in the late nineteenth century by the mathematician Charles Dodgson under the pen name of Lewis Carroll. Much has been made of Dodgson's peculiar, but chaste relationships with little girls in other fora and I shan't explore them in depth here other than to say that one family with whom he was acquainted, the Liddels, had a young daughter Alice, of whom he was quite fond, and the lightly satirical and utterly fantastical tales were written to amuse her.

The Disney studio's team of writers cut and pasted characters and episodes from both works together in an episodic, but ultimately coherent narrative about a young girl, Alice, who while day dreaming on the riverbank one day, all of a sudden notices a white rabbit in a waistcoat consulting a pocket watch and singing about how he's late. He disappears into a hole in the bank and Alice, intrigued by a rabbit with a waistcoat, much less a pocket watch, follows him, falling down the rabbit hole into a world of wonders. There she meets such familiar characters as the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat and his grin, the Walrus and the Carpenter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the hookah smoking caterpillar. Eventually, Alice returns to reality and the strange surreal trip is over.

Disney searched to find just the right English youngster to voice Alice, eventually giving the job to Kathryn Beaumont (who later voiced Wendy in Disney's version of Peter Pan as well.) The supporting voice cast drew from a number of Hollywood's finer character actors including Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway and Richard Haydn. He then had his artists search for wild colorful images to match Carroll's more outrageous fancies. Wisely, he stayed away from the look of Sir John Tenniel's famous original illustrations for something that resembles early op-art.

The end result, with songs by a bevy of composers, is a mélange of brilliant animation, eye-popping color, and occasional moments of saccharine Disneyana. It's not bad and much of it is good fun, but it's missing the adult bite of the original material that keeps the novels so timeless. Every time I return to them, I find something new in their sly satirical jokiness and they have been the subject of numerous scholarly analyses, most famously by American mathematician Martin Gardner.

The new Masterpiece DVD contains material for deleted sequences, contemporaneous promotional material, A Mickey Mouse short and some interactive material. Enough to keep the child in all of us happy for some hours.

Eating and drinking - growing and shrinking. Tear floods. Singing daisies. Doomed oysters. Flamingos and hedgehogs. Threatened decapitations. Vanishing felines. Book without pictures or conversations. 

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