Matt and Wendy Crandall have been talking to me for 20 minutes before I notice it: almost everything they are wearing is Alice in Wonderland-themed.
Her dress is covered in tiny Alices. Pink flamingos preen and pose across his shirt. Her earrings read “eat me” and “drink me”, and her charm bracelet is adorned with Wonderland trinkets – a limited edition Stella McCartney range tied to Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation.
These are only a tiny sample of the 10,000+ Alice-related items that the couple have accrued over the decades. Their home in Washington DC contains the world’s largest known collection dedicated to Disney’s 1952 classic animation – and they are visibly thrilled to have travelled to Sydney with some of it.
“I brought Alice outfits for each of the events this week!” Wendy says excitedly, before Matt looks down at his shirt, and shrugs: “The big stuff is saved for tonight.”
We’re at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Acmi) in Melbourne, the day of the opening of the major exhibition Wonderland. The world’s first physical survey of Alice on screen, it uses the 30+ film and TV adaptations of the classic story to showcase the history of special effects.
With its fantastical talking creatures, its disappearing characters, its shrinking and growing and its outlandish settings, Alice in Wonderland is the perfect way in. But visual effects were part of her story even before she made it to the screen: in the original 1865 novel by Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pen-name Lewis Carroll, John Tenniel’s illustrations and typographical flourishes celebrated trickery in much the same way.
Since then, Alice has appeared at almost every major moment in the development of film, from silent movies and magic lantern slides to stop motion animation and CGI, says curator Jessica Bram. “We wanted a character that would let us trace the evolution of the craft,” she says. “[With Alice], the thesis really holds!”
Designed by Anna Tregloan, the exhibition intends to be as fantastical as the original text, with creative and immersive rooms that house more than 300 objects from collections and studios around the world. There are drawers to open, things to touch, props to put your head inside and the Queen’s Croquet Ground melds technology with craft, letting visitors (and their children) insert themselves into the scene.
Visitors begin their journey in a recreation of Carroll’s drawing room, which features first editions, his publishing contract and handwritten letters between Dodgson and the young Alice Liddell – the girl thought to be the inspiration for the character.
They are then invited to pick a door, a big one or a small one, to enter the main exhibition. They find themselves in a hallway instead and are invited to pick another.
“We wanted it to be surprising and magical, with curiosity as the main driver,” Bram says. “The more curious you are, the more you’ll find.”
The exhibition is split into sections named for the chapters of the book and its sequel: the hallway of doors, with its entrances and exits; the White Rabbit’s house, both oversized and undersized (including slightly horrifying props from Jan Švankmajer’s dark adaptation, Alice); and, one of the highlights, the gorgeous 3D-mapped tea party experience created by Sydney creative lab Grumpy Sailor, which fits only a handful of people at a time. Visitors get to sit at the actual table and watch a scene unfold around them.
The final room, Bram says, celebrates the “everywhereness” of Alice in pop culture: 18 screens playing a fast-paced montage of TV, film, video games and music clips that pay homage to the character. There are scenes from The Matrix, from anime, from Gwen Stefani’s oeuvre, spliced together with moments from some of the 30-odd film versions.
The montage – which focuses on the trial scene – is also a reminder of the strength and stubbornness of the character herself.
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I won’t!” said Alice.
Revisiting the story as she was curating the exhibition, while raising her own two young daughters, Bram says she was struck by “how brave it was to have a female protagonist” at the time the novel was published.
“It’s pretty remarkable that she has stood the test of time, and as a continually evolving hero,” she says. “She’s such a strong reflection of young women everywhere. She’s as smart as she is curious as she is courageous, as she’s totally cheeky. And there’s a kind of innocence in her as well that you see in your own kids.”
The room where I meet collectors Matt and Wendy is halfway through the exhibition, and is packed with original cells, artwork and movie posters from Disney’s 1951 animated classic.
Much of the collection here belongs to the pair, including original concept art from Mary Blair, as well as film posters, photographs and sketches. Matt has been avidly collecting anything related to the Disney film for the last 30 years, while Wendy’s collection began with the books. They met in the 90s through mutual friend Stasia Martin – fittingly, a Disney artist – who couldn’t resist introducing them.
“I am bowled over by this,” Wendy says, indicating the walls around her. It is her birthday tomorrow night and she has already received two of Matt’s presents: an Alice-themed wallet and an Alice-themed scarf. “I feel like I have goosebumps all over my body.”
But the collection in the room is still only a portion of what they have, which includes original posters, themed vintage soaps, mountains of figurines, Disneyland props and even a child’s potty. “I defy anyone to name an object and I will tell you that we have it in Alice,” Wendy challenges.
When I ask if any of it featured at their wedding, their initial response is “no”. It shortly transpires that in fact Matt wore a vintage King of Hearts pin on his kilt. And Wendy walked down the aisle to a song from the Disney film. And guests were encouraged to interrupt their vows by shouting a line from the script.
“Stacia said, ‘Wendy, I’m never going to be able to convince people that you didn’t marry Matt for his collection’,” Wendy laughs. “And I said, ‘I’m marrying him in spite of it!’”