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?

It’s hard to hear Alice’s inner monologue when there are so many pretty flowers.

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.

The March Hare flattened after taking some uppers. Curious Alice doesn’t really distinguish between those pills and medicine kids might take when they’re sick, creating a possibly confusing message.

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.

Curious Alice is a beautiful, beautiful mess.

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 (Local Identifier: 511.50) 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.

For more on how this incredible film was saved for posterity, check out Preserving Curious Alice!

7 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Curious Alice

  1. has enough evidence accumulated about how corrupt and facist our government really is to help us see that this is all intentional? The powers that shouldn’t be want us on drugs. They want nothing more than a drugged-out populace more concerned with getting off than making things right in the world. This film is an example of the slimy brainwashing tactics used. Just like Homeland Security is ‘for our own good’ ‘to protect us’ while in reality it is a scare tactic to entice us to give up our liberties, these films are ‘to protect your children’ while in reality they entice them into giving up their free will to become enthralled with drug culture. And speaking as someone who’s been enthralled with drug culture for decades of my life I can say that type of distraction really does render a person impotent and apathetic towards the injustices play out all around us. Not that you have to be sober to fight the good fight but it sure helps.

  2. Hey Audrey! Thanks for posting this. It is a gem. And you’re right about the imagery. Great. I wonder what has happened to this little girl? If she’s grown into a Disney star. Were there any credits at all? ~ jo

  3. It was good for a couple laughs, but the animation style got to me after a while.

    I started wishing it was a filmstrip. That would’ve been cool.

  4. This trippy movie was shown late night recently on Turner Classic Movies, and I recorded it, based on the short description. I’m so glad I did. It really is a beautiful mess that basically makes no sense. And it was followed by some great 1950’s thing about procrastination being BAD, which was also awesome. TCM late nights is fantastic for this stuff, for those who get the channel. I think this is part of their “Underground” series.

  5. I’m glad you liked it, Jo! We actually don’t know a whole lot about the making of the film. While NARA has production files for a lot of the motion picture holdings (see the recent posts on the WAC training films for more on that), we had very little on Curious Alice. Hopefully we’ll come across something in the future. Personally, I’d love to know more about how this film was made.

    Anne, thanks for the tip about TCM late night! I’ll have to keep an eye on the schedule!

  6. It is a shame that the clip ends with “end of recording” rather than with the credits that most certainly would have been a part of the original film. It is ESPECIALLY sad that a so-called “Archive” would omit the credits just like some 2-bit late night network on TV does. If you liked the quality of animation, wouldn’t it have been useful to know who actually accomplished it? If the script was a “mess” wouldn’t be useful for researchers or the public to know who the writer was that they may see what that writer went on to accomplish? Most researchers citing work would include attribution. I guess that standard does not extend here. Sad.

  7. I assure you, Richard, that we have presented the film in its entirety. The only credits on “Curious Alice” are at the opening, when Washington Design Center, Inc. is listed as having made the film for NIMH. Government films were produced for educational purposes and usually have little more in the way of credits than the originating agency and a roman numeral indicating the year it was created.

    For example, “Sex Hygiene”, the VD film John Ford made for the military during WWII, does not have Ford’s name on it anywhere, although you can recognize his touches if you know that he was behind it. Similarly, John Ford’s “Battle of Midway” is credited only to the U.S. Navy (this is accurate since he was serving with the U.S. Navy at the time he made the film). You will also notice that none of the films that Ronald Reagan appeared in for the First Motion Picture Unit attribute him as the “star”. See for example, “Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter” on our YouTube page.

    Usually, more information about the creation of a film can be found in our production files, but “Curious Alice” was not received in the same manner as our military films, and sadly, we do not have a production file.

    When we transfer films in the lab, we add the “End of Recording” slate to inform viewers that they have, in fact, seen the entire record. We have no reason to try to hide the credits, and would welcome any further information about the creators if you are able to find anything out.

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