43. The Walrus and the Carpenter(Alice in Wonderland)

Movie: Alice in Wonderland

Year: 1951

Some of the Key Players: Gerry Geromini (Director), Bill Peet(Storyman?), Tom Codrick and Don Griffith(Layout), Ward Kimball(Animator- Tweedle-dee, Tweedle-dum, the Walrus, and the Carpenter/ character designer), Marc Davis(Animator- Alice), Norm Ferguson, Hugh Fraser, Nick Nichols(Animators- the Walrus and the Carpenter), Fred Moore(Animator- oysters)

Synopsis: Alice runs into Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum in the forest and they entertain her with a story called the Walrus and the Carpenter or the Story of the Curious Oysters.

The Walrus and the Carpenter segment in Alice and Wonderland is one of the high points of the movie and a good example of cartoon craziness.  It’s irrelevant, satirical, and full of slapstick but stays true to that premise.  In a way it actually feels like a short inside a film because the most of the characters in the segment are only present in this sequence with the exception of brief cameos at the end of the film and the fact that there is a continuity within the scene that mostly is irrelevant to the plot.  Characters like Tweedle-dee, Tweedle-dum, the Walrus, and the Carpenter very much resemble vaudeville entertainers from the past and bring back that same type of wit and humor, with the help of animators such as Ward Kimball and Norm Ferguson. The writing, animation, and music is all top notch here and this song is a very memorable one.  All these virtues come together to earn this scene a much-deserved place on our countdown at number 43.

I don’t know who storyboarded this section but a guess would be that Bill Peet had some involvement with this scene because he was involved with most of the comic highpoints of the film.  Certainly the half with Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum looks like it could have come from his drawing board. I could see Joe Grant and Dick Huemer working on the half with the Walrus and the Carpenter because they were all about New York-flavored comedy and vaudeville. Although story isn’t really the focus here I find that the writing in this section is very clever and witty.  The lyrics and dialogue have strong use of wordplay and have a nice ring to them.  I recommend searching on Google and reading out loud the lyrics to the Walrus and the Carpenter because I guarantee you’ll cry laughing.  They make absolutely no sense but they sound great together and are so absurd they’re hilarious but in a smart way.  The song reminds me of Dr. Seuss books and lyrics in John Lennon songs (fitting because he himself was a big fan of the Walrus and the Carpenter in the book version.) These lyrics were written to be animated to and the combination is contagious.

A big part of what makes the section with Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum is that the absurdity of those two characters makes Alice’s reactions and responses to them very funny. Although Alice isn’t wild or crazy I find that she can be very funny because of the way she responds to the situations she’s in.  Normally lines like “Because I’m looking for a White Rabbit” or “Because I’m curious to know where he’s going” are pretty bland but she says them with such an attitude that they can be rather humorous.  The contrast between her stuffy, uptight attitude and the irreleventness of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum(who resemble vaudeville comedians) makes this scene very entertaining.  In this scene it’s worth noting that Alice is portrayed as an adolescent girl who’s very self-aware, intelligent, and perhaps has a bit of an attitude. As a teenager myself (17 at time of writing) I can indeed confirm that the way she carries herself and the way she acts her is very true to the way many teenage girls act.  This gives a sense of familiarity to the character and lets us connect with her (and if you’ve been a teenage girl put in a similar situation identify with her completely.) This contrasts with some other scenes where she is portrayed as a younger, more sensitive girl.  I prefer this version because it allows her to be a voice of reason in the film and remind us of how ridiculous the behavior of the other characters is. Also this allows her to like in this scene challenge the logic of the other characters and this serves as a source of good entertainment.  Last this part is very funny because it’s a satirical, exaggerated version of something we’ve all experienced in life.  At some point everyone has run into someone on the street who wasn’t very helpful to them, gave ridiculous answers, and kept going on about some random, irrelevant topic.  Of course there is no one in this world as nonsensical and absurd as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum but they are believable because they represent an emotion and personality trait we’ve all seen in real life.  It’s the exaggeration of that believable idea that makes the situation so humorous.

The second half of the sequence of course is the song The Walrus and the Carpenter and it is clearly a throwback to vaudeville in performance and tone. The strong part here story wise is that the characters are very consistent, rich, and archetypical.  The Walrus is the arrogant, dominant salesman while the Carpenter is his sidekick who does all the work.  This is a great relationship dynamic and the animators make the most of it in their cartoony, broad animation.  The big joke here is why anyone would take the Walrus’s statements and proposals seriously because if you listen they make absolutely no sense! In fact the Walrus doesn’t really make an objectional point at all but somehow he is able to convince all the other characters to get tricked into his evil scheme.   If they even did as much as listen to him they would know he isn’t really saying anything at all and that they’d get nothing out of following his instructions.  The reason of course is that the Walrus has a gift for public speaking and at persuading people to listen to him (promising something like ‘We’re cabbages and kings” must be a pretty big compliment in the Wonderland universe.) Depending on how you interpret the story you can say that there is a pretty dark undertone here.  I could very easily be convinced that the Walrus and the Carpenter represent Adolf Hitler and the Nazis or child molesters.  This type of symbolism in a Disney film may sound unbelievable but if you pay attention there are a lot of innuendos to those subjects.  A man convinces people to join in his evil scheme so he can get the power he wants,  a man using false promises to lure in vulnerable innocent children,  people being abused and taken advantage of….sounds familiar?  I actually thinking about it am rather curious if this symbolism/innuendo was purposeful or if it was a complete coincidence. Anyway it is easily overlooked because the premise of the film is so absurd that few viewers bother to analyze it very seriously. Keep in mind as well that the behavior and characteristics of cartoon characters is a caricature of that of humans, who are intellectually and behaviorally very complex, so it’s quite possible that this interpretation is a complete coincidence.

Almost no information or insight regarding the development of the Walrus and the Carpenter sequence has ever been made accessible (with the exception of the draft Hans Perk has posted on his site A Film LA) and very few interviews have ever even as much as mentioned it so delving into the production and development with an appropriate amount of depth is nearly impossible.  That’s a shame because there a quite a few intriguing questions that can be asked when looking at the draft. One enigmatic observation is that quite a few of the key animators on the sequence did little if anything else on the film.  Hugh Fraser and Fred Moore’s contributions to the rest of the film are minimal (Fraser did some of the cards while Moore did a little bit of the White Rabbit but not much at all) while Nick Nichols and Norm Ferguson didn’t do anything else at all.  We will never know the answer but my guess is that by this point these men weren’t able to produce a ton of footage and struggled with maintaining the facility needed to be key players at the studio. This is not to say they weren’t very good but I do feel speed and facility were part of the equation (certainly they were for Fergy, who got a lot less footage on this film than he did on Cinderella, where he got some nice chunks on the King, Lucifer, and Bruno. Even in his prime during the 30s and early 40s he was only capable of doing a limited amount of feet due to his poor draftsmanship.) I’m actually curious why Nichols was brought on the film at all just for this sequence because at the time he wasn’t even on the feature animation crew (he was directing shorts.) The second question I have is why Ferguson got a directing animator credit when he did so little footage (only 64 feet).  Did he get the credit because of stature and reputation or did he get it because he supervised the sequence in a similar fashion to the way he supervised the animation of Honest John and Gideon in Pinocchio? I’m actually curious if it was Fergy or Kimball who planned out most of the animation here.  Certainly the part of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum was supervised by Ward (he animated a good amount of it himself) but what about the Walrus and the Carpenter? The character designs of the Walrus and the Carpenter look like they were probably designed by Kimball but I’m curious what extent of involvement he had in this scene besides animating the parts he did.  He certainly worked very closely with John Lounsbery on the film, especially on the Mad Tea Party and on the Cheshire Cat. “Lounsbery loved Kimball’s work,” reflects Dale Baer. “They worked a lot together on Alice because they could be zany together.” One thing we do know, however, about the production of this scene is that Ward was been directed by his arch nemesis, Gerry Geromini.  While he was definitely not very popular with the animation crew in general Kimball in particular was very vocal about his feelings about Geromini and soon after made it clear to Walt Disney he refused to work for him. Interestingly enough Disney actually put the two together because of their animosity. He thought that conflict and unlikely combinations lead to good results.  In a sense he was proven right because many of Ward’s best scenes were directed by none other than Geromini.  Gerry was great at directing scenes that had a violent, aggressive, and irrelevant sensibility to them with this one being a perfect example.  There is excitement in every frame and it’s a scene that gets you caught up in the action.

One observation I’ve made about the Walrus and the Carpenter is that besides the part in the woods (which is clearly Blairesque in design) this scene has very little influence from Mary Blair.  She was incredibly influential in the development of the look and color scheme of Alice in Wonderland so it’s odd that the scenes illustrating the story have so little of her imprint in them.  This actually in a way works out because the visual setting of the story has a contrast to that of the rest of Wonderland.  The use of color is more conservative and the backgrounds are less graphic, making the characters stand out a bit more.  However the part in the woods is clearly from Mary’s imagination and boy does it look beautiful! Actually if you compare the visuals of those two scenes you’ll see the most important contrast by far.  Despite the fact it’s far from being Disney’s most serious film Alice visually is perhaps the darkest film the studio ever made, in a literal sense.  If you pay attention the colors and the lighting are all very dim and dark.  Mike Giamo explained this in an interview with John Cawley: “ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a beautiful example of great art direction. When you look at the layouts, even though they are very caricatured and stylized, you’ll find an extreme amount of control and restraint. In fact, a lot of the layouts are vignetted. In other words, there are dark areas around the sides and just a spotlight effect on the character or on a group situation. It’s one of the darkest films, literally, that Disney ever did. 
PINOCCHIO is dark in total mood but ALICE is actually the darkest film in terms of color and styling. For being such a wild film with such eccentric characters, it’s mood with this vignette style creates a focus and a nice balance for all the eccentricity that takes place, so I really respond to that film in the way that it balances out. In blending layout with color and design, it’s one of the most readable films, because you’ll notice that the background values are very, very dark so that the characters become luminous and stand out. Almost in every scene you’ll see that the characters pop forward where the backgrounds, as eccentric as some of them are, tend to recede. I respond to that film very, very much.”  Among the few layouts not vignetted though is that of the Walrus and the Carpenter.  The backgrounds are very bright and the layouts are very lit up. Compare this with the cold colored, dark backgrounds behind the scenes with Tweedle-dee, Tweedle-dum, and Alice and you’ll see what I mean.  Tom Codrick and Don Griffith did the layouts were both parts of the sequence, which makes sense because they laid out almost all of Geromini’s scenes during this period. One thing those two layout men were great at doing was spacing in the layouts and using the architecture to suggest mood and feelings.  Pay attention to the layouts here and you’ll see what I mean.

a Mary Blair Concept art piece used for developing this scene

In this scene Alice is primarily animated by Marc Davis with the exception of a few long shots by Don Lusk.   Davis’s animation here is incredibly sophisticated and refined but has a nice, organic feel to it and is even timing wise instead of overly complex and all over the place.  This makes his shots feel natural and not take too much away from the crazy, broad animation of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum while still making the character interesting and entertaining.  Like said above Marc’s Alice is mature, aware, and intelligent instead of naïve and sensitive.  This is shown in the way he handles her and in every pose she’s always deep in thought. Davis (who specialized in communicating story, character, and narrative in animation) gives the girl a strong presence and emphasizes the attitude in her personality. An example of this is a great shot of Alice where she gets up and says “Well my name is Alice and I’ve really got to get going….” while flattening down her dress.  This is a great storytelling pose and the WAY in which she pulls down her arms and flattens her dress while giving an annoyed face communicates that she is a girl who speaks her mind and can be a little stuck up at times. It is a very nice touch and adds a level of believability to the performance.  Another great shot is where she says “Because I’m following a White Rabbit. Because I’m curious to know where he’s going.” While this may seem like a very simple shot it is a great acting scene because of the complexity of emotion and behavior.  The nuances in the animation (the eyebrow, the way she points her finger, the way she holds her shoulder, the way she moves her head into their faces) make this scene believable because the way she’s acting is just the way teenage girls with an attitude answer questions to adults when they obviously don’t wan to bother talking to them at all.  These details in the acting let us know who Alice is and what she is thinking. I definitely recommend putting these shots on your freeze frame list! I love the clarity in Marc’s work and here is a perfect example. Last I really like the way he handles the live action here.  Davis always used the photostats very loosely and would while still capturing the essence of the action caricature it and expand off of it.  While the acting and actions stay true to the general premise of the live action you’ll see that he adds on ideas and interprets it loosely to retain liveliness in the performance.  On the other hand the few shots Lusk did show him being much tighter and more conservative with the live-action.

Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are split between Ward Kimball and Cliff Nordberg (Kimball does the introductory acting scenes, Nordberg takes over  after the scene on the log, and then Kimball comes back when they start telling the story.) The two animators play off each other well and the characterization is relatively consistent. There are a few distinct differences in their scenes though.  Ward’s animation is very solid, uses graphically strong poses, is graceful, and is rhythmically timed while Cliff’s is more squishy, elastic, and energetic.  Part of this is Kimball was a much stronger draftsman than Nordberg. However the later animator maintains the creative, spontaneous spirit and energy set up before him. All the animation of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum throughout the scene is incredibly funny and entertaining.  Even things as subtle as a nice piece of timing or a movement in an eyebrow are sure to bring a laugh.  Ward’s animation has a direct sense of humor to it and he always finds ways to make it just a bit more sarcastic and satirical.  However his animation here although cynical and sarcastic is sincere in its own way because of how emotionally honest and direct it is. This is a bit hard to describe but study his animation of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum and you’ll see that there is indeed substance and sincerity to the broad acting and emotional complexity of the characters.  These characters are who they are and are true to that premise, which makes them sincere characters.  I particularly love the fast, rhythmic timing Kimball uses on the duo and find the speed of it makes them even funnier.  Timing is so important to defining who a character is as well as how they should be perceived and the animator does a great job of that here.  Here the fast, quick timing lets us know these are ridiculous, stagy characters who are eccentric and all over the place allowing us to get caught up with them visually and emotionally.  Ward’s background as a musician is helpful here because his scenes are so precisely timed and fit with the music perfectly.  There isn’t a single beat or melody that is missed in the texture of the timing.  I wonder how good of a choreographer Kimball would have been because he was so great at timing dance scenes and finding visual gestures to precisely match the music.  While Cliff’s scenes don’t have the precision or draftsmanship of Ward’s they are still very entertaining and are consistent with the acting choices already established.  I love the kinetic energy that flows through his work here and am very impressed by the quality of the scenes he does with Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.

When the song starts the animator roster changes and up until the scene in the tavern the key animators are Norm Ferguson, Hugh Fraser, Nick Nichols, and Fred Moore. The only exceptions are one close-up of the Carpenter (done by Wolfgang Reitherman), the last line on the beach(done by Cliff Nordberg), and some long shots of the oysters walking(done by Judge Whitaker.) Fergy is responsible for the key acting scenes of the Walrus and the Carpenter and this was some of his last noteworthy work done at the studio before being fired in July 1953 after doing some underwhelming work on short subjects.  This is good casting because he understood vaudeville-style performance very well and was a great showman.  Fergy’s animation in this scene has a nice tempo to it and is strong in weight.  One of his strongest shots is the one of the two walking up at the beginning. It is an excellent walk and the weight defines who the characters are (highly recommend putting it on your freeze frame list.) I particularly like how Fergy exaggerates the weight, arrogance, and cynicism of the Walrus and can tell us so much about the personality before we even here him speak.  There’s a good arc of action in the walk cycle and the movement says everything.  Another good touch in that scene is how he exaggerates the features on the Carpenter’s face to show he’s a crazy, cynical guy who has been fooled into believing the Walrus actually is a respectable man.  Two other great Norm scenes are the shot of him reacting to the whistle(it’s very clear and shows us exactly what the Walrus is thinking) and the one of him making his proposal to the oysters(it’s very broad and satirical.) As always he times into his thinking drawings very well and his broad gestures and acting choices are brilliant. However while there are many things I like about Ferguson’s work here there are definitely a few aspects which are open for criticism. The most noticeable is that his draftsmanship here is very sloppy and oftentimes he is a little too off model (the worst being the scene where the Walrus lights his cigarette.)  Also from a technical perspective his scenes are sometimes a bit clumsy and sloppy. However ultimately I find his work here is good if not phenomenal.  Nick Nichols does a lot of the dialogue scenes and his draftsmanship is without question an improvement over Fergy’s scenes.  He emphasizes the wrinkles in the character’s faces more and he does some great acting poses(my favorite being the one of him holding a cigarette and glancing a pissed off look to the Carpenter who has almost jeopardized the believability of his proposal by mentioning having a bit.)  There’s a really nice vitality to his stuff here and it’s a shame he didn’t do more in the feature. Hugh Fraser does a lot of the action scenes on his characters and his stuff is so great in movement! The man can really move anything around with animatable shapes and really captures the spirit of the action.  His scene of the Walrus running up and whacking the Carpenter in the head is a good one to freeze frame when learning about acting through movement and sharp timing.  Fred Moore animates the oysters and his stuff is charming and appealing.  He uses squash and stretch well here and his proportions are adorable.

The scene in the tavern is animated by Ward Kimball(who focuses more on the Walrus) and Wolfgang Reitherman(who focuses more on the Carpenter.)  Their stuff has a contrast to the previous work on the characters because it is much more angular and their poses are more graphically structured.  Ward’s lip sync and mouth shapes on the Walrus are absolutely perfect and are consistent with who he is as a character.  He also does a nice acting scene where the Walrus is pretending to cry and nervously tries to get out of the tavern before the Carpenter realizes he’s been screwed. The nervousness and reaction he gives is true to how he would act in that situation.  The pose of him walking out while sweat is dripping down his body is a terrific pose.  Woolie’s scenes of the Carpenter are strong in draftsmanship and the action has a nice strength to it.

I love this scene because I love how satirical and witty it is.  Every time I watch it I can appreciate the humor in a completely different way and it’s so well thought out it never gets old to me. Also I like it because it’s so crazy and is hilarious.  The music, writing, acting, timing, and animation comes together in a cohesively-entertaining way and is always a joy to study.  These artists were very clever people and I like their sensibilities. Thank you to everyone who worked on the Walrus and the Carpenter sequence for helping contribute to the creation of such a great moment in Disney history.

Work Cited:

My Interview with Dale Baer

John Cawley’s Interview with Mike Giamo

John Canemaker’s Interview with Marc Davis

John Canemaker’s Interview with Ward Kimball

An Interview with Bill Peet in Hogan’s Alley

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4 Responses to “43. The Walrus and the Carpenter(Alice in Wonderland)”

  1. I always loved that scene of the Carpenter getting mad with his face turning red. It reminds me a little bit of Rod Scribner’s work. Great sequence in my opinion and terrific blog post. A lot of great animator on that sequence, but it’s a shame that this was the only sequence with animation by Norm Ferguson. Notice how there are old timers that work on this sequence, inc Fergy and Fred Moore.

  2. The Walrus is actually smoking a cigar, not a cigarette. Other thatn that, his series of blog posts is amazing in its analysis. Keep up the good work!

  3. This sequence is a lot of fun. About the Alice moment you mentioned, what I like about it is how she starts off sitting on the ground with her dress all ruffled up and her hair covering her face. She throws her hair back and straightens herself up a bit before standing up. It’s a really nice touch.

    I hope you cover the Down The Rabbit Hole sequence at some point, as it is truly an amazing sequence.

  4. Raúl Marco Says:

    I love this scene and this film, but why the song is so similar to the “yellow brick road” song?

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