Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Alice's Wonderland: An Early Encounter Between Disney Animation and Its Child

Alice's Wonderland (1923), although it had been produced under Laugh-O-Gram films, was the first film shown to distributors by Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which became the Walt Disney Company. In this short, a little girl named Alice pays her first visit to a cartoon studio. The representation of a child as both observer and participant in the making of a cartoon intended for her amusement sets the terms, from this seminal moment, of the cultural work of the Disney empire. Knocking insistently, she finally secures Walt's attention and declares, "I would like to watch you draw some funnies." This statement encapsulates the entire significance of the Disney company, which positioned itself in the marketplace as the safe studio for kids and families, using animation as the medium of choice for demonstrating its child-friendliness and the figure of Walt Disney himself as its imprimatur. Self-reference, to Disney the man, to the studio, and to the technical arts of animation, are on display here, as they often are in animated shorts showing the artist at work and interacting with his creations. This kind of self-reference runs through the Disney corpus, with each film recycling images, tropes, and even specific animated movement sequences from previous films. Walt already is the avuncular figure that he would become to American audiences. The white page on which Walt has been drawing becomes the movie screen as the pictures come to life. Cats play in a band, visually representing in this silent film the important role music would play in future Disney productions. Then, Alice goes home and dreams that she travels to Cartoonland by train, a magical place where a kids' dreams seem to come true and easily seen as an analog to Disneyland. Alice's appearance as a live actor in this cartoon world suggests the immersion of the "real" child in the world of Disney. The dream takes a mild turn for the worse when Alice is chased by lions before waking up (Sorry the very end is missing from this video!). The framing of the adventure as a dream and the name of the protagonist suggest Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the kind of fantasy story that, along with fairy tales, would form the backbone of Disney's repertory of animated features starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

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