Alice in Wonderland Review
Spot the spelling mistake.
Walt Disney's seventh feature-length animated film is a loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll's two novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Quite possibly the most surreal Disney film to date, it essentially attempts to cram a vast amount of material into its 75-minute running time, with at least partial success. The film takes the form of a number of set-pieces, most of them highly farcical, each completed under the supervision of a different sequence director (not all of whom appear to have been credited), and each vying for supremacy. While this method of filmmaking undoubtedly led to each team striving to make their own sequence the best it could possibly be, it results in a very episodic structure, with a great deal of unevenness. Idealy, the stakes should be gradually raised as the story progresses, but here this is definitely not the case. Each director makes his own specific scene as dramatic and outlandish as possible, resulting in a film that doesn't so much get more and more exciting as start out at full steam, run its course and then abruptly end.
This is not necessarily a huge problem. In fact, it gives the events a very whimsical nature. You never really feel any danger for the character of Alice, but instead you become fully engrossed in the idiosyncrasies of her surroundings. The film owes a lot to the standard "uptight Englishman abroad" format, with Alice reacting with a mixture of surprise and indignation to the crazy environments and people she encounters. These, of course, include the prerequisite Mad Hatter and March Hare, who celebrate their unbirthday (any day that is not their birthday) with a tea-party; an overweight Cheshire Cat, who loves to talk in rhyme and cause parts of his body to disappear; the bickering Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who spin a ridiculous yarn about the sun and the moon; and of course the neurotic, time-obsessed White Rabbit.
The voice acting is definitely strong. The prim, almost wooden performance of Kathryn Beaumont as Alice makes for a great contrast between the heavily caricatured denizens of Wonderland, including the excellent Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh) as the Cheshire Cat, and the delightfully camp Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter. In fact, this contrast between Alice and the locations and creatures of Wonderland is the key theme of the film, and continues into the animation and design. Alice's animation was rotoscoped (or at the very least, live action reference was used extensively), resulting in a sometimes clunky performance, whereas the denizens of Wonderland are designed and animated so broadly that you can never be in any doubt that this is a meeting of two completely different worlds. The colour scheme is incredibly rich, and the imaginative visual gags are the kind that you simply don't see in today's climate of script-driven animation. It also has a wonderfully naive, innocent quality that is sadly absent in modern animated films. Alice never winks to the audience or cracks jokes like Shrek does. Instead, the film treats its nonsensical subject matter seriously, giving it a legitimacy that would be otherwise absent.
Overall, while Alice in Wonderland is a rather lightweight film, it is an immensely enjoyable one. What it lacks in terms of plot it more than makes up for by being a thoroughly anarchic, gleeful romp through an imaginative world filled with unique characters. While not the studio's best, it belongs on the shelf of every animation fan.
This release boasts a new transfer, presented in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, preserving the original aspect ratio. The transfer is a bit of a mixed bag, with excellent colours and contrast and a reasonable level of detail. The encoding is relatively good, although there is some mild mosquito noise from time to time. However, the amount of filtering and noise reduction is very high, resulting in an image that appears at times to be unnaturally static. Clearly someone was attempting to remove all traces of film grain and texture in the image, resulting in a transfer that surely is not representative of the film's original theatrical presentations. There is also some edge enhancement, resulting in unsightly halos around the black outlines of the animation. Another major offender is Alice's black hairband, the halos around which can be clearly glimpsed even in the rather small screen captures I have included. It certainly looks better than the laserdisc-sourced transfer on the original DVD release, but it feels disappointingly artificial.
If Disney should be applauded for one thing on this release, it is for having the sense to include the original mono audio track, compared to the earlier release, which featured only a vile 5.0 remix.
In fact, the mono track sounds a good deal better than the 5.1 remix presented alongside it on this disc. Neither is great, however. The audio is quite muffled - understandable, as the elements have clearly aged a great deal - but the remix adds some unpleasant reverberation to the already scratchy dialogue. Therefore, not only is the mono track the most faithful to the filmmakers' intentions, it is also superior in quality!
French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also included.
Subtitles are included in English, French and Spanish.
The menu design is relatively intuitive but not particularly original. After skipping through a bunch of teaser trailers (Disc 1 only), we are treated to some oddly jerky animation from the film, and then taken to a bright menu with cheerful music and some minimal animation. The transitions are a little over-long, but the menus are thankfully easy to use.
The two discs come in a dual amaray case with an attractive outer cardboard slip. The slip has a "door" on the front which opens out to tell you all about the mindless kiddie features crammed on to Disc 1.
Also included in the case is a four-page booklet with chapter stops and tree diagrams explaining the layout of the menus for the bonus material (a very useful inclusion), as well as the cards that make up the Wonderland Card Game (see Extras section for more details) and instructions on how to play.
This Masterpiece Edition ports over many but not all of the bonus material featured in the deluxe laserdisc set, as well as adding some rather pointless child-oriented extras (which are marketed as if they were the main selling point of this release). Sadly, a commentary has not been included. I know that many of the people who worked on Alice in Wonderland are now dead, but Disney managed to step around this obstacle with their release of Dumbo by recording a rather informative commentary with animation historian John Canemaker. It's a real shame they didn't do something similar here.
Virtual Wonderland Party - A truly skin-crawling combination of video footage featuring idiots dancing about in frightening suits, bad CGI teapots hopping around, and obnoxious voiceovers, this "game" lets you try various different types of tea from the Mad Hatter's tea party. A bunch of all-American children sit at the table and try to act gleeful, while an awkward-looking girl prances about wearing a bad wig and Alice's trademark blue dress, doing her best to put on an upper class English accent. I would have liked to actually play the game so I could evaluate it, but I quickly decided it wasn't worthwhile.
2 sing along songs - Two songs are featured here: The Unbirthday Song and All In The Golden Afternoon. You know the drill: words appear along the bottom of the screen, and you are supposed to sing along. The image quality is more or less analogous to that of the earlier DVD release (i.e. not very good).
Adventures in Wonderland set-top game - An infuriating public announcement style voice introduces you to the game of which the cards inside the case are part. Another useless inclusion, this is just taking up space that should have been used to add more insightful extras or free up space for the film's bit rate.
"I'm Odd" newly discovered song - This is one of Disney's favourite tricks. Drag some old material out of the vault and slap the "newly discovered" tag on it. Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice, introduces the sequence to us and discusses some of the various problems with adaptating the books which plagued the story department. This "newly discovered" song is sourced from a scratched-up old record and is combined with storyboard frames. A new recording is then played, with an impersonator playing the part of the Cheshire Cat, to the backdrop of various scenes from the finished film. Interesting, but the new recording doesn't sound particularly authentic.
"Thru the Mirror" short - An 8-minute Mickey Mouse cartoon with the theme of mirrors and going through them. A relatively nice addition.
Sneak peeks - Previews are included for Home on the Range, The Lion King 1 1/2, Brother Bear, the special edition DVD of Mary Poppins, the direct-to-video crap-fest Mulan II, and various "Disney consumer products".
One Hour in Wonderland - This is the full-length version of Disney's first ever television show, an hour-long Christmas extravaganza, filled with product placement for Coca Cola, that is essentially a clip show interspersed with some rather disturbing black and white footage of a talking ventriloquist's doll, purporting to be the story of the afforementioned doll going to visit Walt Disney for Christmas. Expect lots of back projection and bad acting. Most shockingly, a scene from the long-supressed Song of the South is featured. Disney actually admitting to the existence of this unneccessarily contentious film is progress indeed, and it suggests that it may eventually see the light of day on DVD at some point. Less noteworthy, although still worthy of interest, is the inclusion of the unexpurgated version of the Mickey Mouse/Donald Duck/Goofy cartoon Clock Cleaners, which features Donald Duck, according to some members of the moral minority, saying "Fuck you". The redubbed version was present on the DVD release of The Great Mouse Detective, and now hearing the unmolested version, I must admit that it does sound like "Fuck you", although I suspect that this is more the result of the power of suggestion than anything else.
"Alice's Wonderland" pilot film - This extremely primitive 8-minute film was created by Walt Disney in 1923. It features a combination of horribly bad animation and live action and is included here more for curiosity value than anything else.
Theatrical trailers - The original 1951 and 1974 re-release trailers are included.
Walt Disney TV introductions - A nice little inclusion, these are short introductions by Walt Disney himself which ran before TV airings of the film in 1954 and 1964. The first is in black and white, the second in colour.
"Operation Wonderland" 1951 featurette - This delightfully tacky behind the scenes featurette was recorded during the production of Alice in Wonderland. Like many of the behind the scenes films of the time, it takes the form of a story, and is filled with amusingly bad acting from Walt Disney and his production team. There is a lot of genuinely interesting material here, including a storyboard pitch, glimpses of the live action reference used for some of the animation, and Mr. Disney himself demonstrating how animation cels and the rostrum camera work. At just under 11 minutes, this feature is sadly too short.
The Fred Waring Show (excerpt) - Originally aired in 1951, these extracts of a larger show feature Walt Disney, Sterling Holloway and Kathryn Beaumont discuss the making of the film, followed by a highly disturbing re-enactment of the tea-party scene from the film (those costumes are enough to give a small child nightmares). The sound is very scratchy, but overall this is an enjoyable inclusion.
Deleted materials - This section is split into three areas. From Wonderland to Neverland: the evolution of a song, introduced by Kathryn Beaumont, describes the process of a song originally intended for Alice in Wonderland being transplanted into Peter Pan. Next up is a deleted storyboard concept, Alice daydreams in the park. This is an earlier version of the opening scene, in which Alice fantasizes about a world of her own, and is presented in storyboard and concept art form, with a musical backing. There is no dialogue. Finally, original song demos are provided for six of the musical numbers from the film. These take the form of aged vinyl recordings dating from 1947 and 1948. The audio is presented alongside static concept artwork.
Finally, a thorough Art Gallery is included, featuring 63 images, including poster artwork, concept drawings and paintings, some very stylistic background layouts, character design sheets, and a number of black and white photographs depicting various members of the crew (none of them identified) at work.
This 2-disc Masterpiece Edition of Alice in Wonderland falls a little short in all departments, but it is still comfortably on the right side of the divide between good and bad. While a commentary would have been a nice edition, there are plenty of other interesting extras to keep enthusiasts occupied, and the audio-visual presentation, while not perfect, is relatively pleasing. Overall, this DVD is a worthwhile addition to any fan's library.