The Ten Best Alice in Wonderland Films

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This year marks the 110th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s death, and though it might sound a bit macabre, this may nevertheless be a good celebratory occasion to review the best Alice in Wonderland film adaptations.

Perhaps more fascinating than Alice in Wonderland itself is the mind from which the story sprang. Contrastive to his work, Carroll, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), was said to be a rather dry and stiff man. As a mathematician and logician at Christ Church Oxford, he was orderly and meticulous, maybe what would now be characterized as bordering on OCD. But more than adhering to rules and order, he loved to break them, twist them, and turn them around completely until he arrived at the insane world that is Wonderland. Yet, saying that Wonderland is only a trippy celebration of chaos and disorder would be wrong. Alice in Wonderland very cleverly challenges the taken-for-granted logic of the adult world by using a child as a heroine who questions and doubts everything. In this, Carroll brilliantly captures a child responding to a world that has rules and logic that she, other than adults, does not yet fully understand and accept as ‘normal’.

Carroll loved the world of children and had a lot of friendships with them. But one child seemed to incite something in him that no other children had before. Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Like Alice, she was pushy, imperious, and liked to boss everyone around, often shaking the fringe out of her face with a self-important expression. On the very warm and sunny afternoon of July 4th 1862, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took Alice and her sisters Lorena and Edith up the river Thames to Godstow. Over and over, Alice had pleaded Carroll to tell him a story and now, backed up by her sisters, she asked him again. And so, somewhat unwillingly, Carroll began the story that would make him one of the most-read children’s authors of all time.

Alice in Wonderland is an incredibly rich and versatile literary work so the options in making a filmic adaptation are endless. In this review, I have tried to avoid addressing the elephant in the room in the shape of classics and blockbusters such as Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Alice’s adult revisits to Wonderland in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Into the Looking Glass (2016), with the desire to shine some light on more obscure and forgotten but nevertheless marvelous Alice adaptations. There is nothing snobbish behind this: I have enjoyed the Disney classic and both of Burton’s films tremendously but sometimes it is more interesting to move away from the Queen of Hearts and study the soldiers silently painting the roses instead.

As for the list itself, because I found that the films are, in their own terms, each so unique and different, it felt wrong to bring any hierarchical order to the list. So I decided to take the King of Hearts advice, and to “begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” As such, the films are listed in chronological order by the year of their release and are provided with a Queen-of-Hearts-ranking.

 

Alice in Wonderland (1903) – Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow (♥♥♥♥)

This 9-minute silent film is the first Alice adaptation ever made, and was successfully restored by the British Film Institute in 2010. When it was released in 1903, it was the longest film yet produced in Britain, running about 12 minutes. Because of its length, the film was not suitable for theatres who preferred a variety of short clips on different subjects, so the scenes were sold individually. There were no professional actors involved in this production. Alice is portrayed by Mabel Clark who normally acted as the studio’s secretary and errand girl. Hepworth himself played the frog footman while his wife filled in the role of the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts. The only one who launched a successful acting career after this production was the family dog, Blair, who became famous as the star of Rescued by Rover (1905)[1].

Notable about this production are the special effects which are for that time quite impressive. Alice’s shrinking scene is seamlessly montaged, and the Cheshire cat is portrayed by a real-life cat artfully projected into the bushes. Though with the right music the film is enjoyable, it is Carroll’s wit and puns that are really conspicuous by their absence. With the characters being muted, some scenes are just comically monotonous. For a solid minute – remember that the film is 9 minutes long – we see poor Alice nearly developing carpal tunnel syndrome from waving her handkerchief to draw the attention of a clearly disinterested Cheshire Cat. Still, in all its simplicity the film is quite enchanting.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1903)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1931) – Bud Pollard (♥♥♥)

This 45 minute film was the first Alice adaptation with sound, and for that reason alone deserves a place in the list. Pollard’s adaptation was a low-budget production which becomes clear from the uninspiring camera work and the clumsy performance of the amateur actors, which elicited sympathy among Mordaunt Hall, a reviewer of the New York Times who wrote at that time: “poor little Alice had to go through the ordeal of coming to shadow life in an old studio in Fort Lee, N. J., instead of enjoying the manifold advantages of her rich cousins who hop from printed pages to the screen amid the comforts of a well-equipped Hollywood studio.”[2] Luckily, the production doesn’t cast a shadow on the star of the film, Ruth Gilbert, a 1930s version of Jennifer Aniston, who, with permanently wide eyes and an inexhaustible array of facial expressions, is an utterly captivating Alice. Even outnumbered by the most bizarre creatures, she manages to catch the audience’s eyes throughout the entire film. Yet, no matter how Gilbert steals the show with her sincere impressions and the mesmerizing cadence of her voice, the film was inevitably dominated by the 1933 big-budget Hollywood adaptation from Paramount Pictures.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1931)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1933) – Norman Z. McLeod (♥♥♥)

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In the 1930s, the centenary of Lewis Carroll’s birth caused a wave of “Alice fever” on both sides of the Atlantic where the number of Alice films, plays, songs, and puppet shows skyrocketed, so Hollywood couldn’t stay behind. With a generous budget and an all-star cast, including W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper, viewers can revel in the Golden Age Hollywood nostalgia of McLeod’s adaptation. Combining elements from both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the film is with its lavish décor and boisterous music quite phenomenal. Though the production seemed to be bound for success, the film was a notable flop at the box office. Perhaps you can say that this was because the stars who were supposed to draw in the audiences were as Wonderland’s creatures appallingly unrecognizable: Cary Grant’s handsome and youthful features were muzzled by the greasy cow’s head of the Mock Turtle (see above), and, as the White Knight the usually suave Gary Cooper resembled a medieval version of Sega’s Dr. Eggman – though W.C. Fields, known for his heavy-drinking and misanthropic comic persona, is the perfect Humpty Dumpty if there ever was one. The film made critics doubt whether a live-action fantasy with strange-looking characters could make for a successful film – criticism which was proved wrong by The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Nevertheless, Hollywood did not dare to go for another live-action Alice adaptation and left it untouched until Tim Burton picked it up again 80 years later.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1933)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1949) – Dallas Bower and Lou Bunin (♥♥♥)

This French (!) adaptation met some disputes upon its release. The film was kept out of Britain because the Queen of Hearts was said to look too much like Queen Victoria. Across the Atlantic, producer Lou Bunin was fighting with Disney Studios who were at that time working on their full-length animated version of Alice. Disney feared that Bunin’s “inferior” Alice would deceive the public into going to see the wrong picture, and “spoil” their take on Alice. Clearly enjoying this battle over Wonderland, Time Magazine wrote at that time a three-part article series in which they likened Disney and Bounin to Tweedledee and Tweedledum: “Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle; for Tweedledum said Tweedledee had spoiled his nice new rattle.”[3] Eventually, Disney lost the case and was sentenced with bad reviews and a disappointing box office.

The film can be seen as the first Alice adaptation to experiment with live-action and animation. Clearly avoiding the danger of scaring its viewers, Wonderland’s creatures are portrayed by slow-stop animated puppets that aren’t disturbingly creepy for a change, which makes for a welcoming retreat from the puppet horror of other adaptations. Another uplifting element in this film are the musical songs, and especially Carol Marsh’s (Alice) beautiful singing voice is the real dealmaker of this film.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1949)

 

Alice in Wonderland (1966) – Jonathan Miller (♥♥♥♥♥)

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Miller’s Alice was broadcasted in the centenary year of the publication of Carroll’s novel and was not aimed at children – its screening was scheduled at 9 pm, when most children would have been in their beds. The film was probably too artsy for them anyway: with its black-and-white cinematography, the film departs from the colourful extravagance usually associated with Alice in Wonderland. Likewise, Miller strictly avoided using special effects, grand set designs, and imposing costumes to capture the surreal dream-like quality of Carroll’s novel. “I like great simplicity in all my work,” Miller explains. “I don’t like lots of florid detail.” Indeed, the people who Alice meets are simple Victorians who don’t need Tenniel-inspired funny masks and animal costumes to show off their insanity. For Miller, stripping down the characters to make them resemble Alice’s contemporaries allows for a new interpretation of Alice in Wonderland: “Once you take the animal heads off, you begin to see what it’s all about. A small child, surrounded by hurrying, worried people, thinking ‘Is that what being grown up is like?’” In her lucid trip into the world of adulthood, Alice, played by a frizzy-haired Anne-Marie Mallik, is the only voice of reason and beholds Wonderland’s doings with a haughtiness in her voice that is not entirely misplaced: the characters are – like some adults Miller seems to suggest – self-important but substantially silly. With the trance-like sound of Ravi Skankar’s sitar guiding us through Wonderland, Miller’s Alice is a very trippy yet sophisticated take on Carroll’s novel.

Watch Alice in Wonderland (1966)

 

Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977) – Claude Chabrol (♥♥♥♥)

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Though there are no Cheshire Cats, White rabbits, and Mad Hatters in this film, Chabrol’s Alice is on her own otherworldly adventure where she meets the strangest figures. This film has a Hitchcockian setting: Alice Carol leaves her husband whom, for unspecified reasons, “she can’t stand anymore.” On her way to freedom, her car breaks down leaving her stranded in the rain at an old mansion. The master of the house invites her to stay the night to have her car fixed. Alice is plagued by suspicion, yet she accepts. The next day, Alice finds the mansion completely abandoned. Driving off in her repaired car, she notices that a tree trunk is blocking her way out so reluctantly she heads back to the mansion. There she meets a young man who tells her that there is simply no way out and that she has to save her strength because “the nightmare has only just begun.” And so, Alice falls into a rabbit hole where all sorts of nightmarish and hallucinatory events take place. Repeatedly she tries to escape but she always ends up back at the mansion.

The 70s are considered to be the low point of Chabrol’s career, though it is clear that here he was at his experimental highpoint. Alice ou la Dernière Fugue is a haunting philosophical exploration of the grounds between reality and dream, life and death. The criticism that the film received upon its release was mainly pointed at the casting of Sylvia Kristel as Alice. Kristel had recently become a worldwide star through her role in the Emmanuelle films and Chabrol was said to ride the wave of the film’s erotica, having her appear completely naked in one scene. However, this does grieve injustice to Kristel performance: as Alice she faces the reality of her new world with admirable soberness and nonchalance, sometimes even visibly bored by the tediousness and futility of her escape attempts. Alice ou la Dernière Fugue is a captivating and ungraspable film that leaves the viewer puzzled long after the end credits.

Watch Alice ou la Dernière Fugue (1977)

 

Alisa v Strane Chudes (1981) – Efrem Pruzhansky (♥♥♥♥♥)

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On July 4th 1867, the day on which Carroll had told the tale of Alice in Wonderland to Alice Liddell exactly five years earlier, Carroll’s close friend and colleague Henry Liddon said, “we should go together to Russia.” Carroll accepted Liddon’s invitation and the two gentlemen embarked on a journey that would later become the first and last time Carroll departed England. His travels are recorded in Russian Journal which was first commercially published in 1935. Though he was, as a reverend, officially sent to Russia as a supporter of the reunification of Eastern and Western Churches, during his trip Carroll couldn’t resist to occasionally revel in the curiosities and oddities that Russia brought him. This included jotting down Russian words that were, for the English tongue, monstrously impossible to pronounce, one of his favourites being “Zashtsheeshtschayjushtsheekhsya” which loosely translates to “defenders”. Carroll’s fascination for Russia is entirely mutual: Alice in Wonderland has been a greatly influential work in Russian literature. The novel was first published in 1879 as Sonya in a Kingdom of Wonder, and the identity of the translator and the illustrator, who were not mentioned in this edition, remains to this day an object of speculation. Other translations followed, often made by famous Russian authors such as Anton Chekov, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuil Marshak.

It seems that Alice crosses geographical borders as well as political ones. This 30-minute animated adaptation was created by Soviet Ukrainian film studio Kievnauchfilm “on commission of the USSR State Committee of TV and Radio Broadcasting.” At first sight, the animation may look Japanese but it soon becomes clear that the creatures from Alisa v Strane Chudes are all drawn in their own artistic style: the Cheshire cat resembles Andy Warhol’s sketches of his own cat, Sam: the Mad Tea Party crew looks remarkably simplistic with basic colours and little detail, in stark contrast with their wacky personalities; and the Queen of Hearts is made up of a beautiful assemblage of metallic textures and patterns. Alice herself seems to be modelled after a Victorian porcelain doll, bathing in all kinds of warm colours and hues. Equally stunning is Alisa v Zazerkale (1982), Pruzhansky’s adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Watching Alice in Wonderland in Russian is a strange yet stimulating experience, and perhaps the perfect way to revive Carroll’s epic journey.

Watch Alisa v Strane Chudes (1981) (Alice in Wonderland)

Watch Alisa v Zazerkale (1982) (Through the Looking Glass)

 

 

Alice at the Palace (1982) – Elizabeth Swados (♥♥♥♥)

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Before Meryl Streep was rocking blue overalls on a Greek island in Mama Mia! (2008), she was rocking pink ones on Broadway. This vaudeville revue-style interpretation of Carroll’s story is probably one of the most creative ones. Alice at the Palace is a true music extravaganza. From Gospel to 60s folk music, there is no genre that didn’t make it to the shortlist of this American musical odyssey: Bill the Lizard is a member of a barbershop sextet; the Duchess’s baby scats its way through a jazz routine, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong-style; and the Mad Tea party is a good ol’ country music fest. Curiouser and curiouser is that the lyrics consist nearly entirely of Carroll’s original text and dialogue. Meanwhile, Streep’s Alice enjoys her musical trip through Wonderland with high kicks, twirls, and quirky dance moves. Another star in this production is Debbie Allen. In her pre-Fame era, she gives us a Queen of Hearts with the appeal of a soul diva: arrogant, temperamental (“OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!”) but nevertheless irresistibly ravishing.

Despite the charming cast and its clever use of music, Alice at the Palace has largely fallen into oblivion – especially on Streep’s portfolio it seems to have been scribbled away in some forgotten corner. Completely unjustified, I would say: even though it, admittedly, may require a taste for musicals, the production is visibly made with passion and joy, making it an unmissable Alice adaptation.

Watch Alice at the Palace (1982)

 

Dreamchild (1985) – Gavin Millar (♥♥♥)

Carroll’s friendship with seven-year-old Alice Liddell, for whom he wrote Alice in Wonderland, has always been a great topic for a heated dinner table debate: was his admiration for Alice just innocent affection, or was there something more sinister luring beneath the surface? Carroll photographed Alice obsessively, with different outfits and different poses as if she was his real-life doll, and each picture seems so intimate that it feels as though you’re intruding on something. Carroll was not secretive about his fascination with photographing little girls, ideally nude. To Gertrude Thompson, an artist who made sketches of (naked) girl faeries and nymphs, he wrote: “I confess I do not admire naked boys in pictures. They always seem… to need clothes, whereas one hardly sees why the lovely forms of girls should ever be covered up.” Though it should be said that Victorians were obsessed with children who symbolized innocence, frankness, goodness, and purity, this attraction to all that was innocent, as Katie Roiphe claims, might have had some sexual undertones: “Children were safe, and in their safety, certain thoughts – dirty, sensual thoughts – were allowed to flourish.”[4]

Whether sexual or purely sentimental, for Dreamchild’s Alice her friendship with Carroll caused lifelong issues. We see an elderly and widowed Alice, brilliantly portrayed by Coral Browne who won a BAFTA award for this role, visiting New York to receive an honorary degree on the centenary of Carroll’s birth. Alice’s memory of Carroll (played by a quiet and reserved Ian Holm) continues to haunt her in the form of flashbacks and dreams. Though never expressed sexually, Carroll’s love for Alice reached far beyond the usual expressions of kindness. In retrospect, for Alice this left behind a frightening aftertaste on Wonderland. The creatures – by the curtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – appear in Alice’s dreams as agonizing creations. Though his admiration for Alice was rather extreme, Carroll is no monster – rather a tragic, stuttering figure who leaves Alice (and the viewer) torn between confusion, contempt, pity, and sympathy.

 

Neco z Alenky (1988) – Jan Švankmajer (♥♥♥♥♥)

A taxidermist’s nightmare – or dream? After the short film Jabberwocky (1971), which with a butt-slapping hand repeatedly interrupting the opening credits probably has one of the most notable opening scenes in film history, Czech surrealist film director Jan Švankmajer had enough courage to take on a 1.5 hour adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Criticizing previous adaptations which generally read Carroll’s novel as a fairytale, Švankmajer realized his Alice as a dream: “between a dream and a fairy tale there is a fundamental difference. While a fairy tale has got an educational aspect – it works with the moral of the lifted forefinger (good overcomes evil), dream, as an expression of our unconscious, uncompromisingly pursues the realisation of our most secret wishes without considering rational and moral inhibitions, because it is driven by the principle of pleasure.”

Indeed, Neco z Alenky (1988) is far removed from the Tim Burton/ Disney pleasantries. There’s nothing cutesy and quirky going on here: the roles of Wonderland’s normally charming characters, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, and the Caterpillar, are filled by a collection of grotesque stuffed animals, puppets, and clay dolls that scare the living daylight out of you. It might be hard to stomach the occasional creepiness, but it’s worth it. The film is absolutely stunning, making use of very basic visuals and slow-stop motion to capture the insane world of Wonderland, which makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Watch Neco z Alenky (1988)

 

Endnotes

[1] http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/974410/

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B02E5DB1430E03ABC4051DFB467838A629EDE

[3] Battle of Wonderland. Time, 7/16/1951, Vol. 58, Issue 3

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/29/gender.uk

 

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By Unpopular Demand: a Review of Alfred Jodocus Kwak (1989)

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Here it is: your hip, new, anime review. And yes, while Alfred Jodocus Kwak isn’t all that hip or new, it does technically qualify as an anime. There’s your little tidbit for the day.
This, among other facts, is part of the interesting history behind this show (which I will abbreviate to AJK for convenience’s sake) which not a lot of people are familiar with. Of course, a TV-show that was successful for a period in the Netherlands over 20 years ago isn’t expected to be all that en vogue anymore. But since AJK is such an exemplary piece of a unique TV-period, it would be a shame to see it fall into oblivion. That, and Alfred is absolutely adorable. Look at his little shawl!
Luckily, there’s people like me who have a soft spot for these types of shows, and put them up on YouTube for the progeny to witness it. I recently decided to rewatch it through said medium, having seen most of the episodes as a kid. And I’m glad for doing so, because the experience was quite different from what I actually remembered. These are my findings.

So, what’s it about?
The cartoon centers around Alfred J. Kwak, a duckling living in the fictional world of Great Waterland, alongside all different kinds of animal friends. He loses his family shortly after his birth, and is raised by a friendly mole named Henk. As Alfred and his friends grow up, they have all sorts of adventures.
Simple stuff.

So, how does this show qualify as an anime?
Well, it’s up to you to decide, really. Some people get picky on semantics (especially in the deep, beyond-redemption ends of the anime-fandom), but the reason AJK would be called an anime is because it was animated by Japanese animators in a Japanese style. Yet, the show is thoroughly Dutch (a constant barrage of windmills, the polder-like environments, Alfred’s nest being a giant clog, etc.). An odd combination if there ever was one. And yes, it actually aired in Japan, too. Though most Dutch people have problems doing the full pronunciation of Alfred Jodocus Kwak, the Japanese Chiisana Ahiru no Ōkina Ai no Monogatari: Ahiru no Kwak doesn’t roll off the tongue any easier.

So, how did this show happen?
Herman van Veen, a beloved artist/musician of the Netherlands, created the AJK theatre production in 1976, along with an original soundtrack. It was in 1989 that the production was translated into an animation through a collaborative effort between the Netherlands, Germany, and surprisingly, Japan.
It was an interesting period for Japanese animation, which at the time as quite a few steps ahead of Europe in terms of animation methods. The Japanese style had begun to gain commercial success, and a few European entrepreneurs managed to partake. The late eighties to early nineties was a short-lived period of European-Japanese animation which gave life to series with typically European tales with the finely detailed, hand-drawn animation from Japan. There are quite a few noteworthy examples: Nils Holgersson (1980), Boes (1987), Dommel (1988), Moomin (1990), and the list goes on.
The result we see today is an array of “Dutch anime”; a completely unique chapter in TV-history, which is now slowly sliding out of the general public’s vision. Coincidentally, the distinct lack of reviews on these shows are not all that unconnected to this fact.
And here we are now.

So, is the show any good?
Kinda.
There are a few kinks to get around when trying to assert how good a show is as it’s almost 30 years old. One of them being that the original target audience now consists of flab-bellied 40-year-olds dragging their spawn through Ponypark Slagharen. Presumably.
My point is that the original audience isn’t there anymore. It’s hard for people to view the world the same way as they did when they were kids. For a show aimed at children, the most important factor to me is how children view it. A children’s show can be horribly flawed in a multitude of ways but if children enjoy it, then the goal has been achieved. Simple as that.
But children today are not what they used to be. And if my knowledge of children could tell you one thing, it’s that they probably wouldn’t like AJK at all. The reason for this is that the show has a very low tempo. The average child’s span of attention probably isn’t durable enough to handle the everyday conversations the show’s characters engage in. Not to mention the overarching storyline which requires you to see every episode in the right order, which can’t be expected of any TV-watching child this day and age (if only because of broadcasting timetables). The show is very much dialogue-driven, with long scenes and relatively little visual humor for today’s standards.
This isn’t to say that the show isn’t visually appealing. The animation is way beyond what one should expect from a Dutch show from the ‘80s. The backgrounds are hand-painted, the movements are crisp and detailed, and the scenes are often wonderfully fantastical. The Japanese co-creators outshine the Dutch and German collaborators in a lot of places during the show.

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What the show might lack in terms of tempo it makes up for in atmosphere, though there are two main atmospheres the shows treads in: cutesy, slice of life-homeliness, and on the other hand dark, dangerous tenseness.
The younger me was more attracted by the latter, while upon rewatching the show I was more pulled in by the former. There is a certain innocence that stems from the “quieter” parts of the show that manages to pull me back into a nostalgic mindset, which, admittedly, feels kind of nice sometimes.
However, this is not necessarily a good thing, as it exposes another weak point of the show: it can be a bit antiquated. There are numerous occasions per episode where you can tell the show was made a long time ago, which causes one of two things: the viewer either adapts to the old-fashioned style out of recognition, or there is a disconnect, which I assume is more likely to happen among younger viewers. Not only are the character’s activities old-fashioned, but so is their way of speaking.
Which brings me to what I expect to be the most polarizing part of the show: the voice acting (at least, in the Dutch version). One should remember voice acting in the Netherlands wasn’t a thing 30 years ago. There was no special training, no real standard: it was just for kids’ entertainment. As such, there are quite a few characters with performances that sound kind of… phoned in. Some characters will be dramatically overacted (most notably the lisping jellyfish and the perma-purring cat), while others will sound downright uninterested. A common occurrence is that you will hear a voice actor speak as if they are quite literally reading a storybook to a child.
While this can have its own special type of charm, it certainly has the capacity to take you out of the story. Since the show is so dialogue-driven, it is all too easy to listen to the show as if it were a radio play. It just shows how the voice acting serves as an unintentional glimpse into the past of cartoon-making. It’s charmingly amateurish, but it can also be distracting. You either love or hate the show because of it.
As a final note of assessment, I have failed to mention perhaps the best part about the show: the soundtrack. If you don’t think this shit is the tits, I’ll hunt you down like the uncultured swine you are. I mean, I would, if this stuff didn’t make me so darn happy. But still, shame on you.
The music is very unique for as far as anime soundtracks go, and it’s a major part of the series’ tone and recognizability. In any case, it’s pretty dope.

So, what, you expect me to watch this?
Kinda.
AJK has a rich history for a kids’ show, especially for Dutch television. People don’t have to love it, but they should at least recognize and remember the things a kids’ show is capable of. The educational themes AJK touches upon (such as fascism, apartheid and environmentalism) are way beyond what any other children’s show has attempted to attain, especially back in the day. Sadly, I honestly don’t believe a contemporary child would be able to focus on the show enough to learn real lessons from it. However, the show tried something no other show has tried to achieve since, and that alone makes it an exceptional piece of entertainment. It was an intersection of international creative sparks coming together at just the right moment.
In an ideal world, AJK would get a new series that would be able to focus on the same themes while also having a streamlined, modern narrative. Sadly, the animation part isn’t likely to happen again: hand-drawn animation is simply too time-consuming and expensive compared to the alternatives these days. But one can dream.

On that note, Herman van Veen announced a new AJK production being in the works, ten damn years ago. A feature-length film, no less!
Where is it, van Veen?
I’d put up a petition if I could be bothered, but what the hell. Let’s just be grateful for what we have. I learned that from Alfred himself.

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Behind the Classic 3: Marital Intimacy and Women’s Rights in Jude the Obscure

This instalment of the Behind the Classic series looks at the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century that forms the political backdrop of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. More specifically, it will discuss the issue of sex – or, to speak in more appropriate, Victorian terms – “conjugal rights” and a woman’s right to possess her own body. Not to worry, I will keep it civil.

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“His Latest Purchase” – Martin Anderson (1882)

Published in 1895, Jude the Obscure is Hardy’s last, and second most famous novel, right behind Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Like Tess, Jude deals with issues of class, gender and marriage, and is deeply invested in ongoing debates in Victorian society. Until the mid-nineteenth century, wives were, both legally and socially, considered to be their husband’s property. By marriage, the husband and the wife became one person, causing a woman’s legal rights and obligations to be incorporated in those of her husband’s, preventing her from owning property or making contracts. This custom, known as “coverture”, also entailed that the husband had “conjugal rights” to his wife’s body, which he could claim whenever he pleased.

The women’s rights movement strongly opposed the idea that a woman was anyone’s property but her own. Their activism resulted in the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which enabled women to be in charge of their own wages and property, and thus released them from coverture. However, the fact that they were now allowed to possess property did not entail that they were free to possess themselves. The husband was still seen as the “owner” of the wife, and could demand obedience from her, which included sexual obedience.

In Jude, titular character Jude Fawley is a working-class man who dreams of an education at “Christminster” (Hardy’s fictional version of Oxford), but finds himself trapped in Victorian England’s class system. After an ill-fitted marriage and separation, he falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, who – despite what her name might suggest – is not a strong supporter of the concept of marriage. She marries schoolmaster Phillotson solely for reasons of financial security. Although the two parties respect each other, there is hardly any marital intimacy between them. In fact, Sue is frightened by Phillotson’s very presence in the bedroom to such an extent that she jumps out of the window when he accidentally enters her chamber. At the root of Sue’s abstinence lies her desire to control her own body. She eventually leaves Phillotson for Jude, but is very hesitant to marry him and even when she does, her withdrawal from intimacy prevails. According to Hardy himself, it is her unwillingness to let a man possess her body and claim her sexually whenever he wants, that is central to her reluctance to get married. In a letter to Edmund Gosse on 20 November 1895, he writes:

“[Alt]hough she [Sue] has children, her intimacies with Jude have never been more than occasional, even while they were living together (I mention that they occupy separate rooms, except towards the end), & one of her reasons for fearing the marriage ceremony is that she fears it w[oul]d be breaking faith with Jude to withhold herself at pleasure, or altogether, after it; though while uncontracted she feels at liberty to yield herself as seldom as she chooses”.

For Sue, remaining in charge of her own body is paramount to facing the social consequences of being an unmarried woman living with a man. Even when she and Jude eventually marry, it is arguably Sue’s resolution to possess herself that makes their marriage work, albeit temporarily. It is a theory that women’s rights activist Mona Caird would probably have approved of, for in her radical article “Marriage” (1888), she writes: “The ideal marriage then, despite all dangers and difficulties, should be free. So long as love and trust and friendship remain, no bonds are necessary to bind two people together”.

Taking into account that Mona Caird’s article was considered radical, one can imagine how remarkable it is to have a nineteenth-century male author dedicate one of his novel’s main themes to the notions of free marriage and a woman’s right to her own body. Hardy’s almost feminist take on the conjugal rights debate is unique for his time, which alone make this classic well worth a (re)read.

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Behind the Classic 2: The Madwoman in the Attic – A Postcolonial Reading of Jane Eyre

In the ‘Behind the Classic’ series, editor-in-chief Roselinde takes you on a trip to well-known novels and their less well-known backstories. In this second instalment, she takes you through a postcolonial reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

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Copyright: Fritz Eichenberg

In 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic¹, a highly influential feminist critique on texts by Victorian women authors. In this book, Gilbert and Gubar argue that the “fallen woman” and “angel in the house” dichotomy, a well-known trope in Victorian literaturewhere women are represented as either sexual degenerates or dutiful, composed saints, is not an accurate representation of women and should therefore be omitted. The book’s title is a reference to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the titular character is hired as a governess by a Mr. Rochester. Eyre and Rochester fall in love and decide to get married, but their wedding ceremony is crudely disrupted by the news that Rochester is already married (oh, drama!). As it turns out, Rochester’s first wife, a Creole woman called Bertha Mason, has been living in his attic the entire time.

In recent decades, postcolonial criticism has emphasised how deeply invested this classic is in England’s colonial past and has pointed out that the Victorian angel/demon dichotomy is often not only sexist, but also highly racist.

Take, for example, Jane’s description of Bertha:

“In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.”

By stressing her animalistic behaviour and referring to her as an ‘it’, Jane dehumanizes Bertha. Rochester, not very well-versed in the art of flattery, does the same, when he begs the witnesses to understand his opting for “something at least human”, meaning Jane. Rochester portrays himself as the unsuspecting victim of deceit. When he left for the West Indies, he was an innocent man – or at least, as innocent as a man who goes abroad to make money off colonialized slaves can be – and was tricked into marrying a madwoman. Bertha possessed an exotic sensuality that, although initially attracting him, he came to repulse and blame on her racial background.

Yet, his exotic fetishism and oppressive nature are still present when he is with Jane, as becomes clear in the passage where he buys her new clothes. Jane claims that “his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched” and tells him to spend his money on “extensive slave-purchases” instead. A few lines later, Jane describes herself as a liberator of oppressed women, when she claims: “‘I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved – your harem inmates amongst the rest.’” In truth, as we have seen, Jane sides with Rochester’s colonial view and dehumanization of the “racial Other”.

Moreover, when she is asked to accompany a real missionary on his way to India, she refuses and her friend, congratulating her with this decision, says: “‘You would not live three months there, I am certain.’” It seems that India is a place where a good-natured, dutiful English person like Jane could not survive, and indeed, the missionary who invited her to go with him dies shortly after arriving there, but is revered for the “firm, faithful and devoted” way he “labour[ed] for his race”, i.e. for attempting to convert the “savage heathens” in India to the Christian faith. At the end of the novel, Jane, the “missionary [who will] preach liberty to them that are enslaved”, obtains financial independence by means of an inheritance, a fortune that is derived entirely from colonial money.

Much has happened since the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic. In 1966, Jean Rhys published the best-selling novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story from Bertha’s perspective and has proved a global eye-opener. At present, new articles on the colonial backdrop of your favourite classics are still written daily, and it is a bewildering, but fascinating experience to see your personal favourites in a completely different light. So are you a big fan of Austen, Conrad, Dickens, the Brontës or Thackeray? Pick up some postcolonial criticism and broaden your horizon!

¹Full title: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
2Open a random Dickens novel and you will see what I mean. Dombey and Son’s (1848) Edith vs. Florence, David Copperfield’s (1850) Emily vs. Agnes, Bleak House’s (1853) Honoria (Lady Dedlock) vs. Esther, the examples are endless.

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Behind the Classic: Charles Dickens and the Politics of Christmas

In the new ‘Behind the Classic’ series, editor-in-chief Roselinde takes you on a trip to well-known novels and their less well-known backstories. In this first, seasonally appropriate instalment, she explores the political backdrop of the most famous Christmas story of all: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

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Copyright: Richard Jones

When you think Dickens, you think Christmas and when you think Christmas, you think A Christmas Carol. In 1988, the Sunday Telegraph gave Dickens the title ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ and up until this very day ‘Dickensian Christmas’ is a common term. It seems that even now, Dickens and Christmas go together as horse and carriage.

Dickens built this reputation with his world-famous novella, A Christmas Carol. This ‘song in prose’ was first published in 1843, and has never been out of print since. Dickens, like many Victorians, felt nostalgia for the warm-hearted English Christmas traditions of yore and emphasised the Christian virtues of kindness and benevolence that he felt were vital to the Christmas feast. In his short story “A Christmas Dinner” he writes:

“There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers (…) Kindly hearts that have yearned towards each other, but have been withheld by false notions of pride and self-dignity, are again reunited, and all is kindness and benevolence!”

Yet, inspiring more kindness towards one’s family and friends was not his sole motive. Instead, Dickens – whom many critics recognize as a great social reformer – had a distinctly political agenda. The Poor Law Amendment act of 1834 stated that only poor people who were in a workhouse were able to receive government funding. To discourage people from claiming this money, conditions in workhouses were made as unappealing as possible. More often than not, the houses were overcrowded and the inhabitants were underfed, made to work under dangerous conditions, segregated and treated as prisoners. Furthermore, in the ‘hungry 40’s’, child labour was becoming more and more popular. The Industrial Revolution caused many families to move to London to work in the factories. To be able to provide for the entire family, many parents were forced to send their children to work. In fact, this is something that Dickens experienced first-hand: at age twelve, he was sent to a blacking factory to help pay for his father’s debts. As an adult, Dickens still deeply resented Malthusian theory that led to the liberal market’s extortion of children. In A Christmas Carol that resentment is embodied by the characters Ignorance and Want, two ghastly children that Scrooge encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Dickens writes:

“‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more. ‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased”.

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Ignorance and Want. Drawing by John Leech, from the original 1843 edition.

With his Christmas parable, Dickens wanted to inspire people to provide for poverty-stricken citizens in a humane fashion. Ignorance and Want teach Scrooge how unjust he was when he suggested that the poor can simply go to prison or a workhouse. Note that by naming these two in one breath, Dickens implies that they are largely the same.

The big question is, of course, did it work? Did the novella actually make people spend more time with their family, as well as more money on charity? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is yes. In 1843-44, there was sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain and the popularity of Dickens’ works and, in later years, his public readings, made the effect spread beyond the borders of Britain. The Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love” and an American factory owner called Mr. Fairbanks famously closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent all his employees a turkey. Moreover, historians agree that the way in which we currently celebrate Christmas – with family gatherings, food and drink and festivity – is largely the result of the Victorian revival of the holiday, spearheaded by the Carol. The tradition of ‘new year’s resolutions’ proves that even the theme of redemption is still prevalent.

According to Jan Lokin, former chairman of the Dickens Fellowship (Haarlem branch), people hardly consider the Carol a political work anymore. Instead, the public regards the novella a fairy tale with a few frightening passages. Yet, Lokin believes that Dickens would not mind this development. After all, the workhouses have been closed, governments take more effort to provide for the poor and the Carol still fulfils one of its main purposes: to make people feel the “magic in the very name of Christmas”.

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