index.html  Disney’s Alice in Wonderland : a Cold War parody?



José Bernardo HERNÁNDEZ ÁVILA

ITESM - Monterrey


 

 

Introduction

 

An analysis of Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland will be conducted in order to attempt to interpret a deeper immanent level of meaning than that conveyed at first sight on the level of the manifest, through a semiotic breakdown using the film analysis theoretical aproach proposed by Giannetti, and also employing the sign classification categories developed by Olivo (1985). Alice in Wonderland is a tale written originally in the nineteenth century by Charles Lewis Dogson, whose pseudonym was Lewis Carroll. It is an exaggerated presentation of a child's quest to survive and eventually become part of the adult world. It was written as a memento that resulted out of a pedophile inclination towards a real life girl named Alice Liddell (Britannica Encyclopedia).

In 1948, Walter Disney took this story and decided to edit it with the help of Aldous Huxley, the writer of Brave New World, and create one more of his masterpiece movies. This film has the intention of entertaining but it might have a political analysis included in it. Walter Disney has been recognized as an artist and political critic (Watts, 1995). It is well known how his Funny Little Bunnies and The Three Little Pigs Silly Symphonies are an insight into what President Roosevelt’s New Deal was. To discover whether if “Alice in Wonderland” has such kind of political examination and if it does, to unveil it, will be the main objectives of this investigation.

The obstacles inherent to this analysis process are the over-interpretation and misinterpretation of the chosen signs due to of the lack of sufficient knowledge about the filmmakers and scriptwriters who planned the film and because the background information on both, Walter Disney’s and Aldous Huxley’s life, ideas and artistic development is only known thanks to given accounts by third parties and to documental research.

This work will be structured around a hypothesis about the intention and meaning of the previously mentioned underlying discourse in a specific Walt Disney’s movie formulated after a meticulous sign analysis. Next, using the sign classification diagrams by Olivo (1985), sign types will be identified and their meaning interpreted, as to support or reject, the previously formulated hypothesis. After this, an analytical essay describing the meaning of the film and its underlying discourse taking as a base the chosen signs, their meaning and the film’s context will be presented. Such essay will be backed-up by academic research on diverse sources related to historical, political, economic and social contexts as well as information about Disney’s life, ideas and artistic development. A comparison between the movie’s script and the original book will be made, for the fact that it was consistently altered may show the intention of communicate an specific message.  At the end, final conclusions will be presented and contrasted to the naïve approach with which the film was first chosen and evaluated.

 

I. Hypothesis

           

 

“Disney’s film Alice in Wonderland, is a political satire of the post-World War II and beginnings of the Cold War context and the complexity of the international order in such historical transition period”.

 

II. Movie references

 

            2.1 Film summary

           

Alice is a young, lively girl who is very curious. She dreams of a world of her own where impossible things could happen and what is possible, could not. She happens to see a White Rabbit carrying a watch and complaining about his lateness and she decides to follow him into his rabbit hole, only to fall into an abysm that takes her into another world.  She starts experimenting all she desired of her ideal world, for everything she had under the concept of “normal” is challenged in this world.

            Along the film, she meets several characters that react to Alice in very different ways. The Dodo invites her to a race in order to get dry while she is still in the sea; the twins Tweedle Dee and Dum, ask her to stay and tell her stories; she has in incident within the White Rabbit’s house, which she outgrows. Alice also meets, talking, singing  flowers and smoking caterpillars that recite poetry. She meets the Mad Hatter after a reference given by the Cheshire Cat, who claims to be mad, and after that, she encounters that land’s queen: The Queen of Hearts, who is a tyrant whose hobby is to have people decapitated. She will have to face a trial and after escaping, in order to get out of what all the time was a nightmare, to wake herself up.

 

2.2. Social, political and economic context

 

The open yet restricted rivalry that developed after World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, is known as the Cold War, and was waged on political, economic, and propaganda fronts and had only limited recourse to weapons. The term was first used by the American financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch during a congressional debate in 1947.

Following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945 near the close of World War II, the uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and Great Britain on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other began to weaken. By 1948 the Soviets had installed left-wing governments in the countries of Eastern Europe that had been “liberated” by the Red Army, the military body of the USSR. The Americans and the British feared the permanent Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the threat of Soviet-influenced communist parties coming to power in the democracies of Western Europe. The Soviets, on the other hand, were determined to maintain control of Eastern Europe in order to safeguard against any possible renewed threat from Germany, and they were intent on spreading communism worldwide, largely for ideological reasons (Basically, the Marxist idea of proletariat revolution). The Cold War had solidified by 1947–48, when U.S. aid provided under the Marshall Plan to western Europe had brought those countries under American influence and the Soviets had installed openly communist regimes in eastern Europe.

The Cold War reached its peak in 1948–53. In this period the Soviets unsuccessfully blockaded the Western-held sectors of West Berlin 1948–49), which were partitioned by the allies during the liberation; the United States and its European allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a unified military command to resist the Soviet presence in Europe (1949); the Soviets exploded their first atomic warhead (1949), thus ending the American monopoly on the atomic bomb; the Chinese communists came to power in mainland China (1949); and the Soviet-supported communist government of North Korea invaded U.S.-supported South Korea in 1950, setting off an indecisive Korean War that lasted until 1953.

Throughout the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct military confrontation in Europe and engaged in actual combat operations only to keep allies from defecting to the other side or to overthrow them after they had done so. In the course of the 1960s and '70s, however, the bipolar struggle between the Soviet and American blocs gave way to a more complicated pattern of international relationships in which the world was no longer split into two clearly opposed blocs, a situation already foresaw and described by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, in his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946 (Keylor, 2003).

 

            2.3 Main characters’ ideology

 

Character

Ideology

Alice

Alice is a young very kind, playful and curious girl who gets bored very easily. However she seldom misbehaves or looses propriety. She dislikes reading and prefers to look at pictures. She is fond of animals and desires a world ruled by nonsense, where anything that is not, would be, and what is, would not be.

It is her curiosity what gets her in trouble and into Wonderland. She knows she should not be that curious, for that is what keeps getting her deeper and deeper into that crazy world, but never changes until the end of the story.

The White Rabbit

A very stressed character that puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that he is late, although he never mentions what for. He does not realize that his watch marks the same hour.

He is very orderly (one can see in the layout of his house). The Rabbit is very loyal and obedient to the Queen.

The Cheshire Cat

The cat that claims to be mad, the only character who does this, is also the sanest presented to the viewer. He gives advice to Alice and later in the movie; he gets her into serious trouble. He only seems to like having fun at other people’s expense.

The Queen of hearts

The ruler of wonderland. She is an authoritarian tyrant who must be right all of the time. Everyone that goes against her will die. She knows how much everyone fears her and that gives her a lot of self-confidence.

 

 

 

 

3. Supporting-hypothesis signs [1]

            3.1 Visual signs

                        3.1.1 Iconic

Alice’s history lesson/ “In a World of my Own”

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Alice

Symbol/ icon

Peirce

Young blonde, blue-eyed girl.

The U.S.A (America)

 

Significance in the movie: Alice is portrayed as a very good girl who dreams of an ideal world. The U.S.A was a very young country, historically speaking, compared to all the other European countries involved in World War II and Japan. By the end of the war, president Truman and, as a matter of fact, the majority of the U.S. felt the moral obligation of conducing the newly Nazi-freed countries towards free market economies and inserting them into the capitalist system, in order to have a better world. She is the heir of the European tradition and English from Britain, which is represented by her sister. (Keylor, 2001)

 

Alice’s Sister

Symbol/ icon

Peirce

A Woman older than Alice

Great Britain

 

Significance in the scene: Alice’s sister is presented as a fully mature and serious woman. She reads from a British history book and tries to get Alice to learn her lessons. She tells Alice that the idea of her ideal world is nonsense. Historically, Great Britain virtually stopped all war activities after the war and dedicated herself to her economic recovery and maintenance of the empire. Alice’s sister only appears in the first scene and at the end. It is important to remark that both, America and Great Britain are referred to as females, and that one is older than the other. (Keylor, 2001)

 

White Rabbit

Symbol/ Icon

Peirce

Dressed white rabbit

 

Time and stress

Significance in the movie: The rabbit appears as an agent of change. It is what draws Alice’s attention and, because she keeps following him, gets her into deeper trouble and into Wonderland. It symbolizes the strive of both potencies, the U.S. and the USSR’s for progress and to be ahead of each other at every moment in every context and the stress and social unrest this caused because of the fear that the arms race generated. What is important to remark is that the watch always marks the same time (5:00) but the rabbit keeps saying he’s late. This has a connection with the fact that both potencies, being able to compete with each other, showed no sign of ending the conflict anytime soon.

 

 

 

Alice meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (“How d’ ye do and shake hands”) (THIS NARRATION IS NOT PART OF THE BOOK)[2]

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

Symbol/ Icon

Peirce

A pair of fat twins that even though is old, dress like schoolboys.

 

East and West Germany.

Significance in the scene: This is a syntagm, for the two symbols only work together. One is complement to the other and even though they are the same, they represent a division. They have the same name (Tweedle) and then different ending. Germany, being just one during almost tree hundred years, was divided by the allies after the WWII (Keylor, 2001) . Two different countries were formed, popularly called East and West Germany. Even though it had existed for more than 300 hundred years, they were treated as if they were newly formed countries and the occupying forces made decisions. This is represented by the fact that both of the twins are old (they are bold and have wrinkles in the face) but dress and behave like schoolboys.

 

 

“The walrus and the carpenter” (THIS NARRATION DOES NOT APPEAR IN THE BOOK)
Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Walrus

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

A walrus tramp

The USSR’s bureaucracy/ the governing elite.

 

Significance in the scene: The fat walrus represents the exaggerated bureaucracy, which was a characteristic feature in the USSR. It represents the governing elite, portrayed as having a single discourse: one marked by nonsense and the desires of always talk of other things, rather than to confront problems. He cheats on the carpenter, the proletariat, and eats the oysters, economic resources. The lack of ability from he Union to distribute wealth and the fact that the huge bureaucracy consumed lots of the resources available to the USSR made the population (carpenter) angry.

 

 

Carpenter

Symbol/ Icon

Peirce

A carpenter

The USSR’s population (the proletariat).

 

Significance in the scene: The carpenter is portrayed as someone that trusts in the walrus and follows him without asking questions. This belief is presented by the fact that the carpenter tells the walrus that it is time to work, to get things done, to which the walrus replies that is it time to talk of other things. The hammer (a hammer was a symbol of the Communist International) and his uniform represent the workers. He is cheated by the governing elite and bureaucracy (walrus) and gets angry at it. This represents the American position towards communism.

 

 

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Oysters

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

Baby oysters

Economic resources

 

Significance in the scene: The oysters are young, tender and a tempting food for both, the walrus and the carpenter, however, it is the walrus the one that gets into the sea and gets them out. This was the role of the state creating and supposedly distributing wealth. Once he is supposed to share them with the carpenter, he cheats and eats them all by himself. This signifies the consumption of economic resources by the bureaucracy.

 

The sun and the moon

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

The sun and the moon with the faces of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum respectively

 

The struggle between east and west.

Significance in the scene: This is the main dichotomy presented in the movie. It is both day and night at the same time and the shadow cast parts the beach into two. This symbolizes the struggle between east and west and it takes more significance if one pays attention the fact that the sun and moon, symbolizing both poles, have the faces of the characters that, as has been previously hypothesized, represent East and West Germany.

 

A garden of talking flowers (THIS NARRATION DOES NOT APPEAR IN THE BOOK)
Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Muffin-winged butterflies

Symbol

Peirce

A group of butterfly that form a muffin from joining their wings

 

The availability of food in the USSR.

Significance in the scene: In this scene, “the good part” of the communist regime is portrayed in this scene. The butterflies constitute a muffin when aligned together. They fly around the characters in the scene and represent the supposedly availability of food provided by the state.

 

Flower chorus

Symbol

Peirce

A group of singing flowers

The flourishing of the arts in the USSR.

 

Significance in the scene: One thing that has been recognized about the USSR was the flourishing of the arts, especially music. During the communist regime musicians such as Sergei Slonimski were sponsored by the State. The flowers start singing and playing an aria in allegretto, which finishes with drums, a characteristic of contemporary Russian classical music. The leader of such chorus us a red rose, being this, the color of the communist movement. (Keylor, 2003)

 

 

 

 

Advice from the caterpillar
Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Caterpillar

Symbol

Peirce

An elongated wormlike larva of a butterfly that smokes a Turk pipe.

The Arab world

Significance in the scene: the Caterpillar, throughout the scene, asks Alice who she is. This is a question she cannot longer ask. This resembles the strong sentiment of identity that the Arab world developed after the War with the outbreak of independence movements, anti-Zionism, and non-interventionism positions. This, along with a very old sentiment of Pan-Arabism lead to conflict with the U.S.A. This is presented in this analogy between the Caterpillar and Alice, who dies not understand the funny way of talking of the Caterpillar and is annoyed by the smoke of his pipe. In this context, the U.S.A foreign policy makers were not very pleased with the Arab world’s position regarding the creation of Israel and different countries always produced frictions in the United Nations. (Keylor, 2003)

 

A Mad Tea Party

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

The Mad Hatter

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

A crazy old man with a very large hat, who likes to drink a lot of tea

 

The British empire

 

 

Significance in the scene: The Mad Hatter was given as a reference to Alice by Cheshire Cat to point her the way out of Wonderland. However, he happens to be as crazy as all the other characters that got her deeper into that land. The Hatter is so much obsessed about tea parties that he even celebrates his un-birthday (which is celebrated everyday which is not one’s birthday). By 1951 the British empire, who is referred to as a male (opposed to addressing Great Britain as a female), was in a state of decadence (represented by the madness of the Hatter)(Kyelor, 2001). The Hatter is in a sense a stereotype of an English gentleman and the fact that he is portrayed as mad is a sign of its deterioration. This symbol works together with the pots. He is accompanied by the March Hare and the Dormouse, a crazy hare and a sleepy mouse respectively[3]

 

Tea Pots

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

China teapots

The countries that formed the British Commonwealth

 

Significance in the scene: the teapots are whistling and making music for the Hatter’s party. The pots represent the countries that formed part of the British Commonwealth. The spices producing countries such as India and Sri Lanka provided the tea that had become a British standard. By the end of World War I, nationalisms started growing in the colonies, which started revolting in order to get their independence. That is why they are all boiling, but they make music because they were the source of wealth and welfare of the Empire.

 

 

The Queen of Hearts

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Army of cards/deck of cards

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

An army made up by marching cards

 

The Red Army

Significance in the scene: These cards make up the imperial army of the Queen of Hearts. They all fear her. They are all the same (as one would think the equalitarian communist society would be). When they first appear they are painting the white rose bushes red because the queen does not like white. This means that the army was in charge of turning everything red, or to insert people into the communist movement, for, as it has been mentioned before, red was the color of the communist movement. They have the different shapes (hearts, clovers, diamonds and clubs) that may refer to the fact that the members of the red army were from different ethnicities, for they came from the different soviet satellites. (Keylor, 2003)

 

The Queen of Hearts

Symbol/Icon

Peirce

A raging plump queen

 

The USSR

Significance in the movie: She is the ruler of Wonderland and everyone fears her anger. She is referred to as “her imperial highness” (An imperium being a series of conquered lands governed by one sole ruler). This has a connection with the soviet satellites, which were in control of the central government in Moscow. Also, the USSR is referred to as a female and historically, everyone that opposed to the policies and measures dictated from the central government, would be purged. It has become widely known, that Joseph Stalin, the head of the Communist Party and ruler of the USSR, used to shoot those that opposed to him, in the head (Keylor, 2003), and the Queen of Hearts commands to have those same people decapitated. Red is her color, which historically has represented socialism and her soldiers, the cards, look all the same and behave the same, just as it would be in a perfect communist society (ironically depicted) so feared by the capitalist world.

 

The King

Symbol/ Icon

Peirce

A short king with a squeaking voice

The moderate ideology within the USSR.

 

Significance in the scene: The king shows the subordinated position the liberal ideology had within the USSR. At the end of the Second War, in order to keep a merry relationship with the allies, the Communist Party in Russia, even though it did not accept liberal ideology, would tolerate it (Keylor, 2003). This is shown in the relationship between the Queen and the King of hearts. He is the one that asks for a trial to Alice when the Queen decides to condemn her to death.

 

 

Other signs
Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Cheshire cat

Symbol/ icon

Peirce

A grinning purple cat

It represents a non-aligned country.

 

Significance in the movie: The Cheshire cat is a controversy in itself. He is the only character in Wonderland that claims to be mad and yet, he is the sanest. Something happened with the non-aligned countries, which were represented by Yugoslavia, Egypt and India. These countries claimed to be the weakest; yet, they were the ones with more economic potential at the time. They asked for help to the U.S.A. and later they would do it with the USSR. Their position was not clear during the conflict, that is whey they were termed “non-aligned”. (Keylor, 2003) The similitude of the word Cheshire (Cheshire is a county in Great Britain, to the south of the island) to “Cashmere” could refer to Pakistan.

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Daisies

Symbol/ icon

Peirce

A composite plant that has a flower head.

 

Secrecy

Significance in the movie: According to research, wild white daisies have a socially accepted meaning of secrecy (OFA, 2004). They are found throughout the entire movie in the walls and in the fields. This may refer to the secrecy with which the Cold War was carried with, including all the suspicions of espionage and information leakage.

 

 

3.1.2 Verbal (posters)[4]

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Atlas

Symbol/ Icon

Peirce

Map of the world presenting only two great landmasses.

 

The East-West struggle

Significance in the scene: While Alice falls into Wonderland, she sees an Atlas that portrays only two great masses of land. One can see the north, where there’s nothing and south pole, which has Chinese pagodas and little people drawn on it wearing Chinese hats. The East and the West are presented as opposite poles and therefore this map represents the struggle. In the other hand, China had just become a communist country, and the importance of this event is acknowledged in this map.

 

Up/ Down signs

Symbol/ Icon

Peirce

Direction signage with the word Up/ Down written on it.

The struggle between the communist and capitalist ideologies.

 

Significance in the scene: These ads confuse Alice even more than she already is when she got totally lost in Wonderland. They are important dichotomies that are related to the polar conflict and the struggle between East and West and their respective ideologies.

 

This Way/ That way sings

 

 

Direction signage with the word This Way/ That Way written on it.

The struggle between the communist and capitalist ideologies.

 

Significance in the scene: These ads confuse Alice even more than she already is when she got totally lost in Wonderland. They are important dichotomies that are related to the polar conflict and the struggle between East and West and their respective ideologies.

 

 

3.2 Acoustic signs

 

                        3.2.1 Verbal

 

Alice meets Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (“How d’ ye do and shake hands”)
Sign
Type
Semiotician
Denotation
Connotation
Dee & Dum are convincing Alice to stay in the woods.
Sign
Peirce
A phrase used by Dee & Dum to convince Alice.
The danger of a war between Germanys in the case the U.S.A retained its territory in the newly created spheres of influence.
Significance in the scene: Dee and Dum, in order to convince Alice tell her: “If you stay long enough we might have a battle!” The two characters, as has been previously said, could represent the two parts in which Germany was divided after the war. They are trying to convince Alice to stay with them, which historically both parts wanted because it meant economic aid. However, there were always frictions between the Communists and the Capitalists and there was always the danger of a war being fought in the Germanys.

 

 
Advice from the caterpillar

The caterpillar’s poem (this poem, as presented in the movie, does not appear in the book)

Signal

Peirce

A poem by the caterpillar that talks about an Egyptian crocodile.

The fear of nationalist and Pan-Arab feelings were rising in North Africa.

 

Significance in the scene: The poem goes like follows: “How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail. And pour the waters of the Nile, on every golden scale. How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws. And welcomes little fishes in, with gently smiling jaws”. What was happening in 1946 and went on during the Cold War was the coup organized by the military, in which Abu Nasser took place. He became the Egyptian president and freed his country from foreign intervention. He was seen adverse to capitalist interests because he seized ports and nationalized natural resources and also because he supported other insurrectionist movements (Keylor, 2003). So the poem could very well be an analogy of this situation.

 

 

Alice’s Trial (THIS NARRATION DOES NOT APPEAR IN THE BOOK)

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

The queen’s intervention in Alice’s trial.

Symbol

Peirce

The queen, being unjust and self centered, intervenes in Alice’s trial so that she wins the case.

The human rights violations observed in the USSR.

Significance in the scene:

White Rabbit: The March Hare. Oh, oh, what do you know about this uh... unfortunate affair?

March Hare: Nothing

Queen: Nothing whatever?

March Hare: Nothing whatever!

Queen: That’s very important! Jury! write that down!

Alice: Unimportant, uh... your majesty means of course...

Queen: Silence! Next witness.

White Rabbit: The Dormouse!

Queen: Well...

Cards: Shhh!

Queen: What have you to say about this?

Dormouse: Twinkle, twinkle, little bat. How I wonder...

Queen: That’s the most important piece of evidence we’ve heard yet. Write that down!

 

First, it is important to remark that in the book, Alice has no trial, the King is just as powerful as the Queen and they both sentence to death those who challenge their views. In Disney’s films, a trial is followed and the Queen (the USSR) intervenes telling the jury what is important, omitting parts of testimonies and ordering to skip parts that may favor the accused. This may have a relation to the fact that to keep order, the USSR had a totalitarian government that quite often violated human rights. (Keylor, 2003)

 

                       

3.2.2 Musical (Songs)

 

Alice’s History lesson/ In a World of my Own

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

“In the World of my Own”

Signal

Olivo

A song in which Alice describes her ideal world.

The desire to get that ideal world where everything would be, as she desires.

 

Importance in the scene: In one part, Alice sings: “Everyone would have a dozen little bluebirds, within that world of my own.” Bluebirds symbolize the determination of resolution to opposing conflicts/paradoxes in life and have become a symbol of happiness. Alice ends her song singing: “I keep wishing it could be that way, because my world would be a wonderland.”

 

 

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

“In a golden afternoon”

Signal

Olivo

A song that describes how beautiful and talented are these flowers.

The soviet desire to show the world that their policies were good for the individual.

Significance in the scene: In the first place, a red rose directs the song, which is color of communism. At the beginning each flower wants to sing its own representative song, but the red rose brings order saying that they will sing “In a golden afternoon”, which is a song that will require the participation of all flowers, just as the communist policies. During the song they sing the following: “You can learn a lot of things from the flowers, but specially in the month of June.” Something that happened in the year of 1948, when Disney Studios started filming the movie, was that the Communist Information Bureau passed to the Communist International information that Tito, the communist leader in Yugoslavia, was associating with the West. As a result, in the month of June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from the COM intern (Communist International). Because it was considered to be a traitor of the Marxist-Leninist ideologies, the USSR decided to plan an economic blockade as a punishment. (Keylor, 2003) The flowers would be the soviets saying that the world can learn from their order and organization and that those that opposite them should “learn a punitive lesson”.

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

“We’re painting the roses red”

Signal

Olivo

A song that exposes the cards’ concern about the queen’s roses being white while these should be red

The Red Army’s obedience to the USSR and the responsibility the military felt to spread communism throughout the world.

 

Significance in the scene: The cards are concerned with the fact that the queen’s roses are originally white but she likes them red, so they have the responsibility of painting them before she realizes and get mad. This symbolizes the fact that the USSR did not like any opposing elements within the Soviet republics and that all ideologies should be in accord with the party. They sing: “Painting the roses red, we’re painting the roses red, we cannot stop or waste a drop, so let the painting spread. We’re painting the roses red; we’re painting the roses red! Painting the roses red, a bitter tear we shed, because we know they’ll seize to grow, in fact they’ll soon be dead. Noooo! And yet we go ahead, painting the roses red, red, red, red, red, and red, red, red. Painting the roses red, we’re painting the roses red...” One can see how the ideology of spreading communism is made fun of.

 

 

 

The Chase

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

The chase song

Symbol

Peirce

A weird song about a race and who might be the winner.

The arms race and the East-West struggle that both potencies strove for winning.

 

Significance in the scene: “Forward, backward, inward, outward, here we go again! No one ever looses and no one can ever win. Backward, forward, outward, inward, bottom to the top, there’s...” During the Cold War, both potencies reached what is known as “assured mutual destruction”, which refers to the fact that both countries, the U.S.A. and the USSR, could destroy each other, that is why direct confrontation, or hot wars, were avoided, because they knew no one could even win. Instead, peripheral wars in other countries, such as Vietnam, were financed and victories were claimed by the winning potency.

 

                       

3.2.3 Indexical

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Cheshire cat’s humming

Index

Peirce

A humming that indicates the presence of the Cheshire Cat

 

Oddness

Significance in the scene: There is a level of convention established throughout the movie around this sign, for when one listens to the tune, one knows the Cheshire cat is going to appear, and because the Cheshire Cat is a very odd character, the tune acquires this connotation. It may be related to the non-aligned ideology the Cat represents.

 

“I’m late!” tune

Index/ Symbol

Peirce

A tune that indicates the presence of the White Rabbit.

 

Lateness and stress

Significance in the scene: A certain level of convention is established around this sign too, for when the tune is listened to by the viewer, he knows that the Rabbit is about to appear, up to a extent that it acquires the sense of stress and lateness of the White Rabbit. It is related to the stress and time, which are represented by the White Rabbit, and they refer to the sensation of being running against time and the fear of direct confrontation.

 

 

                        3.2.4 Incidental

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Birdcall

Index/ Symbol

Peirce

Birdcall in the woods

Danger

Significance in the scene: When Alice gets lost in the Tulgey Wood; one can hear a dreadful birdcall that scares Alice even more. The wood is all in darkness and the music is very low, so it cuts right through it. It conveys a sense of danger. It is an index because it denotes the presence of a bird.

 

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Crowd yelling

Index/ Symbol

Peirce

A crowd yelling

Support

 

Significance in the scene: During the croquet game, one can hear the yelling of the cards, however, they are off the shot, which is why it is an index. They yell to support the Queen, denoting the approval of her actions, including sentencing people to death.

 

 

3.2.5 Special sound effects

 

Sign

Type

Semiotician

Denotation

Connotation

Stretching sound

Index

Peirce

Alice stretching into a giant’s size.

Variable juncture. Instability

Significance in the scene: Every time Alice stretches into a bigger a size or gets smaller, the situation tends to change into a totally different one. That is why the sound acquires a sense of change. Instability was a feature of the historical context of the time.

Falling sound

Symbol

Peirce

Alice falling into Wonderland

Transition. Entering into an unknown realm. Magic.

Significance in the scene: When enters the rabbit hole and falls down, one can hear a metallic sound indicating something magical is happening, however, it soon becomes slower to symbolize that she is falling. The tempo of the sounds adds a sense of mystery and some secrecy. Perhaps it is related to the daisies in the background, which are related also to secrecy and have been previously linked to espionage and information leakage.

 

Bell

Symbol/ Index

Peirce

Something appearing

Unexpectedly events.

Significance in the scene: Every time something appears in front of Alice, one can hear the sound of a small bell. One knows that something that will have an unexpected effect will appear. It could be related to the variable junctures in the historical context the movie was made in.

 

 

 

4. The changing complexity of Walt Disney’s ideology: How did it affect his view of society and his work?

 

There has been much controversy around Walter Disney’s work due to the fact that he was the founder of one of the most successful enterprises in the show business industry. He was able to reach large sectors of society, not only in the United States but also around the world, because his work included not only animation, in the form of either short clips or full-length films, but also live-action movies, comic books, theme parks, clothing, among many other things and because its powerful appeal. However, his artistic, cultural and political influences that one can interpret from his work (sometimes easier than others) have been left unrecognized. In this sense, there are three main difficulties found around Disney’s work, which have kept it away from correct understanding namely, why is it so appealing and what is its influence in our culture.

First is his enormous popularity. Due to the fact that his work has become a symbol of the “pop” culture, his ideology has been left out of critical and academic circles. This is because society generally tends to consider commercial success as totally opposite to cultural significance. The second, would the belief that his work no subject to interpretation because it is only a form with no consistent content within it. This follows from the fact that the production of Disney’s studios far exceeded historical, cultural and aesthetics synthesis because it occurred in several contexts and over a long period of time (more than thirty years of constant production), so that it has overwhelmed several analysis attempts as a whole. The last misunderstanding regarding Disney’s work is that due to unsuccessful attempts to holistically analyze his work, there have been vehemently contrasting reactions to Disney’s work in the Academy: While many think he was an aesthetic genius, others tend to consider his work as tasteless; some consider him a politically influential figure and others take him only as a populist artist, meaning that his work was directed to satisfy the demands of ordinary people, while art had generally been considered a form of high culture (Watts, 1995).

            In order to understand Disney’s work and his influence on society, one has to look at it taking populism and modernism as references, for these were the main ideological movements that shaped his ideology and therefore, his movies (Watts, 1995).

            Populism is the political philosophy and the agenda of the Populist Party in the U.S. formed in the 1890’s to represent the interests of farmers and laborers. It favored free coinage of silver and other reforms, and although it was disbanded in 1904, its ideology and agenda, overcame the disappearance of the political body. Such program was based on the perceived interests of ordinary people as opposed to those of a privileged elite, and it was reflected in a focus or emphasis on the lives such segment of the population that produced a concern in the form of arts and the thelos, or goal of policy-making. (Marsh ,1995)

            Disney’s early life influenced the formation of his ideology regarding populist politics. He was born in Chicago and was the son was the fourth son of Elias Disney, a wandering carpenter, farmer, and building contractor; and Flora Call, who had been a public school teacher. When Walter Disney was a boy, his family moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri, from which, in his own words, he “carried golden memories” of rural village life into adulthood. He enjoyed the countryside and liked to be near animals. It is important to remark that his father, Elias, was a declared socialist and that due to the influence of such ideology Disney imagined capitalism as a big, fat man that oppressed the laboring man. However, living in the U.S., such socialist tendencies fused with a democratic, nationalist sentiment to what is known as “producerism” (Watts, 1995), which is a populist revolution to urban industrial society and the power of money taking in consideration what Weber termed “the Protestant work ethic”, fused with republicanism and the sense of civic obligation. He was on the side of petty bourgeoisie (which includes small entrepreneurs and investors, as opposed to great landowners and bankers) and believed in a moral valuation of labor, in which property ownership, which was a product of hard work, and personal independence were the sources of good citizenship (Watts, 1995).

In this sense, what Walter Disney disliked the most in his early career, was what was called “American culture”, because it was based on what is now called “Victorian hierarchies”, in other words, bourgeois social structures that divided culture into high (comprising arts, literature and philosophy) and low culture (which involves any human doing); the former belonging to an elite and the latter to common people, while his ideal view was that culture, being universal, belonged to everyone, and therefore, each individual, especially in America, ought to have access to artistic expression. Much of his early work was inspired in this ideology out which it got its high appeal.

            Aesthetically, this idea was reflected in simple, realistic figures, which is the main characteristic of his early works. However, his ideas was also influenced by modernism, the “revolutionary” ideas and styles in art, architecture and literature that developed in the early 20th century as a reaction to traditional forms. Modernism offered Disney an insight into the human subconscious, into the fantasies and dreams of society, which is where the themes for his most influential animations come from, for example, the Three Little Pigs, and Funny Little Bunnies, which are representations of Roosevelt’s New Deal (Shortsleeve, 2004).

            After World War II, specifically in the year of 1941, Disney went through an unpleasant experience that changed his ideology permanently. During the Great Depression, Disney’s artists were plaid excellent wages, compared to the gross of the population, however, after the reestablishment of normal economic patterns, the most talented and main artists, received higher salaries, which produced complains among other employees (Shortsleeve, 2004). Soon, Disney had a strike undergoing in his studios. The artist took such happening very seriously and permanently hurt his social-populist tendencies, causing him to develop a more capitalist ideology. As a result, Secretary of State, Henry Morgenthau, assigned Disney to produce cartoons to help against the communist movement. The result of such errand was an animated short featuring Donald Duck urging the population to pay its taxes to help with the war (Watts, 1995).

            Walter Disney became one of the founding members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a denouncer of communist activities within Labor Unions; from in he acquired certain authority and denounced the leaders of the strike that affected his studios. He soon became an enemy of the “Red Menace” and thought, “the war (referring to Cold War) should be fought at home with guts and not with guns”. With such thought, he meant that democracy and liberty could be in danger within the U.S. It was in such ideological transition, that Alice in Wonderland was produced and, taking the fact that his various ideological changes were reflected on his work as a base, this film could have very well resulted from such intellectual switching.

One of the findings of the film analysis previously conducted, resulted in the pointing at several dichotomies between characters and situations, which is not the main characteristic of Lewis Carroll’s book in which the film is supposedly based on. The book of Alice in Wonderland, written in the 18th century, has an accent on time and the physical changes [(specifically the growing and decreasing of her body) See appendix 1], an event that happens over and over in the book. This has a direct relation to the romantic attraction Lewis Carroll felt for Alice Lydell, a real life girl for whom he wrote the book, and her struggle to become a fully mature woman, both mentally and physically. For example, in the book, the reader learns that the Mad Hatter is always drinking tea because he had a fight with Time, whom (he addresses him as a male) as a punishment damned him to live at 6 o’clock at any time. So, he recommends Alice to be respectful towards Time (Petersen, 1985).

         On the other hand, the movie, as been previously said, presents a series of dichotomies, stressed to a point where they become the most striking feature of the movie after the odd plot. It is important to address that the film’s script was written with the help of Aldous Huxley whose book, Brave New World, paints a dark vision of a future where individual emotion, creativity and impulse have been completely subordinated to the tyrannical state. During the 1950’s Huxley became a proponent of the controlled use of psychedelic drugs to liberate the mind (AE, 2004). It was from this influence where the surrealist aesthetic elements in Alice in Wonderland came from. Having this is a framework of reference, one will see the movie from a totally different perception.

         The movie opens with Alice, the young girl, and her sister, who is older. The setting in which the movie takes place at the beginning is Victorian England and later, it is Wonderland, a country from which the viewer does not know anything about, not even the time (one knows that Alice has traveled through space but one does not know whether if Alice has also traveled through time or not), being this another dichotomy.

Alice is presented as young and kind, while the Queen of Hearts is old and cruel. In relation to the Queen, the King is much smaller and even more unimportant. The caterpillar and Alice present a contradiction between Eastern and Western culture, and herself and the characters of Wonderland present a division between saneness and craziness.

Alice is also relaxed through most of the movie, while the Rabbit, which she chases, is always stressed and aware of his lateness. These accents over divisions and contradictions are one of the two aspects that justify the statement of the previously stated hypothesis.

Another difference between Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and that of Disney is the difference between characters. The former work introduces far less characters and the latter, and these are substantially different from each other. For example, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, do not exist at all in Carroll’s book, neither does the Walrus nor the Carpenter. The Cheshire Cat belongs to the Duchess, who does not appear in Disney’s film. Another important difference is that in Carroll’s work, the King has the same authority, status and power as the Queen, which does not happen in the film.

Such striking differences between the book and the film are the result of conscious manipulation of the story and plot by Disney, who most surely tried to the insert an underlying discourse within the movie, formed by the various narratives that make it up. That could be the reason of the augmented number of narratives (“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”, “The Walrus and the Oysters”, “The Garden of Flowers” and “The Tulgey Wood”). It is important to remark that most of the presented signs occur within these new narratives.

Taking the ideological switching as a base, and considering that his socialist and populist sympathies can be traced back to his early life, and influenced such an important part of his work, one may infer that he would not abandon such ideology; in other words, Disney would not attempt to make a clear cut in his ideology and replace it with a totally new one. It required a gradual change, which was accelerated by the challenge imposed to his procedurist view by the workers of his studio. However, once more, he could not totally abandon the populist idea of high culture being a right of everyone, which was a belief in bourgeois sectors of American society.

It was at some point in this ideological transition that his studios produced Alice in Wonderland, in which he could have inserted his sympathies for a capitalist system such as in the U.S. (including democracy and human rights) as well as his sympathies for certain points in the communist agenda, such as State sponsored high culture and a strong labor culture.

 

5. Conclusions

           

       When the movie was viewed for the first time attempting a formal analysis, the striking differences between the latter and the book by Lewis Carroll was obvious, being these the characters, the stress on time and the stress on differences respectively, and the message, which in the case of the Carroll’s work has already been well identified by researchers, and in the case of Disney being somewhat doubtful.

       The major problem regarding this investigation was the great variety of signs within the movie, which provide enough material; it has to be recognized, to support almost any interpretation. However, despite of this availability of semiotic resources, a formal research attempt, was conducted taking as a base Disney’s stronger ideological background: socialist-populism, procedurism and modernism, and the events that shaped the world in the historical context in which he lived, namely the Cold War, and his personal life, such as the strike in his own studios.

       It has already been explained how such political, historical and social juncture, compelled Walt Disney to undergo an ideological transition at the middle of which he could neither accept not reject totally any the only two contrasting ideologies that were characteristic of the time, namely capitalism and communism. In this sense Walter Disney could have had presented a satire regarding the complexity of the ongoing situation, which affected him personally. Such satire might very well be the underlying message of this movie, which at first sight presents a moralistic view that stresses the importance of prudence and of thoroughly reasoning before acting. But it happens that even under the light of such view, the possible underlying discourse with the purpose of mocking the political, social and economic juncture of the time, comes to one’s mind, for it was a time of great psychological tension due to the fact that the world’s population, especially in the United States, were conscious of the developing of nuclear warfare, a situation that demanded prudent diplomacy and very well thought of policies.

One cannot make a definite statement about the purpose of Walt Disney’s film Alice in Wonderland for only Walter Disney knew exactly what he wanted to say. However, one can, through formal research get close to defining the message within the movie. The results of this investigation, although cannot be taken as a definite truth, were successful for they helped to dissipate up to some extent, the three difficulties proposed by Watts (1995) when understanding Disney’s work and they shall be useful to future research regarding the work of the head of one of the most influential entertaining enterprises in history.

 

 

VI. Bibliography

 

Aldous Huxley. AE. Biography. Retrieved May 12, 2004 from http://www.biography.com

 

Flower meaning dictionary. OFA - an Association of Floriculture Professionals.. Retrieved May 12, 2004 from http://www.ofa.org

 

Lewis Carroll. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 13, 2004, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

<http://0-search.eb.com.millenium.itesm.mx:80/eb/article?eu=20839>

 

Keylor, William (2003). A world of Nations. The International Order since 1945. New York: Oxford.

 

Keylor, William. (2001). The Twentieth Century World History. New York: Oxford.

 

The Wonderful World of the Depression: Disney, Despotism, and the 1930s.. Kevin Shortsleeve. The Lion and the Unicorn; Jan 2004; Vol. 28, Iss. 1; pg. 1. Proquest.

 

Walt Disney: Arts and politics in the American Century. Steven Watts. The Journal of American History. Vol. 82. No. 1. Jan, 1995. Pg. 84. JSTOR

 

Time and Stress: Alice in Wonderland. Calvin R. Petersen. Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 46. No. 3. Jul, 1985. pg. 427. JSTOR

 

Marsh, David. (1995) Teoría y Métodos de la Ciencia Política. Madrid: Alianza.

 



[1]           The film, Alice in Wonderland, is constituted by a set of scenarios in which different short narratives take place. In order to make a more organized analysis, signs will be presented according to the narrative they signify in. These narratives constitute a paradigm, which will be analyzed at the end, for it would support or reject the proposed hypothesis.

[2]              See Appendix I for a summary of the book “The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

[3]           The meaning of these two characters as symbol is not very clear under this research. However, it is clear they have a relationship with time. The hare because of the name: March Hare, and the mouse because his movements are slow and he is very sleepy.

[4]              None of these signs appear originally in the book.







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