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Mything in Action: Down the Rabbit Hole

Mything in Action: Down the Rabbit Hole

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Every now and then, I come across one of those lists of “the most important inventions in history.” Have you seen them? At the top, you’ll usually find such items as “air conditioning,” “flush toilets,” “the Internet,” and “antibiotics.” It’s hard to argue with any of those entries. But my own personal list would also include “movies on discs” (DVDs and now Blu-ray). Why? Because I love having the ability to re-watch my favorite movies at home and discover things I may not have noticed the first time around. That’s probably the same reason why we may choose to re-read our favorite books and re-experience our favorite attractions. Even if the content hasn’t changed, we often find new aspects to enjoy and appreciate.

And that’s the point of my Mything in Action column: to provide you with a whole new way to appreciate your favorite movies, TV shows, and theme park attractions. Every few weeks, I’ll help you recognize and decipher the “mythic source code” that’s hidden in plain sight in these creative works. Why is this relevant? Because mythic storytelling techniques (or the absence thereof) can explain why some stories connect with you in deep ways, while others simply fall flat.

An image from James Cameron's Avatar
Copyright 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
and Dune Entertaiment LLC. All rights reserved.

What does Avatar have in common with Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland (aside from the use of 3-D projection)? Keep reading and find out.

A lot of this involves a powerful storytelling model (or “paradigm”) known as “the Hero’s Journey.” It’s the driving “force” behind such blockbuster hits as the Star Wars, The Matrix, and Avatar. (If the concept of the Hero’s Journey is new to you, take a look at my "Hidden in Plain Sight"” introductory article and you’ll be up to speed in no time.)

Since the focus of Mything in Action is on the Hero’s Journey and other mythic elements in contemporary storytelling, most of my articles will be about relatively recent movies, TV shows, and attractions. Which brings me to the subject of our inaugural installment: Disney’s newest film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, which made its DVD and Blu-ray debut a few days ago.

Tim Burton’s 3-D version of the Alice stories is easily the most successful adaptation of the two classic Lewis Carroll books (the movie contains elements from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass ). It’s also a late vindication of Walt Disney’s own devotion to the stories, which he had been playing with since the 1920s. In fact, before he created Mickey Mouse, Walt and his brother Roy produced more than 50 short episodes of his silent Alice Comedies, based (very loosely) on Lewis Carroll’s stories and crudely combining live-action and animation.

Virginia Davis in Walt Disney's Alice Comedies short films
Walt Disney was making Alice movies
years before he created Mickey Mouse.
Copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

A few years later, Walt envisioned Alice in Wonderland as his studio’s first animated feature, but abandoned the idea to produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instead. Several more false starts followed, but it wasn’t until 1951 that Walt finally released his long-sought animated feature version of Alice. It’s not hard to imagine Walt’s disappointment when the movie failed to win over audiences in its original release.

Alice talks to the Cheshire Cat in Disney's animated classic "Alice in Wonderland"
Walt finally brought his animated Alice feature
to the big screen in 1951, but the audience response
was tepid at best. Copyright Disney All rights reserved.

Years later, in an interview with movie critic Leonard Maltin, directing animator Ward Kimball attributed the audience’s inability to connect with the movie, in part, to an empathy problem. “There’s no denying that there are many charming bits in our Alice,” he explained, “but it lacks warmth and an overall story glue.”

Alice sits atop a giant mushroom in Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade
Walt's Alice found a second life in his theme parks.
Copyright Disney All rights reserved

Though Alice eventually joined the pantheon of Disney animated classics and spawned such beloved theme park mainstays as the Mad Tea Party (teacups) and the Alice Electrical Parade float, a cloud of wistfulness continued to hover over the animated feature within the halls of the Disney Studios.

What had confounded Disney’s gifted storytellers—along with numerous others who had attempted to adapt Carroll’s books to the stage or screen over the decades—was the story’s highly episodic, nonsensical nature. On the page, the effect is enchanting and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious. Unfortunately, Carroll’s approach defies easy translation into dramatic form. This left the newest version’s writing-directing team of Linda Woolverton and Tim Burton with a daunting challenge. As Burton explained in a 2009 press conference, he realized they would have to give the movie "…some framework of emotional grounding" and "…make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events." Easier said than done.

Tim Burton on the set of his movie "Alice in Wonderland"
Tim Burton faced a daunting task when he decided
to breathe new life into Alice in Wonderland.
Copyright Disney All rights reserved

To her everlasting credit, Woolverton identified the core mythic events and character archetypes of the Carroll books and carefully mixed, matched, and re-arranged them within the structure of the classic Hero’s Journey for maximum impact. Key mythic moments—the first encounter with the white rabbit (Call to Adventure), falling down the rabbit hole (1st Threshold Crossing), the scenes with the caterpillar and the Cheshire cat (Meeting with the Mentor), traveling to the Red Queen’s castle (Approach to the Inmost Cave), stealing the Vorpal Sword from the Bandersnatch (Supreme Ordeal, Reward), and others—were cobbled together from bits and pieces of the original stories, while several iconic scenes were made up out of whole cloth. Meanwhile, many memorable but not-so-mythic scenes from the books—the lobster quadrille, the mock-turtle’s story, Humpty Dumpty—were left on the proverbial cutting-room floor.

Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
By incorporating and re-arranging key
mythic elements from the original stories,
Burton & company were able to re-energize Alice.
Copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Woolverton also recognized that the title character’s journey, like that of all heroes, would have to be more than a physical one; it would also need to be a journey of personal transformation. Thus, while Alice enters the rabbit hole feeling oppressed by the agendas of the people in her life, she emerges at the end of her “Underland” adventures feeling reborn, empowered, and ready to take control of her own destiny.

Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Having absorbed the lessons of her personal Hero’s Journey,
Alice emerges from her adventures with a new, more confident outlook.
Copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Woolverton’s mythic adaptation resulted in a coherent and emotionally satisfying storyline suitable for the big screen. But did she employ the Hero’s Journey knowingly…or unconsciously? I have no earthly idea. But I do know that, for the most gifted storytellers, the use of the Hero’s Journey can be intuitive. After all, generations of storytellers far and wide had successfully used the Hero’s Journey before the mythologist Joseph Campbell came along to identify it and give it a name. Those instinctual storytellers possess the uncanny ability to tap directly into their dreams—the psychological wellsprings out of which all myths are born. Just as importantly, they also have the presence of mind not to censor their wildest, most imaginative ideas.

Joseph Campbell's book A Heroes Journey
Storytellers were using the Hero’s Journey
long before mythologist 
Joseph Campbell gave it a name.

Whether Woolverton and Burton’s use of the Hero’s Journey was intentional or intuitive, the box office results reflect its amazing power to captivate audiences: as of June 1, Alice in Wonderland has grossed over a billion dollars, making it the fifth-highest grossing film of all time and (so far) the highest grossing film of 2010.

This concludes our first voyage together into the world of mythic storytelling. I’ll be back soon to help you “decode” more recent movies, as well as popular TV shows and theme park attractions from Disney and other creators. So stay tuned. And if you have any comments, feel free to chime in.

Adam M. Berger is president and senior writer at Berger Creative Associates, Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based creative writing and consulting firm serving the themed entertainment and attraction design industry. You can read more of Adam’s observations on mythic storytelling in popular entertainment at his blogsite, the Mything Link.com

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