Disney’s animated rendition of Alice in Wonderland (1951) was not the greatest-received of their pictures. Critics didn’t like the way it “Americanized” classic Lewis Carroll literature, parents didn’t approve of the generally moral-less outcome of the story, and many downright found it too weird and silly. Still, as an adaptation of a great work of English literature, Alice in Wonderland does showcase many important themes beneath its goofy veneer, largely dealing with a child’s evolution into adolescence and adulthood, and the constantly puzzling nature of life and existence.
Though the film takes many liberties from its source material, many of the prominent themes exist in both works. Growing up, of course, is simultaneously the great ambition and great fear of all children. Every kid looks forward to getting older and being able to do all those things children can’t, yet the loss of innocence and shift towards a life of work is the price to be paid for adulthood.
An initial example of the tragic loss of childhood is the way Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) undergoes a series of absurd physical changes. She is never content at any size but regular. She falls down the rabbit hole and soon becomes huge, crying enough tears to flood the area. She then becomes extra small, nearly drowning in her own tears. Later, again too big, she’s almost lit ablaze when a Dodo deems her a monster and attempts to “snuff the monster out” of the White Rabbit’s (Bill Thompson) house. Once again, she follows this by shrinking too small and ends up the focus of ridicule from some nasty flowers who view her as a weed. Only one other small flower, Bud, “thinks she’s pretty.” It’s telling that the only character who truly appreciates her at a modified size is another child, as the general discomfort of her ever-changing body size provides a window into the awkwardness children feel as their shape evolves.
Throughout Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a series of problems and oddities which she tries to figure out. Many of these curiosities have no answer or logical solution. Despite the fact Lewis Carroll was a logician, he makes a farce out of jokes and riddles throughout the story, with statements like “How is a raven like a writing desk?” making their way into the film. Of course, a raven is in no way like a writing desk, but Alice tries to figure it out anyhow. Perhaps one of the great messages of the film’s subtext is that not everything in life makes sense or has an explanation—a truth children don’t yet understand. Though their imaginations are on overdrive, they often believe all things can be explained or at least have some sort of logical foundation. The Mad Hatter’s riddle, the Queen’s croquet game, these things illustrate the way life often frustrates and resists interpretation, even when an answer seems like it should be at hand.
Alice learns that the only thing she can truly rely on in Wonderland is that it will challenge and confuse her. As a counterpoint to the film’s illustration of the unanswerable properties of life, it also illuminates the fact that life’s mystery allows for anything to be possible if one is open to its challenges. Alice in Wonderland’s dialogue is an endless joke on linguistics, with rampant puns and double meanings. As Alice progresses through the dreamland, her own language (which begins quite eloquently and with the effect of solid education) begins to adapt to the nonsensical. “Curiouser and curioser,” she says, suggesting her surroundings are influencing her. By the end of the story, she’s somewhat learned how to manage the people and quirks within the universe and realizes everything is malleable. Like life itself, Wonderland is what she makes of it, full of remarkable and sometimes odd possibilities.
All of this comes back to the theme of childhood and the transition to adolescence, furthered by adulthood. It is the core of the silly and imaginative story.