Tuesday, 5 May 2009


While in general I think that Bryan Talbot's "Alice in Sunderland" is great, there's one claim he makes in it which I take issue with. He says that some people only know the Alice story through "the saccharine Disney version."

It's the use of the word "saccharine" which I object to. The term, when used metaphorically like this, would normally refer to an over-concentration on cuteness or lightness in tone, and when, as in this case, describing an adaptation of another work, suggests that the harsher elements of the original have been downplayed or removed entirely.

Is this really the case with Disney's "Alice in Wonderland"? Well, one of the most famous omissions from the film is the "Pig and Pepper" sequence where a small boy is shaken violently and eventually turns into a pig, but on the other hand, the Disney version does make some of the other scenes a little crueller than Carroll wrote them.

One such scene is where Alice has turned into a giant (one of many times) and is stuck inside the White Rabbit's house. The Rabbit sends a lizard named Bill down the chimney. In the book, Alice gives the chimney a kick and Bill shoots out and lands in the garden, to be promptly nursed to health and appear later in the story. In the film, Alice sneezes, causing Bill to soar into the sky... and never be seen again!

Maybe it's "saccharine" that film-Alice is not intentionally responsible for what she does to Bill, unlike book-Alice? On the other hand, it seems perfectly in-character for book-Alice to behave the way she does in the film, and not desire to cause Bill any harm.

Later in the film, some of the card painters are seen being dragged away to be executed following the Queen of Hearts' famous "OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!" command, and we are to assume that her orders were carried out. Carroll makes it clear that they are not beheaded -- Alice hides them out of harms way, and later is told that the Queen "never executes nobody" (although this double-negative may be one of Carroll's semantic jokes -- she doesn't execute *nobody*, she executes *somebody*.).

One fairly morbid incident occurs in both versions - the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, who lure oysters away from their homes and eat them. It's a different sort of case though, I guess, as even within the book or film it features as a fictional story, less "real" than the other events.

The animal characters in the film are also distinctly lacking the huge eyes and long eyelashes which characterize many of the studio's animals.

If Disney's Alice film is to be criticized (and it's a film I've always loved since before I can remember) then I don't think "saccharine" is the right criticism to make. Maybe "dumbed-down" might be a little more appropriate... Carroll includes a lot of clever verbal humour which is Disney and his writers leave out, and the book-Alice never, unlike her film counterpart, says that she would rather that books contain "nothing but pictures"!

Although I like the film considerably better than he seems to, I would say a more valid objection would be the one expressed by John Grant in "Masters of Animation", where he uses terms like "wackiness" and "zaniness" to describe what Disney made of the story.

The problem is, though, only an expert can citicize a Disney film for being "wacky" or "zany" -- to the casual person, Disney is never wacky or zany, it is twee and cutesy, while "everyone knows" that Warner Brothers had the racket on madcap humour.

As a general rule, that might well be true, but Talbot isn't talking about talking about general rules, he's talking about Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" film. And it seems like his only reason for calling it "saccharine" is because, well, it's a Disney film. And you don't need to actually watch a Disney film to form an opinion on it.

Kind of a shame really. It's obviously not as big a deal as forming prejudiced opinions about people because of the colour of their skin, the place they come from, their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) etc., but it's still kind of a shame.

Any thoughts or opinions?


  1. It is a shame. Bryan Talbot calls it "saccharine", yet Disney claims it didn't have any heart. Ironic?

    I think it's a strong adaptation of the book, at least more so than Tim Burton's version. It's just not possible to faithfully adapt Lewis Carroll"s book to screen, seeing as much of the book's humor is verbal or comes from the narration. That doesn't exactly make for riveting visual storytelling.

  2. Good point bringing up Walt's opinion: it really shows that you *shouldn't* judge Disney's Alice in Wonderland based on your perception of the other films, the ones which Walt did think had "heart".