A very merry unbirthday to you
After years of trying to adapt Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its follow-up Through the Looking Glass into a feature film, Walt Disney finally brought his studio’s take on the classic fantasy to cinemas in the summer of 1951. The reaction was not terribly good, with critics baring their teeth at the notion that a family friendly cartoon strayed from its source material and audiences reluctant to embrace the film as enthusiastically as they had Disney’s other features. The reaction from the Disney studio was one that resembled something like panic. Alice in Wonderland did not enjoy the regular theatrical re-release that other Disney pictures received, and was instead cut to bits for occasional television broadcast. Eventually, with the unexpected help of the fresh interest gained in the heady drug era of the ’60s and ’70s, Alice returned to circulation. In the DVD era, the Disney company has given the movie four different releases, with the newest now updating it for the high definition capabilities of Blu-ray.
The way that Alice has been treated digitally seems directly related to that initial response upon the film’s theatrical release. If not quite a begrudging concession to the popularity the film has now attained, the continued availability of it from Disney, particularly the manner used and various labels attached, seems unable to mask an overall reluctance from the studio to put it on the same plane as many of its animated peers. For example, while Disney was branding its deluxe DVD releases of preferred features as “Platinum Editions,” Alice in Wonderland was given a “Masterpiece Edition,” a label carried over from the days of VHS and, I believe, not given to any of the studio’s other classic films on DVD. The advent of Blu-ray has given rise to a new tag – “Diamond Edition” – but Alice once again is deemed unworthy and instead must be content with a “60th Anniversary Edition,” which at least sounds better than last year’s “Un-Anniversary Edition” DVD. All of this is admittedly rather petty, and it would barely register if not for the extreme gatekeeping that Disney revels in for everything from precisely timed new editions and vault lock-ups to the amount and content of extra features. Since the most emphasized releases occur just twice a year, with Bambi occupying the current slot, we know that Alice is a comparative blip on the schedule.
The question might arise as to whether the film deserves better. If it’s not up to the standards of the major Disney features, the treatment seems fair. Certainly Alice is quite short at just 75 minutes and its casual narrative style differs from the more traditional plotting many expect. Musical numbers abound. There’s also little debate about how much it strays from Carroll’s books. Rare, too, for a Disney film centered on a young girl is that Alice isn’t a princess and has no romantic longings. And, oh dear, there’s no villain character for much of the film. Sidekicks are more crazy than cute. Peril is at a minimum. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a single lesson to be learned from the story. Don’t dream or fall asleep? Don’t chase after white rabbits? Don’t paint white rose bushes red?
Maybe the bold variations from the classic Disney theme are to blame for how the studio has treated the film. Princesses are pretty clearly looked at as the bread and butter of the empire, and parental issues typically inform the protagonists’ journeys. Nope and nope here. Alice bothers only with minimal exposition. The end of her dream signals the end of the movie. In between are various extravagances that add up to little beyond a good time. What unfolds, though, is wonderfully liberating to the right viewer. Animated nonsense when done by world class animators makes for world class nonsense. If it’s not the equal of Carroll’s nonsense then so be it. There’s little wrong with conceding some of the faithfulness to the source material in exchange for production values and unexpected subversion of feature length animation. Disney sort of tried this formula again with The Jungle Book, another picture that sometimes fails to get its due, but it’s not even half as gleefully insane as Alice. It adheres more safely to formula, and with better songs. Alice creates a new path whereas The Jungle Book exists within boundaries already deemed acceptable.
Part of what makes Alice in Wonderland such a joy to experience is that you get the feeling things have gone completely off the rails. The production itself was arduous so that inherent sense of anything and everything goes might have extended out of frustration more than design. Either way, it’s fresh air when compared against the staid Disney formula. The episodic nature of the film is an important factor in this. It allows Alice to drift from one new experience to the next, highlighting a collection of unconventional and fantastic characters. Everyone probably has a favorite but is there anything cooler than the Cheshire Cat in the Disney universe? He’s, of course, not all there, so to speak, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. The other supporting players, from the primary to the periphery, are basically all mad or suspiciously under the influence of a foreign substance or both. “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat. How I wonder what you’re at.” And where in the world does that lizard with a ladder come from? Just go with it. It’s better that way.
To cite Alice‘s supposed deficiencies against other Disney features is to do the film a disservice. It’s an extraordinary exception. It’s also one of the least manipulative of any Disney animated narratives, extending to present day and including the Pixar output. The dread and other collected puppet emotions so often squeezed out are replaced by whimsy and playfulness. For a film so imbued with loving absurdity, it’s remarkable how lacking it is in the type of ridiculousness that usually goes into the Disney formula. Alice’s slipperiness goes so far beyond normal as to come out again seeming, from a cinematic standpoint anyway, perfectly sensible.
Alice in Wonderland has been released on Blu-ray in the U.S. in a region-free edition that also contains a DVD copy of the film. Both discs are dual-layered.
The colors, oh the colors. Alice has perhaps the most dazzlingly brilliant and bright palette of the classic Disney features. Earlier DVD iterations, particularly the Masterpiece Edition, have made sure to respect the shiny shades and hues but this transfer elevates things to previously unseen levels of eye-popping tones. Is it accurate? That might be debatable, and the sometimes drastic differences when weighed against even the transfer on the included DVD aren’t comforting, but it sure does look pretty. The general lack of grain further suggests Disney is more concerned with visually pleasing aesthetics than replicating the original viewing experience. At least the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is respected, though Disney has a salve for that too in the form of its DisneyView feature where paintings occupy the left and right area of the widescreen frame that usually is left black. Alice doesn’t take as kindly to DisneyView as some of the more painterly presentations such as Pinocchio and Fantasia. The colors are too active in this film, and that makes DisneyView somewhat awkward here. Damage, predictably, is nonexistent and the image is pristine, sharp and full of depth.
Audio options for English speakers come down to a 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix presented in DTS HD Master Audio and the less flashy but more faithful original theatrical soundtrack. The former continues the potential perception that the film we’re viewing wasn’t made 60 years ago, updating and expanding the audio for modern tastes and technology. It’s been done tastefully. Those inclined to try the mono option shouldn’t be disappointed either. Both are as crisp and clean as one might expect. French and Spanish dubs, in Dolby Digital 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix are also available. Subtitles in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish are optional. They are white in color on the Blu-ray. The DVD offers Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and the original theatrical soundtrack in English plus French and Spanish dubs.
A wealth of bonus material can be found on the Blu-ray. Much of it is carried over from the previous Masterpiece Edition and Un-Anniversary Edition DVDs but Disney has also added a few new HD treats.
In the Backstage Disney section of the Bonus Features is a Through the Keyhole option that’s basically a commentary track mixed with a making-of featurette. It’s billed as a “Companion’s Guide to Wonderland” and features a combination of Lewis Carroll scholars and Disney historians and animators. They are seen rather than just being heard. Sketches and clips are also utilized on the track. It’s an informative and entertaining way to experience the film again while gaining a wealth of knowledge about its origins. The voice of Alice, Kathryn Beaumont, provides a one-minute introduction. After her segment, there are no further chapter stops in the track. It is subtitled in English, Spanish and French.
Here’s a brief clip that provides an idea of how the film plays when in Through the Keyhole mode:
A couple of short pieces, both introduced by Beaumont, are also here. “Reference Footage: Alice and the Doorknob” (1:33) shows Beaumont acting out a scene during the film’s production and is presented in black and white. Her newly recorded commentary can be heard while viewing. “Pencil Test: Alice Shrinks” (0:54) is a very brief look at an early pencil test for the scene in which Alice shrinks after consuming the bottle marked “Drink Me.” Walt Disney can be seen in a 1959 color TV introduction (1:15) for the film. This was for a Christmas night showing on Walt Disney Presents. It’s interesting that Disney also references the stories of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, both huge hits a few decades later for the studio bearing his name.
Next up is Family Play, which has just an interactive game called Painting the Roses Red. It starts off fairly easy before becoming challenging enough to, perhaps, keep you playing for half an hour or more as your determination to paint those roses red merges dangerously with adult-level frustration and profanity-laced tirades. The game is also unsubtly shoved on us from the menu screen as a “recommended extra.”
What’s labeled as Classic DVD Bonus Features takes most of what was found on the earlier Masterpiece Edition, plus the additions done for last year’s Un-Anniversary Edition, and graciously offers it up here for posterity. All are in standard definition unless otherwise noted. Here’s a quick rundown:
“Reflections on Alice” (13:27) – Lots of talking heads and lots of stories populate this Un-Anniversary Edition featurette.
“Operation Wonderland” (10:59) – From 1951, a black and white tour of the Disney studio and behind the scenes on the production of Alice. In HD.
“I’m Odd” Newly Discovered Cheshire Cat Song (3:56) – Introduced by Kathryn Beaumont, this unused and eventually rediscovered song is then heard against footage from the film.
“Thru the Mirror” Mickey Mouse Animated Short (8:49) – The classic 1936 color short starring Mickey Mouse, often cited as being inspired by Carroll’s stories, is presented here in HD and with an ugly new title screen.
“One Hour in Wonderland” (59:25) – A black and white Christmas special presented by Coca-Cola and airing in 1950. This is a major curiosity, starring Walt Disney before he met television viewers each week on his own show and featuring cameos by the likes of Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, child actor Bobby Driscoll and Alice voice Kathryn Beaumont. Film clips from Disney’s features are shown in color here.
“An Alice Comedy: Alice’s Wonderland” (8:06) – The 1923 silent short done by Walt Disney in which the young animator shows his even younger star around a studio.
Original Theatrical Trailers – 1951 Original Theatrical Trailer (2:02), 1974 Theatrical Rerelease Trailer (1:53)
Walt Disney TV Introductions – Used to present the film on television, this is a 1954 Introduction (1:21), in black and white, that was later recycled for the color 1959 intro also found on this disc and a separate, though similar, 1964 Introduction (1:09).
“The Fred Waring Show” (Excerpt) (30:57) – From 1951, before the release of Alice in Wonderland in cinemas, this television program promoted the film with songs and the like, including appearances by Kathryn Beaumont and Sterling Holloway.
Deleted Materials – In which you’ll find a “Deleted Scene: Pig and Pepper” (3:12), how a song went “From Wonderland to Neverland: The Evolution of a Song” (6:49), an unused “Deleted Storyboard Concept: Alice Daydreams in the Park” (2:01), and six “Original Song Demos – Beware the Jabberwock, Everything Has a Useness, So They Say, Beautiful Soup, Dream Caravan, If You’ll Believe in Me.”
Interactive Art Gallery – With 81 images of sketches and concepts and various wonders.
Sneak Peeks (13:27) – A collection of 11 trailers and commercials for everything from the upcoming Winnie the Pooh and Blu-rays for Bambi and The Incredibles to Blu-ray 3-D, the evils of smoking and the Disney Parks.
The included DVD contains only the “Reflections on Alice” featurette, the Pig and Pepper deleted scene, “Thru the Mirror” with Mickey Mouse, the “I’m Odd” Cheshire Cat song and games Adventures in Wonderland and Virtual Wonderland Party, both of which aren’t on the Blu-ray.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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