The Curious Case of Curious Alice
Even before the DVIC accession brought How to Succeed with Brunettes to light, I had a special place in my heart for quirky government film productions. When I first saw a beat-up, faded print of Curious Alice, it was clear that whatever anti-drug sentiment the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was trying to convey, it just wasn’t working.
In Curious Alice (1971), a film intended for eight to ten year olds, our young Alice falls asleep while reading a book. She encounters cigarettes, liquor, and medicines, and realizes that they are all types of drugs. When she sees the “Drink Me” bottle, she understands that it contains something like a drug, yet after a half-second’s consideration, she drinks the entire bottle and enters a fantasy world. In Drug Wonderland, Alice learns about the hard stuff from her new friends the Mad Hatter (LSD), the March Hare (amphetamines), the Dormouse (barbiturates), and the King of Hearts (heroin). The events of Curious Alice play out as an expression of Alice’s drug trip. Unfortunately, the trip is kind of fun and effectively cancels out the film’s anti-drug message.
The psychedelic Monty Python-style animation in Wonderland is one of the best things about Curious Alice. It’s also one of the biggest reasons that the film is an overall misfire. If one listens closely, Alice is saying plenty about why drugs are bad, but the imagery is so mesmerizing that it’s hard to pay attention to the film’s message. Further, the drug users are cartoon characters with no connection to real people or real drug problems. Why take the March Hare’s drug problem seriously when you know that Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff and is always back for the next gag?
To further confuse the message, Curious Alice somehow has too much and not enough information at the same time. Instead of focusing on situations relevant to children, the film devotes screen time to teaching kids what drugs look like and what they’re called. But really, would the average third-grader understand that the hypodermic needle the King of Hearts is carrying like a scepter isn’t filled with the same stuff as their shots at the doctor’s office? Or that the sugar cube at the Mad Hatter’s tea party is laced with LSD? The finer point of how the drugs differ from every day items is not apparent.
In the conclusion to the film, Alice suffers from nothing but a slight case of pensiveness as a result of her drug-induced adventures in Wonderland. She reaches for her book and then looks into the distance as if contemplating the cause of her bad trip. The film goes to black, so that the final message of Curious Alice seems to be that reading books can lead to scary or confusing situations. That’s assuming a kid takes away anything from the film other than “neat cartoon—when’s recess?”
This isn’t just a case of modern audiences seeing something different than when the film was originally made. In the 1972 publication, Drug Abuse Films, the National Coordinating Council on Drug Education (NCCDE) criticized Curious Alice for being confusing and potentially counterproductive to drug abuse education. In the report, the NCCDE, an independent organization that received funding from NIMH, evaluated scores of films for scientific accuracy and effectiveness. The review panel classified Curious Alice as “restricted”, writing that young viewers “may be intrigued by the fantasy world of drugs” and that it should only be presented with a “very skilled facilitator” in order to “probe for the drug attitudes” of an elementary school class. (In other words, teachers, don’t bother trying to use this film to get kids to stay away from drugs because it’ll require way too much extra work on your part.) For the record, Curious Alice was by no means singled out for criticism– the NCCDE recommended only about 16% of the films they reviewed for widespread use.
Luckily for adults, Curious Alice is a highly entertaining film. It’s still one of my favorites in the motion picture holdings at the National Archives. The animation is gorgeous, it’s beautifully executed in nearly every aspect, and the ridiculousness makes it good for a laugh or two. More importantly, Curious Alice gives us a window into the federal government’s efforts to keep kids from abusing drugs prior to the Just Say No campaign of the 1980s.
Curious Alice is preserved at NARA in RG 511, Records of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, along with dozens of other drug awareness films.
Check it out for yourself and tell us what you think in the comments.
Stay tuned to Media Matters to find out the exciting story of how Curious Alice was preserved!