Alice in Wonderland, Now Streaming! (The 1903 Edition)

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Tim Burton takes his crack at Alice in Wonderland, starting tomorrow at theaters nationwide (read our spoiler-free review here), but in searching around the web for background information on his production, I stumbled upon this absolutely amazing short film – the very first Alice in Wonderland ever filmed, I believe, which hails from 1903. Yes, as in 107 years ago. It’s been restored by the British Film Institute National Archive, and what’s perhaps most striking is how far along some of the special effects were, even at the dawn of cinema itself.


At 5:13, check out the way they inserted the (rather bored-looking) Cheshire Cat, floating in the bushes. And then the tea party, at 5:52 – the mad tea party, positively freaky, in a David Lynch sort of way.

What’s clear from this clip is that cameras of 1903 were almost entirely immobile. Things were mostly static, and so the action was staged in a more theatrical, straight-ahead fashion. And there was a genuine fascination in capturing the fluidity of human movement. Watch how long the filmmakers fixate on the notion of Alice growing taller and shorter, and then how long the camera watches as Alice sits down to tea, and as the Queen of Hearts and her minions chase Alice down the road.

(More on Techland: A Practical Guide to … Traveling Between Worlds)

They are long, extended takes. Far too long. But I think back in cinema’s earliest days, when many of the shorts focused on crowd scenes and trains and people taking part in everyday activities, there was a fascination with this new machine that could document, record and recreate scenes of reality. Even if it’s just a mad tea party, or a girl caught in a room that she’s too tall to escape, there’s a simplicity to this version of Alice which is archaic, but in some ways refreshing. It’s just about the notion of watching, and regarding. And for all the advanced CG of Burton’s vision, I almost extracted as much enjoyment out of this 10-minute silent version.

It’s all about the imagination.

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