Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on February 2nd, 2011
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrariwise what it is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would be, you see?”
To be perfectly honest with you, I have never read either of the two Lewis Carroll books on which this film has been based. Under ordinary circumstances, that would put me at a decided disadvantage in both watching the film and certainly in providing an insightful review of the movie. But these are not ordinary circumstances. The characters and their stories, originally told in both Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There, have become an indelible part of our culture. One need not have read a word to be intimately familiar with Alice and her fanciful friends and rivals from Underland, which Alice herself interprets for us as Wonderland. There have been animated features as well as other live action attempts. The characters have become iconic and have appeared in advertising campaigns and even an episode of Star Trek. The surprise isn’t that I feel like I know this story without having read the source material. The real surprise would be if there was anyone out in the civilized world who wasn’t familiar with these characters. They were originally oral stories told to a group of sisters, one of which was Alice Little, the inspiration for the tales. They would only end up in book form at the insistence of the young Alice.
Lewis Carroll had been dead about 100 years when Walt Disney decided to adapt his works into a feature-length animated film. In fact, it was once considered as the first film for Disney. If it were not for the fact that Paramount was at the time undertaking a live-action version of the story, Walt might have used this tale to launch the first animated feature. It’s likely a good thing he didn’t. Snow White went on to become a classic and pave the way for an entire Hollywood industry that has led us to companies like Pixar and their wonderful creations. While Alice In Wonderland is certainly an enchanting film, it doesn’t measure up to the best the studio had to offer during that time. I suppose a lot can be blamed on the five different starts and stops before the film was finally made. It also is partly the product of the episodic nature of the story. While most of the Disney fairy tale cartoons have a specific storyline, Alice most certainly does not.
Alice In Wonderland takes tales from both of the popular Carroll books. We witness as Alice journeys through this land and meets many exotic and strange creatures. Some tell her stories. Some merely interact in strange ways with the girl. It’s a series of vignettes and not really a complete tale at all. The important characters are all represented, to be sure. There’s the unimaginably sly Cheshire Cat voiced by Winnie The Pooh himself, Sterling Holloway. The incredibly well cast Ed Wynn provides the voice for The Mad Hatter. Wynn was a staple on movies and television for over 40 years. His manic high voice provided just the right amount of insanity and playful comedy for The Mad Hatter. Richard Haydn provided the sultry voice of the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Verna Felton is marvelous as The Queen Of Hearts. Bill Thompson provides the hurried voice of the White Rabbit who leads Alice into her adventures to begin with. Then there is Kathryn Beaumont as Alice herself. She was just a girl at the time and not only provided Alice’s voice. She sang the songs and acted out the entire film as reference to the animators as was a standard practice at Disney for all of the animated characters. Consider it an early form of motion capture. Kathryn has been providing voices for Disney for 60 years.
Of course, the animation is absolutely magical. The Disney Studios were still creating new innovations in the art when Alice In Wonderland was finally released in 1951. The images were based on the illustrations from the original books, but the Disney touch brings them to life so that once again, these are the visions that come to mind when these characters are mentioned. To Carroll purists, I imagine that may have brought, and continues to bring, a sense of irritation. I know that his fans had to be upset that the writer’s name is misspelled on the title card. One of the L’s is missing. The film also sports 14 songs, which is the most in any Disney film to date. They may not be as memorable as those written by the Sherman Brothers for many of the classic Disney films or Elton John and Tim Rice’s Academy Award – winning songs for The Lion King. They fit the mood of the piece fine.
Alice In Wonderland is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The film’s previous releases have never recaptured this original condition. For the first time since the 1950’s you can see the film the way it was originally intended. Like it or not, there is some age, and it’s evident on the print. Even with the minor scratches and color fade, Disney has done a rather remarkable job in restoring the film to near original release quality. The color is remarkably bright and compares favorably with original color cels I’ve seen of the original film. The various characters revel in the original shades and hues that have been as identifiable as the characters themselves. Contrast is excellent, only adding to the rich look of these 60-year-old images. Black levels are not particularly deep, but they’re not all that relevant either, as the film more often than not plays out in brighter conditions.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 might not be quite as outstanding as the image, but it is pretty solid on all fronts. The songs gain the greatest advantage because they are now spread out over the entire range of speakers, making them sound better than they have ever sounded before. Rear channels bring some of these ditties to new life. There is a crystal clarity here that defies six decades of deterioration. OK, so your sub won’t really get a lot to do; you’ll never even notice, because you’ll be so caught up in the freshness the mix brings to such familiar material. The dialog works great.
It’s all in HD.
Through The Keyhole: This is one of those viewing modes where people pop in and out to talk about the film and a ton of material on Lewis Carroll himself. The film image shifts from place to place and changes in size, which makes it rather distracting. I would have much rather had this feature as a separate extra.
Reference Footage: (1:33) Here you’ll find very early footage of Beaumont acting out the doorknob sequence for the animators. There is an optional commentary by Beaumont, and she delivers a lengthily introduction.
Pencil Test: (:54) Most of this is Beaumont’s introduction. There are 15 seconds of an early animated pencil test.
Walt Disney Color Introduction: (1:15) Walt introduces the film which was shown during the Christmas holidays in 1959.
DVD and Digital Copy
With last year’s release of the Tim Burton version of the movie, I thought this 1951 classic would get some attention then. It really wasn’t brought out by Disney, and I guess it had a lot to do with how different the films really were. It’s nice to see it restored now and offered for the first time in brilliant high definition. Will you be able to fall in love with Alice and her strange companions all over again? “Oh, you just can’t help that.”