Disney’s savages: ALICE CANS THE CANNIBALS (Walt Disney 1925)

The most interesting aspect of Disney’s “Alice” silent cartoon series was that it predated Mickey Mouse by several years. The “Alice Comedies” were a hybrid of live action (a young girl named Virginia Davis) with animated characters, particularly a cat named Julius.

Cats were winning the media wars over mice in those days, almost a century ago, when the most recognisable cartoon character was Felix the Cat from Australian cartoonist Pat Sullivan. Winkler Pictures had dropped Felix after a row with his creator, and Disney was able to get them to distribute Alice and even pay to bring young Virginia from Missouri to Los Angeles to star in the work. Julius was so similar to Felix he could have been a littermate.

In the Alice series, Julius does most of the heavy lifting, but Alice gets the naming rights, since the universe they inhabit originates in her dreams after she visits a cartoon studio in the very first episode, Alice’s Wonderland (based on Lewis Carroll of course, but also perhaps a nod to Surrealism and Dada that were revolutionising art after the Great War). There were 57 cartoons in total, all directed, produced and animated by Walt, but of course we are only interested in number 12, Alice Cans the Cannibals, released in 1925.

Alice and Julius drive their car into the sea and lasso a fish to drag them to land (the car floats! The fish cooperates! They have a lasso in their possession! It’s a dream, OK?) They land on an island that is inhabited by cannibals (luckily, there is a signpost in the ocean saying “this way to the Cannibal Islands”). Cannibals, of course, were then widely considered the ubiquitous inhabitants of any land not yet settled by white people – the eternal others. The cannibal king wears a crown, so he must be every inch a king, and the cannibals spend the rest of the cartoon chasing Alice and Julius, hoping, no doubt, to eat them.

The image of a six-year-old girl being chased as prey, hit with a rock and speared in her behind might seem a little unusual these days, but it was 1925, it was a dream, and it was a cartoon, so what the hell, huh Walt? Anyway, Alice can hold her own against a bunch of primitive natives, and she instructs Julius to use a rubber tree to shoot rocks to knock them all down.

The cannibals are very accurate spear throwers, hitting both Alice and Julius in their bums, the only places that spears ever penetrated in cartoons. Alice throws the spears back with surprising accuracy.

The barrage of spears proves useful – they form a ladder up the cliff, from which our heroes can brain the cannibals below with rocks and old ostrich eggs (once again, it’s a dream).

Alice saves the day when she realises that cannibals always have rings through their noses and throws a spear which manages to go through those rings and into the bum of a hippo, who pulls them to a watery grave.

One more spear, this time into the rather easier target of the king’s bum, and white supremacy over the dark cannibals is restored.

Let’s not take it too seriously – it’s a light-hearted cartoon about a little girl’s dream of overcoming cannibals – I wonder if Freud saw it? The main interest is its depiction of the outsider – those who had not yet been colonised and enlightened (or massacred) were unarguably cannibals, and a spear up the wazoo was the least they could expect. It was the white man’s burden.

3 thoughts on “Disney’s savages: ALICE CANS THE CANNIBALS (Walt Disney 1925)

  1. I am looking for early cartoons like this which have been censored. I am at a loss because while they are truly vile in caricaturing Africans, they may be as hurtful for younger viewers as they are entertaining for ignorant and uninformed whites. It may be as you say, whiteness is such a burden for the white man, even more so than for the black man, whose own subjectivity was virtually remade as the eternal other. Thanks!


    1. Thanks for the comment. Wikipedia has a helpful list of banned cartoons, the so-called “Censored eleven”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censored_Eleven.
      You may also appreciate this paragraph from my thesis.
      In this thesis, I am preferring the use of the term ‘autochthonous’ over the problematic word ‘savage’, which always requires ‘scare-quotes’ to indicate its dubious and judgemental connotations. Levi-Strauss observed that Western civilisation uses the term savage in the same way as the Greeks used “barbarian”, as a refusal of cultural diversity, and a brutish existence in nature, as opposed to culture (1958, 12). ‘Savage’ implies the Eurocentric condemnation of the colonial subject within the term itself, and encourages the circular argument that they probably eat people because they are savages, just as they are savages because they are cannibals. Freud used this logic to determine the origins of the Oedipus Complex, when he argued that prehuman savages killed their father and naturally, as savages, would have eaten him (1998, 122). ‘Autochthonous’, on the other hand, is a term used both in class and postcolonial discourses, and refers to the original inhabitants potentially at risk of dispossession (Gausset, Kenrick, and Gibb 2011, 136). Those already marginalised, usually characterised as ‘indigenous’ are not just oppressed, but excluded from hegemonic power structures and disqualified by various racist calumnies, of which ‘savage’ cannibalism is a leading discourse.

      Freud, Sigmund. 1998. Totem and Taboo. New York: Dover Publications.
      Gausset, Q., J. Kenrick, and R. Gibb. 2011. “Indigeneity and Autochthony: a Couple of False Twins?” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale no. 19 (2):135-142.
      Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Race and History. Paris: UNESCO.


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