Alice in Cartoonland: Childhood, Gender, and Imaginary Space in Early Disney Animation
The ‘plasmatic’ world of Mickey Mouse famously enchanted everyone from small children to European filmmakers and philosophers in the late 1920s and 1930s, but Disney’s attempts to use media technology to envision the freedom of childhood imagination can be traced back to his first successful series, the Alice Comedies (1923–1927), which featured a live-action girl who navigated animated wonderlands in her dreams and her imagination. Like Lewis Carroll’s original character, Disney’s Alice acts as a conduit into an irrational and magical world – the opposite of rational life in modernity. For Disney, Alice provided a way to both tie his own cultural productions to a long tradition of beloved children’s literature, and present his own vision of an animated wonderland as coming from the innocent perspective of a little girl. At the series’ outset, Alice’s trips to Cartoonland were motivated by live-action framing stories that depicted children at play, inviting audiences young and old to escape to a world of childhood imagination. But Disney didn’t just depict an idealized childhood in live-action film; he also used animation to gesture toward the existence of a universal, unassailable imaginary space. This emphasis on the child’s perspective in rendering the relationship between real and animated space speaks to larger cultural concerns at the time surrounding early education, psychological development, and the importance of protecting childhood in an increasingly rationalized world. This article examines the way childhood play is figured in both live-action and animated space in the first series of Alice cartoons – as mimicry, as performance, and as transformation of ‘real’ space – in order to show that Disney’s early work owed much of its impact to the ability of media technology to represent an idealized version of children’s imaginative play, and to evoke childhood perception through the use of animation.