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 PigsSilly 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.
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
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.
“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.
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, singingflowers 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
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
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).
Main characters’ ideology
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.
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
He is very orderly (one can see in the layout
of his house). The Rabbit is very loyal and obedient to the Queen.
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.
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.
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)
A Woman older than Alice
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)
Dressed white rabbit
Time and stress
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 () 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.
Tweedle Dee and TweedleDum (“How d’ ye do and shake hands”) (THIS NARRATION IS
NOT PART OF THE BOOK)
Tweedle Dee and TweedleDum
A pair of fat twins that even though is old, dress
East and West Germany.
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)
A walrus tramp
The USSR’s bureaucracy/ the governing elite.
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.
The USSR’s population (the proletariat).
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.
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
The sun and the moon with the faces of Tweedle Dee and TweedleDum 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)
A group of butterfly that form a muffin from joining
The availability of food in the USSR.
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
A group of singing flowers
The flourishing of the arts in the USSR.
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 SergeiSlonimski 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
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
The Mad Hatter
A crazy old man with a very large hat, who likes to
drink a lot of tea
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
The countries that formed the British Commonwealth
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.
Queen of Hearts
Army of cards/deck
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
A raging plump queen
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
A short king with a squeaking voice
The moderate ideology within the USSR.
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.
represents a non-aligned country.
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.
A composite plant that has a flower head.
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.
Map of the world presenting only two great
The East-West struggle
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
Direction signage with the word Up/ Down written on
The struggle between the communist and capitalist
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
This Way/ That way
Direction signage with the word This Way/ That Way
written on it.
The struggle between the communist and capitalist
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
3.2 Acoustic signs
Alice meets Tweedle
Dee and TweedleDum (“How
d’ ye do and shake hands”)
Dee & Dum are convincing Alice to
stay in the woods.
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)
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)
The queen’s intervention
in Alice’s trial.
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
White Rabbit: The
March Hare. Oh, oh, what do you know about this uh... unfortunate affair?
That’s very important! Jury! write that down!
Alice: Unimportant, uh... your majesty means of course...
Silence! Next witness.
White Rabbit: The
have you to say about this?
Dormouse: Twinkle, twinkle, little bat. How I
That’s the most important piece of evidence we’ve heard yet. Write that down!
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
“In the World of my Own”
A song in which Alice describes her ideal
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.”
“In a golden afternoon”
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
“We’re painting the roses red”
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 song
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
Cheshire cat’s humming
A humming that indicates
the presence of the Cheshire Cat
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
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.
Birdcall in the woods
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.
A crowd yelling
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
Alice stretching into a giant’s size.
Variable juncture. Instability
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.
Alice falling into Wonderland
Transition. Entering into an unknown realm. Magic.
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
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.
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).
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).
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).
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 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 TweedleDum, 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 TweedleDum”, “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.
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
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.
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.
Huxley. AE. Biography. Retrieved May 12, 2004
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.
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.
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 CienciaPolítica. Madrid: Alianza.
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.
 See Appendix I for a summary of the book “The
Adventures of Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll
 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.
 None of these signs appear originally in the book.